If individual players had logos, MS Dhoni’s could have been the anaconda.
Like the South American water boa, Dhoni’s strategy is to wrap his team around the opposition and to squeeze, slowly and steadily, until all the breath has been squeezed out of his prey.
His dad’s army, average age 34, has been built to this formula – spinners who bowl flat and quick (in today’s game, their speeds ranged from the high 80s to the mid 90s), seam bowlers who top out at the mid 1930s (Shardul Thakur and Deepak Chahar) and a late order enforcer in Dwayne Bravo, who bowls the slow ball and then the slower ball (at the death, his average speed is in the mid-80s, less than that of the spinners).
Put that kind of an attack on a sluggish pitch like the one at the Kotla today, and you can almost predict the result: The Delhi Capitals went well in the powerplay (43/1) after Shreyas Iyer won the toss and opted to bat, and then the squeeze began and DC began to gasp for breath.
India opener Shikhar Dhawan played right into Dhoni’s hands. It is a thing about big name players that it is the big shots we see and are seduced by – the giant scoreboard at the ground flashed ‘GABRU SHOT’ for each of his seven fours. What the scoreboard had no cute take on, and the commentators missed, are the dot balls he plays.
In the IPL, 66 per cent of all balls Dhawan faces are dot balls. In this particular innings, Dhawan was on 24 off 29 balls at the end of the first ten overs, with three ‘Gabru Shots’ – in other words, he scored 12 of his runs off just three shots, and 12 more in the other 26.
What this really means, at the top of the innings, is not just that he is not moving the score along, but more importantly he is failing to rotate strike. And this affects his batting partner(s), who feel the pressure to up the scoring rate.
Prithvi Shaw, who faced the first 12 balls of the innings before Dhawan had even taken strike once, got off like a rocket – in Shardul Thakur’s opening over he creamed the medium pacer for three fours on the trot; when Harbhajan came on for the fourth over replacing Thakur, Shaw greeted him with a shimmy down the track and a loft over mid on, followed by a checked sweep for another four.
Consider this: Shaw faced all the deliveries in the first 2 overs. He fell to the third ball of the 5th over, at which point he was 24 off 16. In other words Shaw, who was striking sweetly, faced only four of the next 15 deliveries.
That kind of pressure – partly the result of Dhoni’s handling of his field and bowling resources, partly the outcome of his somnolent partner at the other end – inevitably produces mistakes. Shaw succumbed, stepping to leg trying to make room to hit Chahar on the up; the bowler followed him and banged one in, the ball got big on Prithvi forcing the mistimed pull that landed in the hands of Watson at mid off.
With Shaw gone, Dhoni’s squeeze tactics came into full flower. As he had in the first game against RCB, the CSK skipper bowled out Chahar (20/1 in 4); rotated rapidly through Harbhajan, Imran Tahir, Ravindra Jadeja and Shardul Thakur, never allowed the batsmen to settle, and checked any momentum Shaw’s brief cameo had provided.
From 43/1 when Shaw was out, Delhi inched to 65/1 at the end of ten, scoring a total of 22 runs in 33 deliveries. Dhawan remained becalmed (at the halfway mark, he was on 24 off 29), and Shreyas Iyer struggled to find his touch and timing on a track where the ball tended to stop, and the CSK bowlers bowled one side of the wicket to packed fields.
Iyer hit two fours off Tahir but it wasn’t enough so he went again, looking to make room to cut and being nailed in front by the quicker delivery that straightened on the batsman, who was playing for turn.
Rishabh Pant was, yet again, the man who turned things around for DC – though this time, it proved a cameo rather than a match-defining innings. He came in to face the 5th ball of the 11th over and was out – misreading a Dwayne Bravo slower ball – on the second ball of the 16th. The 22 balls bowled while Pant was at the crease produced 44 runs – the batsman scored 25 off 13 with two fours and a six.
And then the wheels came off. Ingram lasted one ball, Keemo Paul managed a duck off four, Dhawan fell just when he was beginning to up his scoring rate (51/47) and long story short, DC managed just 147/6 in the allotted 20, against the 170-180 Shreyas Iyer said at the toss he thought would be a good score.
The 28 deliveries after Pant’s dismissal produced a total of 27 runs for three wickets – and that sums up the story of the DC innings.
That target was never going to challenge the CSK lineup – and Watson and Raina, who came in after the early loss of Ambati Rayudu, made merry in a rollicking stand that produced 52 runs off just 24 balls.
The only real point of note was Watson’s boorish behavior as he got into an on-field altercation with Kagiso Rabada. Watson belongs to the Border school of Australian batsmen: It was Allan Border who, famously, once said that when he wanted to get his juices flowing he would pick a fight, never mind about what, with some member of the opposition; advice that he passed on to Shane Warne and through the flamboyant leggie, to the rest of the Australians of that period.
It looks ugly, but it works. Rabada tried giving back as good as he got, and the umpires had to separate the two – but there is an old proverb that goes, never try to mud-wrestle with a pig: you can’t win, and the pig loves it. Proof of the pudding, after the altercation Rabada lost his bowling bearings, and Watson took him for four and then a top edged six off a 145k bouncer.
By the time the veteran Amit Mishra lured Watson out and had him stumped, the 37 year old Aussie opener had mauled 44 off 26 with four fours and three sixes; CSK was exactly halfway to the target, with 73/2 in just the 7th over, and only had to walk the game home – with the likes of Suresh Raina, who loves spin, and Kedar Jadhav, who doesn’t really care what kind of bowling he faces because he will hit it anyway, around to keep the momentum going.
At the halfway mark, CSK was 97/2. Though Raina (30 off 16) left immediately after, again lured out by the wily Mishra and stumped well by Rishabh Pant, CSK needed a mere 50 off the last 9.4 overs at that point and the game as a contest was effectively over.
MS Dhoni injected some artificial excitement simply by strolling out to bat at the fall of Raina’s wicket. The Delhi crowd forgot that it was a Delhi crowd and greeted him with cheers that seemed louder than even the high decibel cheers that are routine in Chennai.
For an unnecessary twist to the tail, Dhoni did what he usually does – dragged things along well into the death, playing out dot balls (five in a row against Axar Patel, and a single to keep strike just to rub it in) as if he was trying to save a Test. Fun for the fans, not for the journalist who wants to get it over with so he can get dinner, get home, get some sleep.
And “of course”, as Dhoni is fond of saying, he pulled things back with a huge six back over Amit Mishra in the 19th to reduce the ask to two runs in the 20th over.
That was bowled by Rabada – who added to the fun, if that is what this was, by finding a thin nick off Jadhav off the first ball of the last over. Then two dot balls on the trot to Bravo… see the problem with leaving things for the very end?
Anyway, breaking news, Chennai won the game, finally, with just two balls left in the game and now end up with four points from two matches.