Bengaluru: He got tonked on the head with a Jofra Archer snorter in the 17th over, looked dazed, still managed to hit the last Archer ball to the boundary, but got bowled in the final over by a fast Ben Stokes yorker with 11 runs still to get in three balls. An umpiring fiasco then had the normally unflappable M.S. Dhoni marching out into the field to question the denial of a no-ball after one of the umpires had first signalled it spontaneously.
After all that, the Kiwi spinner Mitchell Santner, a surprising replacement for Harbhajan Singh who had taken two for 15 in the previous game, calmly hit an attempted yorker from Stokes straight back over his head for a six to win the game off the last ball. Thus ended another episode in the epic saga of Dhoni the leader and finisher in limited overs cricket.
Chennai beating Rajasthan on Thursday was the 100th win for Dhoni, the most for any captain in the IPL.
It began with a thrashing of Bangalore on a slow turner at the Chepauk this season. Dhoni packed his side with spinners, including the semi-retired Harbhajan, while Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) captain Virat Kohli picked only Yuzvendra Chahal and part-timer Moeen Ali, with left-arm spinner Pawan Negi and off-spinner Washington Sundar watching from the benches as the ball turned square.
Dhoni’s astuteness as batsman came to the fore in the home game against Rajasthan after Chennai lost three early wickets. He left the deadly Archer alone and targeted Jaydev Unadkat to blitz 75 and post a healthy 175, which Chennai managed to defend despite the dew.
The Chennai batting failed against the pace bowlers that Mumbai Indians’ Rohit Sharma lined up at the Wankhede, but Dhoni was back to the winning ways against Punjab and Kolkata at home, and now Rajasthan in Jaipur. This, despite his death overs specialist Bravo being sidelined with injury.
Dhoni’s best attribute is clarity of thought under pressure. That’s why his batting partners do so well, whether it is a Kedar Jadhav or an Ambati Rayudu. Behind the wickets, he’s reading the batsman to tip off his bowlers.
He’s inspirational, too. The best captains are those for whom the players push to make that extra effort to win. Santner made a hash of his opening game, unable to come to grips with a slippery ball in the dew and getting clobbered for 26 in two overs by Rajasthan.
However, Dhoni again backed the left-armer as the better option to Harbhajan in the return game against Rajasthan whose top five batsmen are right-handers.
Santner responded to his captain’s faith with an economical spell, the wicket of centurion Sanju Samson and that winning sixer.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kohli who has lost 58 of his 102 games as captain in the IPL so far, including a record six straight losses this season. From wrong team selection in the opener to fiddling with the opening combination and throwing the ball to the wrong bowler, nothing’s gone right for Kohli. “It’s not him, it’s the team." That’s the defence usually made, but one can’t overlook tactical errors match after match.
Take for example his non-utilization of Moeen Ali, who won a Test match for England against India last year with his off-spin. Moeen had a spell of 1 for 19 in the opener with Chennai, then got taken off after conceding 13 in his first over against Mumbai, never to get another look-in despite the clobbering that RCB medium-pacers are taking.
This was most glaring in the game with KKR where RCB failed to defend 205, the third time Kohli has met that fate in the IPL. KKR’s three spinners were economical, going at 8 an over in a 200-plus game and RCB’s best bowlers were Chahal and Negi. However, Moeen did not get a single over despite Southee, Siraj and Stoinis conceding an astronomical 125 in 8 overs.
Chahal has been Bangalore’s most effective bowler at the Chinnaswamy where pace bowlers have been getting hammered, but Kohli keeps turning to medium-pacers. Bangalore has had some of the most fearsome batting attacks over the years, with the likes of Kohli, AB De Villiers, Chris Gayle, and Brendon McCullum, but keeps under-performing. Poor choices at the IPL auction have also contributed to this.
Kohli’s a good leader, leading from the front and giving opportunities to new talent. However, he’s fallen short in tactics repeatedly over a long period of time.
So, there we have a conundrum leading into the World Cup next month. India has undisputedly the world’s best batsman in Kohli and arguably the world’s best limited overs captain in Dhoni. However, it will be Kohli captaining the side and Dhoni being the batsman.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.