Mahendra Singh Dhoni became the foremost wicketkeeper to lead an Indian side in a Test match today.

Friday, April 11, 2022

Calling the right shots on debut

Arun Gopalakrishnan

One look at MS Dhoni today, and you could be forgiven for mistaking him to be the regular captain of the Indian team. Dhoni, when he walked out to toss for the choice of innings, became India’s first wicketkeeper-captain, and one of the youngest to captain the Indian team in Test history. 

Although he was leading India in Test cricket for the first time, there was no awe about the way he went about handling things. No matter if things didn’t go right for him with the coin – one can’t blame him really for that; as the home team captain, he only had the option of tossing the coin, while his counterpart had the rights to call, and Graeme Smith called rightly.

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With the new ball, and a lightning quick outfield, the South Africans scored at a good pace in the first few overs; but a swift start wouldn’t unsettle MS Dhoni. Soon after the first drinks break, not even an hour into the match, Dhoni turned to Harbhajan Singh, the most experienced bowler in the Indian ranks in the absence of Anil Kumble.

That move plugged the flow of runs almost immediately, but Dhoni and the Indian team were still looking for that elusive breakthrough. His move to introduce young Piyush Chawla, (‘PC’ as his teammates fondly call him) just when the South Africans had gotten themselves into some kind of a comfort-zone brought instant rewards. In a moment of blood rushing to his head, Neil McKenzie charged down the wicket and had a wild swipe across the line, only to be beaten by a well tossed up delivery – wicketkeeper Dhoni, despite having lots to think about, was attentive enough to break the stumps in a flash.

In the second session, with Amla and Smith, holding things in control for South Africa, Dhoni kept juggling his bowlers well – he even called on his part-timers Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, who got him the wicket of Graeme Smith. Having made some more leeway into the South African innings, Dhoni immediately stepped up the pressure by bringing on Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan Singh, and that move resulted in India getting the wickets Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis.

Session III, and it would only get better for Dhoni and his men. Dhoni still kept rotating his bowlers – a move that brought him rewards almost every occasion. Piyush Chawla’s first over in his second spell accounted for AB de Villiers, and Sehwag returned the wicket of Ashwell Prince at a time when the South Africans were looking at relative ease.

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The masterstroke though was his decision not to take the new ball. When experts were deliberating about the dryness of the pitch, and how a new ball coupled with the uneven bounce would be more than a handful for the South African lower-order, Dhoni stuck to the used ball. He brought Ishant Sharma back for yet another burst, and bowling at a good pace and getting the ball to reverse, Sharma disturbed the woodwork of Mark Boucher and Paul Harris to wrap up the South African innings.

Numbers apart, there was never a moment, even when the South Africans were looking confident, that Dhoni’s enthusiasm dropped or his shoulders drooped.

In his first day as captain, Dhoni was always ahead of the game; be it discussing fields with his bowlers, offering a word of advice to his young bowling attack, or moving his fielders around to the right positions. Encouraging signs for India that his despite having to call the shots, Dhoni’s glove work did not suffer; keeping on a dry and fast-crumbling wicket, Dhoni never once suffered a lapse in concentration and generally collected the ball well either side of the stumps.