Since the Champions League T20 Final in 2014 Mahendra Singh Dhoni, one of the most successful T20 players of all time, has entered his worst period of form in his ten year career.
In 19 matches in 2015, 17 for Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League and two for India, Dhoni has scored just one fifty, averaging 30.53—the lowest calendar-year average in his career—at a strike rate of 122.15—the second lowest calendar-year strike rate of his career.
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After the second, and what turned out to be the final match of India’s three match T20 series against South Africa earlier this month, Dhoni sought to explain his poor form, by essentially saying that playing according to the situation in T20 cricket was hampering his returns.
“It is a very short format,” Dhoni said. “Personally I feel I use a bit too much of my brain in this format. It is very important that I keep myself a bit free, and go and play my shots.”
“A lot of times when I go in to bat, usually it is in the 16th or 17th over, or fourth or fifth over with four or five wickets down. I have that tendency to use my brain, ‘Okay let’s go to 130, that will be a good score.’ Depending on that I play a bit slow initially, and then look for big shots. It has happened quite a few times in the past, but in this format I believe what I should do is I should go in and play the big shots irrespective of what the scenario is. Because that’s what this format is all about.”
Only 15 players ever have played more T20 matches than Dhoni and few have been as successful as he has – so when he talks about T20 cricket, you should listen, but this explanation, one that chastises the use of thought, seems alarmingly shallow and very simplistic, and is a damning indictment on the T20 format.
Indeed, given the weight of the accusation levelled at T20 cricket, and more specifically, with the World T20 less than six months away, the importance of Dhoni in India’s T20 team and the importance of the role he is supposed to be playing, his explanation and solution is deserving of closer inspection.
What is so interesting about Dhoni’s statement is that he is conspicuously simplifying a game that he originally became excellent at by complicating.
A close look at the numbers show that Dhoni owes an enormous amount of his success in T20 cricket to the fact that he does use his brain, that he does play particularly carefully according to the situation and the opposition and, most notably, that he does not play big shots irrespective of what the scenario is. Dhoni’s approach to batting in T20 has in fact been the polar opposite of what he is suggesting.
Dhoni has scored 17 fifties in T20 cricket—all of them in the IPL. For the sake of this investigation those 17 fifties are going to be used as the gold standard against which to compare his more recent struggles.
A close look at the data from those 17 fifties shows that Dhoni takes some time to play himself in, with his average strike rate in those 17 innings not exceeding 100 until the sixth ball he faces and not reaching the average strike rate of 135.24 until the twelfth ball of his innings.
Immediately this data is at odds with his suggestion that he should “go in and play the big shots irrespective of what the scenario is.” For Dhoni it seems, like many players before him, the old adage of “getting your eye in” still applies. Even in the shortest of formats there remains value in taking a few balls to get used to the nature of the pitch, conditions and bowlers.
More interesting however, is the breakdown of Dhoni’s run-scoring in those 17 fifties against each bowler he faced. Dhoni has faced at least four bowlers in each of his 17 T20 fifties and never more than six.
Ordering Dhoni’s strike rate against each bowler in each innings from highest to lowest allows us to calculate the average strike rate against the most expensive bowler through to the least expensive bowler.
The range between the highest average strike rate, 305.55, and the lowest average strike rate, 45.79, of 259.76 is vast and suggests quite explicitly that Dhoni does use his brain when he is batting in T20 cricket – at the very least to decide which bowler to attack and when.
If T20 cricket and success in it is about “playing the big shots irrespective of what the scenario is” then surely the range between Dhoni’s highest and lowest average strike rate per bowler would be far lower. The numbers suggest that Dhoni, as is widely believed, picks a bowler and a moment to attack, rather than indiscriminately doing so, and that T20, like other formats of cricket, remains hugely influenced by shot selection and not purely shot execution.
So what has changed this year? Well, it can’t be the mind. If anything the mind is a tool that becomes sharper with age. Dhoni should in fact be getting better at reading a match situation and at choosing who and when to attack. Indeed, a closer look at all 19 innings played by Dhoni in 2015 reveals that he has been approaching innings in much the same way as he did in his 17 fifties with the two lines almost fitting neatly in to one another.
What has, quite obviously changed, is the strike rate. Although Dhoni still appears to be approaching an innings with the same strategy, he is not executing that strategy as well. His average strike rate in his first 15 balls of his innings in 2015 is just 113.33 and the highest it reaches at any point is 122.83, suggesting that not only is he taking longer to play himself in, but that even then he is struggling to accelerate as he once did. Dhoni in 2015 has been a shadow of his former self.
Of course, Dhoni has been an outstanding performer for almost a decade and it would be wrong to write him off completely after one bad year, but given the extent of this slump and given his age—he is now 34—it is possible that he is in terminal decline. While his mind will not wither the data shows that Dhoni is struggling to score at the pace he was once capable of suggesting that his power, eyes, and hands are beginning to fail him.
Although flashes of power may return Dhoni would be best served by remoulding his game to utilise his enormous experience and using that brain he is so keen to discard. Although the consistent power may have gone Dhoni still possesses one of the finest T20 brains in history, if he can marry that intelligence with an adapted strategy he could continue to succeed at the highest level.
Given that the ratio between Dhoni’s failures and successes is worsening, India, CSK and Dhoni would perhaps be best served by relieving the reliance on his successes by taking him away from the final stages of innings, and rather than giving him a high intensity role in the team’s innings; giving him a more disposable one.
On average the number six batsman faces 12 balls per innings and the number seven faces 6 balls an innings, given his even greater recent proclivity to eat up balls at the beginning of his innings there is no way that Dhoni should be batting as low as six, seven or even five; he would be better placed at number four, or perhaps, depending on the situation, number three, anchoring the innings and marshalling those younger, more powerful players around him.
India have, to an extent been hamstrung in this strategy by the dearth of alternative finishers to Dhoni, but if they aren’t going to drop him (given his experience and captaincy they shouldn’t) they need to utilise him better and try a new, younger alternative at the death, Hardik Panyda, for example.
If Dhoni can maintain his high levels of fitness his innings at number four can come to be defined not by brutal explosions of power, but instead by intelligent cricket, persistent running between the wickets and consistent proactivity.
This approach is a far lower risk strategy than his suggestion of arriving in the middle and hoping he can slog his way back to form when all evidence suggests he will fail. He will of course still have to hit boundaries, and he still can, but rather than relying entirely on doing so, a redefined approach and a new role can ensure there remains enormous value in Dhoni’s continued presence in any side he plays for.
Freddie Wilde is a freelance cricket journalist.