Lord’s is a place for tradition. Like when a dismissed batsman waits for the incoming one to get his proper reception. And if it is MS Dhoni walking out to bat, you can expect a standing ovation, or a raucous roar from the crowd at the very least.
On Saturday, he got both. Members in the pavilion applauded as he walked out to bat, while the Indian diaspora in the capacity crowd cheered him on. Here was one of the greatest finishers this game has ever even, and India were placed at 140-4 in the 27th over.
183 from 23 overs. Required rate of 7.95. Was it an impossible equation? No, because the game has advanced to an extent wherein such asking rates are never in consideration anymore. Mostly nowadays, it is a case of pushing the game as far as possible, and then going big.
Was it a tough ask? Surely, for the pitch was breaking up quickly and taking turn at the hands of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. This phenomenon was expected, prominent reason why England chose to bat after winning the toss for the first time since October 2016. World cricket may be living in a T20 age, but at times, the conditions do win over batsmen and bowlers in the longer formats.
Saturday was once such instance. Even so, it was lost on most spectators as Dhoni – a shadow of his past – failed to get going. He finished with 37 off 59 balls – a strike-rate of 62.71 – and at one stage the crowd even started booing him. So much so, when he walked off, he was jeered. This was never part of Lord’s tradition.
On air, the talk was of intent. On social media, it was about the lack of it. The common point, whether it was Sanjay Manjrekar on commentary or a common Indian fan on Twitter, was Dhoni’s slow innings. He completed 10,000 runs in ODI cricket. It hardly mattered. The people who had come to be entertained felt they weren’t.
In a world governed by TRP ratings and price tickets, perspective can sometimes be lost. Here, a few questions need to be asked.
Was Dhoni overtly slow? No, for Virat Kohli (80.35) and Suresh Raina (strike-rate 73.01) were only marginally quicker. They took a lot of time settling down and India’s win or loss was hinged on their partnership. It didn’t work as English spinners got on top of the Indian batting line-up for the first time on this tour.
When did India lose the game? Despite the fall of Kohli and Raina, India still had Dhoni and Hardik Pandya at the crease. But the run-rate was climbing, and they still needed to rebuild on a turning wicket. They scored 37 runs off 47 balls, with Pandya scoring 21 off 22 balls. It was a textbook Dhoni manoeuvre – let the other batsman take the lead as he dropped anchor from one end, and see proceedings as close to the end as possible.
“You want to take the innings deep. You don’t want to just lose by 160-170 runs, and he has the experience, but some days it just doesn’t come off. It was an off day for all of us. Other people jump to conclusions, but we don’t – we totally believe in him,” said Kohli, defending the former skipper, and denying that any messages were sent out to ask for more attacking strokes.
‘Taking an innings deep’ has always been Dhoni’s modus operandi throughout his career, only now things have changed a tad. He is no longer the mercurial force who could finish off matches on his own. Now, he needs help from the other end because he cannot get going whilst batting lower down the order. There is a case herein of Dhoni batting at no.4. He did so during the IPL, and it allowed him freedom to attack from the word go. When you bat higher up, there are still batsmen to follow who can salvage the situation if your attacking plan doesn’t work. A no.6 batsman doesn’t have that privilege.
Dhoni’s ability to finish this game for India depended largely on Pandya coming good. When he was dismissed at the end of the 39th over, India were reduced to 191-6, needing another 132 runs off 66 balls. The match was as good as over then. Dhoni had Umesh Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and Siddarth Kaul left for company. Not even Superman can win from those odds.
“With only tailenders remaining, it wasn’t like there were 2-3 more batsmen to come. Throughout the series, he hasn’t had the chance to bat for a few overs. If he had got out, we wouldn’t have batted for 50 overs and would have been bowled out,” said Yuzvendra Chahal, defending his senior teammate.
The question begs here – this is a bilateral series. There is no question of net run-rate herein. So, were India just defending their pride by avoiding a big defeat by playing out 50 overs? The answer, much to the chagrin of those watching, is yes.
In 2019, on July 14, the ODI World Cup final will be contested at Lord’s. Exactly one year prior to that, England and India clashed with this series on the line. These are the world’s two best sides in this format at the moment, and there is a lot at stake beyond trophies and awards. It is a matter of bragging rights for the Test series, and of pride.
Throughout the tour so far, India have had the upper hand, winning with consummate ease in Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham. Even when they lost at Cardiff, it was a close-run thing. Dhoni made sure that India didn’t lose face on Saturday, even if it meant that his celebrity was on the line among the Lord’s faithful.
Cricketers are not circus troopers, who are paid to regale the crowd. Their first and second thought is about the team situation, and how it plays out for them individually comes afterwards. It is a tough balance, and not many are capable enough to achieve it.