Explaining Dhoni’s Caution

Akash Chopra, easily among the best cricket writers around, offers an interesting take on the ‘new Dhoni’ — that is, the Dhoni averse to risk and generally cautious:

It is sad to see Dhoni succumb to a safety-first approach – one that promotes complacency, where guarding an advantage becomes more important than acquiring one. In life, as one achieves success, the ability to take risks falls in almost the same proportion. When Dhoni first became captain there was very little at stake, so he could punt without worrying too much, but as the stakes got higher, every defeat was ruthlessly dissected and criticised, which may have led him to believe defeat was not an option.

This theory seems plausible; we know that most democratically elected governments typically lose steam after the first term as new ideas grow stale and the default position moves from ‘change’ to ‘preservation.’ Dhoni may have made some bold changes in 2007, when the old order was slowly crumbling, but five years on, any new change will involve hurting a constituency that he has supported in the past (Sehwag? Raina? Piyush? Gambhir?). Five years is also a terribly long time in cricket, especially Indian cricket, and Dhoni must now be exhausted. Who has the heart anymore to take risks?

Of course, another explanation — one that seems popular on Twitter — is that Dhoni was never a tactical genius to begin with. Sure, he may have taken a few risks here and there, but he’s always preferred defense and attrition to out-and-out attack. No, what’s changed is that the team he leads has gone from dependable and aggressive to out-of-form and outmatched. Dhoni sees the talent slide but does not know its cause, how to reverse it or how to diminish its damage. Dhoni himself hasn’t changed; the team has — and for the worse.

Unfortunately, as Chopra rightly notes, these are momentous times for Indian cricket. The batting order, as well as  the pace attacks, are in for a period of transition. The last transition in Indian cricket saw a tumultuous fallout between coach and captain; this one may avoid that fate, but we could instead see a return to the Indian norm of inconsistency and wasted talent. The time calls for experimentation and adventure, so Dhoni may as well become young again. 2013 is the new 2007.

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