G Rajaraman - Keep the Faith

Dhoni's ability to change pace makes him the ideal candidate to take over the middle-order

Saturday, October 18, 2021
A leader of men

He was a bit of a disappointment in the first Test in Bangalore where he made just nine runs in a 51-ball stay. It was obvious that he was not at ease on a track where low bounce was the order of the day. It was almost as if Mahendra Singh Dhoni was waiting for a pitch that afforded more bounce to be able to play his 'characteristic' innings.

He found that in Mohali and with a sparkling knock, all but overshadowed Sourav Ganguly's determined grind to the milestone of his 16th century. Saturday's show was not about power as about not letting scoring opportunities go. At a time when Ganguly was engaged in a battle of wits with Brett Lee, Dhoni played the big hand in steering India beyond the 450-run mark.

To be sure, just as India gets a good platform when Virender Sehwag plays his natural innings at the start, the team is cruising to a healthy score when Mahendra Singh Dhoni frees his arms and plays with candour. These could be the men that take over from the golden quartet as the bulwarks of Indian batting in the years ahead.

You may classify Sehwag and Dhoni as attacking batsmen but they play different roles for the team and the wicket-keeper is often called to tailor his approach according to the situation. And in Mohali, despite a breezy start and the fightback engineered by Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly, India had a lot of work to do to stop Australia from keeping India in check.

The idea of sending in Ishant Sharma as night-watchman on Friday served the purpose. Not only did Ishant bat through the opening day's tense final moments – against the second new ball that had just claimed Sachin Tendulkar after the master had got to within 12 runs of another century – but also the success of India's stand-in captain on Saturday justified the decision.

He was welcomed to the crease with a first ball snorted by Lee and Dhoni pulled it to the square-leg fence as if he had been batting for hours. And the superbly hooked six off Peter Siddle in the next over was proof of his intent. No bowler was spared for errors of line or length and the Indian captain offered the spectators immense value for money.

From a team's perspective, it was a knock that pegged the Australians back, even breaking their resolve and draining them so much that his bowlers could pile on the pressure from the moment they walked on to the field. It was the kind of innings that shone bright for some clean strokeplay and for the impact it had on his own team as well as on the opposition.

Ironically, for someone who put in some thought not just by sending Ishant in to bat on Friday night but also by batting sensibly, he learnt that it may not help to back instinct always. He may have got to his second Test century had he not rushed Zaheer Khan to take a sharp single. After all, Zaheer is coming off a gutsy half-century in Bangalore.

Of course, the good thing is that the 27-year-old can only get better. Viewed from a larger perspective, Dhoni's ability to change pace makes him the ideal candidate to take over the middle-order slot that Sourav Ganguly could be vacating at the end of the series. He could well move up to No. 6, if not higher, almost as early as in the Tests against England in December.

In batting alongside the man who was reported to have made uncomplimentary comments about younger players changing hairstyles and in making a 92 that complemented Ganguly's century, Dhoni was making a quiet statement that the selectors did not have to look too far for an immediate replacement.