ODI cricket is different these days. You just have to watch England’s matches to realise how much the format has gone into overdrive since the last World Cup, which now feels like a bygone era.
Back then, Australia’s deep and destructive batting order at the 2015 World Cup saw them take the 50-over format to new heights. It proved a successful formula that helped spearhead Australia to a memorable triumph on home soil and then became the blueprint Trevor Bayliss used to fuel England’s astounding ODI turnaround.
In these exciting times, England’s batting is loaded with firepower to make Australia circa 2015 look rather pedestrian. This nastier version of
50-over cricket was showcased during that utterly mindboggling 4th ODI between England and West Indies in Grenada.
England plundered 418-6, including unbelievably striking at 10 an over for the last 25 overs, but it was barely enough with the West Indies almost gunning it down before falling just 29 runs short.
It was almost all too surreal and felt reminiscent of playing the classic Nineties video game Brian Lara Cricket, when you used cheat mode to hit sixes at will. It’s not fantasy anymore; no total appears implausible and no total feels safe to defend in ODI cricket.
Amid this run glut, MS Dhoni’s throwback batting to a more sedate period stands out. It has been almost jarring to flick between watching the pyrotechnic show in the Caribbean to the more staid matches India and Australia have played in the past six weeks.
Most eye-catching has been Dhoni’s well-worn method of chasing, where he initially settles in like he’s playing in 1996. It always seems so risky, like he’s unnecessarily chewing up deliveries and leaving things too late. He isn’t afraid to let deliveries go and his intent early on is mainly on scampering singles and twos.
Once Dhoni feels comfortable and he senses the bowlers are succumbing under the spotlight, he makes his move and taps into his bag of tricks. A few hefty blows, and that’s the ball game.
Somehow, more often than not, he steers India to nerve-jangling victories with precise masterclasses. He averages more than 100 in successful run chases in ODIs. In three straight matches against Australia, Dhoni expertly guided India to tricky targets to confirm why he’s usurped Michael Bevan as the greatest ever chaser.
His nerves of steel and execution under duress has even made opponents awestruck. “He just executes well….stays calm and backs himself to take it deep,” Australian batsman Usman Khawaja said after Dhoni’s unbeaten 59 dug India out of a hole in Hyderabad.
“Then when he needs to hit a boundary. You can tell he sort of changes gears, he’ll hit single, single, twos then try to hit a boundary.”
Few have ever had the type of presence Dhoni commands in ODI cricket and that aura makes his teammates stand taller. The former captain, importantly, ensures he imparts wisdom to his younger batting partners.
“Plenty of times when you feel this ball can be hit for boundaries, he’ll tell you, ‘I can see that but the team needs more solidity and you have to bat till the end’,” said Kedar Jadhav, who shared an unbeaten century partnership with Dhoni in Hyderabad.
It’s easy to describe him as ageless even though his exterior tells a different story. He’s sporting grey hairs and is a little bit more rotund confirming that he is indeed in his late 30s. Inevitably, it means he is bound to feel the heat after a few failures. Before his recent heroics against Australia, Dhoni’s seat was lukewarm.
Some believed he had hung on because of his iconic status, but Dhoni has issued a timely reminder of why he is almost irreplaceable. Batsmen playing limited-overs cricket can pretty much all whack a ball – that’s why they’ve been selected in the first place – but many flame out because they haven’t found the right tempo. As we are seeing with these mammoth scores being struck, batsmen are playing in essentially one speed – that cheat mode mentioned earlier.
When Dhoni burst onto the scene in the early-mid Noughties, ironically, it was his blistering batting that powered his emergence into almost a demi-god in his homeland.
Cleverly, he has been able to endure for so long because he has mastered how to pace his innings.
India has a star-laden batting order, but Dhoni still remains their second most valuable batsman behind Virat Kohli. And his importance will grow at the pressure cooker of the World Cup, where Indian fans and media will be demanding a triumph. The expectations will surely be suffocating, but an unflappable Dhoni represents India’s trump card.
No other team has someone so nerveless and composed like the 37-year-old. Undoubtedly, breathtaking totals will be compiled during the World Cup. But there will be moments in the knockout stages where the swirl of pressure conjures lower-scoring matches and it’s during those crux moments where an experienced, nerveless batsman like Dhoni is worth his weight in gold.
In what looms as his international swansong, MS Dhoni could well prove to be India’s hero for one last time on the grandest stage of them all.
TRISTAN LAVALETTE / Photo: Getty Images