CricViz Analysis: Did MS Dhoni cost India?

On a day when India lost in surprising fashion to Australia, Ben Jones assesses the impact of the Indian keeper’s controversial knock.

Obviously, Rishabh Pant should be in this Indian ODI side.

It confounds onlookers from around the world that a player of such outrageous talent, a player so closely aligned with what a 2019 white-ball batsman is supposed to look like, is not deemed worthy of a spot in a side with a notoriously soft middle order. The broader question of whether MS Dhoni should be in this side ahead of Pant is relatively moot.

There is little cricketing logic behind the reason to retain the veteran over the younger, more explosive wicket-keeper batsman. Dhoni is a more accomplished gloveman, but in the age of 350 chases, a middle order rammed full of players able to clear the rope is far more important. Dhoni hasn’t scored at over 4.2rpo against spin in ODIs for almost four years. Rishabh Pant scores faster than that in Test cricket.

However, the question of today’s innings deserves a bit of focus, away from the fanfare and hyperbole about the decline of an ageing great. Because this was a peculiar day of cricket. Few would have agreed that Australia had enough runs at the end of their innings; few would have anticipated the clatter of wickets that fell at the start of India’s. But for many, the defining question of the day is: did Dhoni cost India the game?

After Ambati Rayudu’s wicket fell, and Dhoni arrived at the crease, WinViz gave his side an 18% chance of victory. India had been left unbalanced as a result of the off-field issues surrounding Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul, and thus were left with an unusually long tail bolted onto their rather too usual weak middle order. It was a passage of play that called for caution, and Dhoni delivered.

When he left, dismissed LBW by debutant left-armer Jason Behrendorff, WinViz fell to 12% for the visitors. Dhoni walked off with his side in a worse position than when he arrived. By this measure, it would be fair to argue he had lost India the game.

Yet the ball before he was dismissed, his partnership with Rohit had lifted WinViz to 24%. Sure, his own role in the partnership had been the significantly more junior, despite his own immense experience, but at that moment, regardless of the pace of his scoring, his contribution (combined with Rohit’s) had increased India’s chance of winning this game. It was a chance that was increasing with every over, slowly creeping up as the sun went down over the SCG’s pavilion.

There’s a lot of talk about gambling in this form of the game. Playing your natural game, backing yourself, it’s all bound up in the language of a carefully calculated wager between yourself and the opposition. You throw everything at the bowler and hope that your eye, and your luck, are in. But in a way, what Dhoni did today is more of a gamble. For one, a long bad innings will attract more criticism than a short bad one, because it has so much more time to gather in intensity, for people to grow ever angrier. In the last decade, only two innings from Indian batsmen of 96 balls or longer have been slower than Dhoni’s today. One was Rayudu against Zimbabwe in 2016 (3.1rpo), and the other was Dhoni himself against the West Indies in 2017. This was, on the surface of it, a long, bad innings.

Equally, it may be a generous interpretation to suggest this was entirely a strategic choice. Outside of the death overs, the average player in this match played 34% attacking strokes, while Dhoni himself played 32%. He wasn’t attacking significantly less than the average; he was trying to up the rate, but was unable to.

And increasingly, that’s been the story for the Indian legend. In 2013, Dhoni’s attacking strokes scored at 11.04rpo in ODI cricket. In 2018, they scored at 7.43rpo. His ability to execute those attacking shots has decreased significantly, however much the intent and drive to play them remains.

Ultimately though – did his innings actually cost his side? Well, at CricViz we use a white-ball performance analysis metric known as Impact, which calculates how many runs any individual player contributed above or below that which the average player would have done in any given match. It is ideal for answering questions exactly like this one.

As you can see, Dhoni’s Batting Impact in this match was 0.7. He neither significantly added anything the average player wouldn’t have, nor cost his team substantially. For all the furore on either side of the debate, for all the heat in the conflicting arguments, Dhoni had a negligible impact on the match today. Without question, other players on both sides had a greater impact – both in a positive and a negative sense.

Another player may have done better, another player may have done worse. It still feels tough to suggest with any conviction that India are better off selecting their veteran keeper over their youthful bolter, but it is equally hard to suggest that today Pant would have certainly made the difference. He is a talent that needs to be incorporated into this side as quickly as possible, but today was an example of why that should come at the expense of Karthik or Rayudu, not Dhoni.

Either way, India will be hugely frustrated to have lost this match, to a side that is by almost all measures significantly worse than them. Even from this position, it would be a huge shock were India not to claim victory in the series. Perhaps Dhoni will play a part in a victory this series, perhaps not. Regardless, today was not the day to finish the former captain’s epitaph.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.