Category Archives: Dhoni

When Sledging Becomes Harmful

I dismissed the Jadeja-Anderson dispute too casually in my last post, so I want to add a careful amendment. One thing that has always irked me about sledging disputes is the general devaluation of the power of speech. So, in this case, it is agreed by all sides that Jimmy Anderson did say some hurtful things to Jadeja. However, he escaped judgment because Jadeja then “turned around” — aggressively, apparently? — leading Anderson to act in self defense.

The upshot is clear: A cricketer can spew a fair amount of abuse, and his target will have to turn the other cheek. Any hint of physical action will be harshly punished (except in “self defense”?); what is spoken is, generally, free.

I’m not a fan of this approach because I think it undervalues how important and powerful speech can be. As I wrote in a previous post:

Speech matters, and it can in fact cause harm. To focus on the physical aspect of an argument seems natural, since violence among men is always a concern. But it is ridiculous not to view harmful speech as potentially injurious as well… [The] sledger — the one having fun at somebody’s expense — enjoys a massive legal loophole, because he knows that, to a large extent, sledging in cricket is tolerated (and increasingly celebrated).

It’s not like what I’m arguing for is unprecedented. In the Shane Warne-Marlon Samuels dispute, the arbiter in that case said Samuels’ throwing his bat was, to some extent, justified by Warne’s “extreme provocation.” That wasn’t an international game, but the same principle applies. And that says: If a cricketer comes at you, again and again and inappropriately (such as off the field of play, as Anderson did), then go ahead — do what you must. Turn around, even.

Leave Alastair Cook Alone, You Hear?

Fortunes in cricket change quickly, but veteran fans will recognize an ancient and predictable rhythm in the recent backlash against Alistair Cook. Every young captain–no, actually, every captain–will enjoy a honeymoon phase before inevitably descending into this “private hell” in which he does not score runs and/or starts losing games.

I don’t know what it is about the burden of captaincy that it should consistently impact an individual’s form. But no matter, it does–few human minds are capable of both marshaling strategies and fielding places and performing par excellence.

So, with that in mind, I want everyone to lay off Alistair Cook, you hear? This fine young man has done enough already to merit a place in the list of “great English batsmen” . Don’t you dare pay any heed to the nattering nabobs who can’t say enough about his head falling over or his trigger back-and-across-and-then-front movement–this man has scored centuries (big daddy ones, even) in every part of the cricketing world.

Moreover, he is captaining a team that is newly terrible–it has lost some of its best players ever (Pietersen, Trott, Swann); it has also lost a famously intelligent coach. So why not wait for a little bit longer before you discard this man back to county cricket (or whatever lower-order reality you English reserve for your unwanted athletes)? Is this really the worst it’s ever been for English cricket? Isn’t it possible that the English now have a terrible bout of rising expectations, and that your anxiety to avoid a return to the dark days of the 1970s…1980s…1990s…basically, every year other than parts of 2005-2013 — has led you to demand bigger and better things too soon?

My advice is to remember the natural order. The Australians, particularly Shane Warne, will always–always–think your captaincy is terrible, and that you’re not attacking enough. The captain will always–always–fail for an extended bout. But almost every captain, given enough time and support, will reward you in the end — if not with outright domination, then a close victory or a crucial innings here and there.

Why, just look at our very own M.S. Dhoni. It only took him three years.

*A previous version of this post, rather embarrassingly, misspelled Cook’s first name. But whatever you call him, just leave him alone. Got it?

Is Dhoni A Feckless Compromiser, Or A Wise Man In Difficult Times?

Not that I’m obsessed with Teesra or anything, but I want to add to Devanshu’s discussion about the Dominica Test result/travesty/surrender. Devanshu argues that the Dominica Test is important, and more so now than it was at the time. Sitting on a 1-0 lead against the West Indies in 2011, you will recall, Dhoni decided to agree to a draw rather than chase a slightly risky target in the final Test. Since then, India have amassed one of their worst losing streaks, and Devanshu suggests we now view the Dominica Test not as “an inexplicable move by a #1 team, but as a tragic harbinger of a team in decline.” He argues that Dhoni’s move, far from betraying a defensive mindset, instead suggests that Dhoni accurately assessed his team’s talent, found it wanting, and decided to defer to loss aversion.

Samir Chopra disagrees, and on Twitter, he began a vigorous debate about what social scientists call the “direction of causality.” That is, Does India’s low talent lead to a defensive mindset? (Devanshu’s position), or Does India’s defensive mindset lead to its low talent? (Roughly, Samir’s position.) [Sidenote: This debate over Dhoni — who can be infuriatingly defensive — parallels many liberals’ frustration with President Obama. Is he timid because he knows how insanely difficult Washington, D.C. is right now? (My position, roughly.) Or is Washington, D.C., so incompetent because it needs a take-no-prisoners president at its helm? (Most liberals’ position.) End sidenote.]

This is a tough one. I’ve suggested in earlier posts that emotion has a rightful place in any sportsman’s arsenal; just watch Dale Steyn unleash the inner Hulk by getting angry at the most innocuous batsmen. And you don’t need to be a silly teenager (as I was) to believe that Ganguly’s fiery, improbably self-assured captaincy was what India needed in a leader. But I’ve also long believed that the West Indies and Australia dominated not necessarily because of their “aggression,” but because of their obvious skill. The fact of the matter is that this Indian team just isn’t that good, and even on its best days in the 2000s, it rarely had all three departments (batting, fielding, bowling) working together. If you have several Hall of Famers in all parts of your team (as Aus. and West Indies did, and South Africa do now), you go for the kill. If you don’t (India played at Dominica with batting newbies like Mukund, Vijay, Raina, Kohli, and bowlers like Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma), you take the money and run, as Devanshu notes. Dhoni did what any person bargaining from a weak position should — try to get what you can, not everything. To do otherwise is foolish.

After Dominica, I suggested that Dhoni was trying a new framework for dominance, what I called “Meh.” (At the time, India had won the World Cup and was No. 1 in Tests.) That is, India didn’t want to win Dominica because it really didn’t matter; what’s another Test win against a lowly team? At its worst, this attitude suggests a complacent arrogance (and indifference to the audience), but at its best, it is a form of dominance — “I’m so much better than you than I can’t be bothered to spend another hour on this field trying to win this pointless exercise.” At the time, I thought this was the correct interpretation; now, however, I much prefer Devanshu’s. The Dominica Test was not a “meh” draw; it was a shrewd move by a captain who looked at his team, saw that it wasn’t capable of greatness, and decided to settle. After 0-8 against England and Australia, and 1-2 against England in India, I am more than happy to have that 1-0 against the West Indies. Whoever said “offense is the best defense” never saw Ishant Sharma bowl.

The Surprising Dhoni Referendum

I don’t know how this happened so fast, but professional cricket writers have given us a strange storyline: If India doesn’t do well against England — that is, really well, as close to whitewash well — then M.S. Dhoni’s captaincy will be imperiled. This is strange because a) when Dhoni lost seven overseas Tests in a row, we all shrugged our shoulders (well, most of us did) and b) when India failed to progress in the T20 World Cup, we all quickly cited complicated NRR arithmetic and counterfactuals to forgive him. So why are suddenly giving him an ultimatum?

I imagine this is how the Indian fan’s mind works: We know that the national side is so terrible overseas that any victory is a gift from God; an overseas loss is merely confirmation of reality and the cruel fates, which we cannot change. But India at home is something else; it’s all we have in cricket — it functions the way the “Indians invented zero” line does in arguments about the relative worth of civilizations (“Sure, we are surrounded everyday by horrifying poverty, but we did think up 0, you know”). If India fails at home, then we are, really, nothing.*

Well, I think it’s all silly. If there was a time to seriously reevaluate Dhoni, it came last year, when he failed to achieve the holiest chalice of them all — a victory in Australia. At this point, he is merely a caretaker captain — someone to warm the seat until we can figure out how to replace him (and Laxman and Dravid). Everything that we need to know about Dhoni as a captain, we know. He can do nothing now until 2014, when the next overseas Test takes place, to change his legacy. I have a lot of respect for Dhoni — double CSK champion, T20 champion, ODI winner, No. 1 Test team, and all that — but he is now what Clinton was post-1998 impeachment: a placeholder until the next big election.

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.

Sidharth Monga To The Rescue, Sort Of

Sidharth Monga has an incredibly good essay on the state of the Indian team. Key paragraph:

With the team in flux, India need a more assertive and proactive Dhoni, both on and off the field. A Dhoni prepared to make the tough calls, eager to shape his own team, more Imran Khan than Viv Richards. A captain who demands certain standards of the team, one who refuses to carry non-performers. A captain prepared to take on some pressure by asking for the team he wants, and not sulk later. If he can win a match in three days and still criticise the groundsman for not giving his side enough home advantage, surely he can be forceful in selection matters too? He even has a fresh set of selectors, a clean slate if you will, to work with.

I think Dhoni’s strategy has been, as Monga suggests, to stand back, stay cool and let the brilliance he knows his team is capable of to show. When the brilliance does not show — as, with India’s case, is about every other game — then he does not have much to offer. Some captains know how to do much with little; Dhoni can only do more with more.

That said, Monga’s article suffers from a lack of concrete suggestions. I suppose Dhoni could make more of a stink, but it’s never clear in India how much you can win by fighting the system. Monga’s scenario seems to work like this: New selection panel meets. They talk to Dhoni, who raises a fuss about “non-performers” and asks for particular needs (new pace attack, new openers). Selectors respond. Isn’t it entirely plausible, however, that the following unfolds: New selection panel meets. Dhoni tells them what they need. Selection panel leaks. Rumors of team infighting emerge. Sehwag, one of those called “non-performers,” throws a fit. When hearing that he has been dropped, fans go crazy and Cricinfo runs a story headlined: “Was India right to drop Sehwag?” Already dealing with enough pressure, Dhoni sinks and sulks.

The deeper problem, of course, is the lack of talent. I’m not so worried about the batting because we do have some options there. But the bowling…once Zaheer goes, well…perish the thought.

Giving Dhoni A Break

We all read the articles before the Twenty20 tournament that called the series “wide open.” While we didn’t get any minnow upsets, we all know that this format is unpredictable, rewards temporary blips in success (i.e., Shane Watson) and requires a healthy dollop of good luck to prosper. So, yes, India should not have lost as badly as they did against Australia, but I’m more than willing to accept Dhoni’s counterfactual that had the rain not been so bad, they might have trimmed the margin. That seems reasonable to me, and four wins out of five matches can’t be easily dismissed.

On the other hand: I don’t think many Indian cricket fans or cricket critics have adequately come to terms with India’s performance over the past two years. What’s wrong or right with this team? There was little to no introspection after the overseas Test drubbings of 2011, and now inertia seems to be the guiding principle. But urgent problems loom: Gambhir and Sehwag are failing; our fast bowlers have only Zaheer Khan to intimidate (and, for about one over, Irfan Pathan); our middle order is occasionally strong, but we’re not yet sure about Rohit Sharma or Yuvraj Singh (or, in overseas situations, Suresh Raina). Even if we accept that this team performed well in the T20 World Cup, we are still left with several uneasy questions, which no one seems to be able to answer convincingly.

So, is this team good or bad? And another question: Test your conscience — compared to Australia and Pakistan’s performances, do you really believe India deserved to progress to the next stage?

Have We Hyped India’s Batting Line-Up?

The Reverse Sweep goes over India’s recent overseas batting:

For the record and in reverse order the sorry tale of inepitude against Australia, England, West Indies and South Africa reads: 191, 169, 282, 283, 300, 244, 224, 158, 288, 261, 286, 347, 201, 252, 246, 364, 228 and 205.

During this sorry run these are the averages of India’s top seven: Gambhir 25.00, Sehwag 20.54, Dravid 47.66, Tendulkar 42.71, Laxman 32.15, Dhoni 27.00, Raina 25.92 and Kohli 13.75.

That’s pretty damning, but the post goes a bit too far when it suggests India’s batting is more myth and propaganda than actual merit.* Here are the career overseas averages for the players listed above: Gambhir: 49.75**; Sehwag: 46.21; Dravid: 54.13; Laxman: 46.40; Tendulkar: 55.61;  Dhoni: 35.07. (I’m not going to include Raina or Kohli because they’re too green at this level.) Those averages don’t suggest a line-up inept in the overseas circuit (though, admittedly, their averages in England and Australia specifically are likely to be much less flattering).

So why do these batsmen suddenly look like they’re playing in 1990s highlights? I don’t know and I haven’t seen a good answer from anyone. I wrote in an earlier post that India’s team management seemed to think that the England series was essentially a fluke compounded by bad luck and injuries. You can see why they didn’t seek radical change: Gambhir’s poking around off-stump works well in South Asia, but not so well against the swinging/seaming ball; Dravid and Tendulkar look great; Sehwag is and always has been a lottery and no one — no one — knows what’s going on with Laxman.

Whatever the cause, India’s batting-line up now looks like Sri Lanka’s: it all rests and falls with two men, Mahela and Sangakarra (or Dravid and Tendulkar in this case). Get to them (through a volatile opening pair), work hard to get them out (by restrictive lines and good luck), and you have a suddenly weak Laxman, Dhoni (not the best Test batsman) and a tail that goes from No. 6 down. If India fails to post a reasonable total in Sydney, the counter-narrative will begin to gather some momentum and more folks will be talking about “flat track bullies.” Either way, the series will be lost; Dravid’s (and possibly Laxman’s) retirement will be hastened, and a generation of fans will ponder why a team with such obvious promise and talent failed to rule the world at the start of the 21st century.

* I think it’s also a tiny bit unfair: teams like South Africa, Eng, and Aus will have higher batting averages in South Asia because pitches there are generally more welcoming (at least for the 1st innings). [I’m too lazy to check this hypothesis out — am I right? Are subcontinent averages for batsmen from these countries high?]

** Gambhir’s overseas average is inflated by performances against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. On the other hand, he has done well in New Zealand and South Africa, which aren’t kind to most batsmen (let alone Indian ones).

The Follow-Up Question For R. Ashwin

This is what R. Ashwin — given the unenviable task of facing Indian reporters after Day 2 — said about India’s defensive field with Australia at 99/3:

“What else do you do with 190 in the pocket?” Ashwin said. “You’ll have to save every run possible. Supposing you get two or three wickets later on, and someone is having a good spell, we have those runs to play with later. That has got to be the only idea. It’s common sense. Nothing else.”

But please, sir: “Given that Australia’s run-rate did not dip below 4 through the day, doesn’t that mean you failed both at taking wickets and containing the batsmen? Wouldn’t you rather have conceded a few boundaries if an attacking field meant your chance of taking a wicket increased?” Good Lord, I sound more and more like Ian Chappell with each passing day.

Give Me A Reason To Watch The Oval Test

Is there any reason to watch the Oval Test? The specter of the whitewash is a faux-drama; even if England lose or draw this match, they will have made the same point a whitewash would have. That is: the English team is really, really good, especially at home, and India is exhausted.

I suspect the stakes for Dhoni are higher; if he can pull off a victory, he can at least swash away the clouds gathering around his captaincy. But that’s not exactly the best-case scenario for an Indian fan. If you’re playing the long-game and your vision and strategy extends beyond next week, then you should be lobbying for a 4-0 whitewash. The harder the drubbing, the more space to reformers have to make their case that radical change is needed.

Already, we are seeing signs of such a movement. Cricinfo reports that Anil Kumble — now head of the Karnataka Cricket Association — is lobbying for change:

ESPNcricinfo has learned that Anil Kumble, who attended the meeting as president of the Karnataka Cricket Association, strongly suggested the BCCI review the performance of the national side in England in a rational and clear-sighted manner, particularly when it came to issues of player burn-out and overuse. The quantity of cricket some of India’s players have been involved in since the start of the year has been pointed to by several analysts and ex-players as a possible reason for India’s dismal performance in England.

A 4-0 result will align the interests in a proper way: the players will be angry and press for change; the fans will be angry and press for change; the businessmen running the BCCI will fear for their product and accept change. Of course, it’s more likely that India will lose/win, the fans will move on as soon as the ODI series begins, and India will go on to play and win against the West Indies later this year. And on and on we go.