Unlike the lesser mortals who need averages to please themselves because they scored 10 in one outing, 60 in the other, and 30 in yet another, Dhoni doesn’t need averages. He is the average himself: you always know what exactly he is going to do and achieve. He has been too consistent to be unpredictable.
The man who just bats. And bats.
Dhoni walks back. He made 65. His usual innings. The run-scoring habit I wish he had been praised more for.
This man refuses to get out until he knows it’s no use any more. Sometimes I wonder, how can a batsman protect his wicket so stubbornly.
His captaincy, his trophies, and his finishing abilities keep taking turns as the most talked about aspect of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The thing he does best and more often – bat and score runs in ODIs – is usually a footnote in discussions around him.
When he bats, M S Dhoni is one billion men and women, their emotions and hopes, their aspirations and hearts, all rolled into one. Recently, ESPNcricinfo rated him in the top 5 Greatest Ever ODI Cricketers list. People frowned. They frowned because their assessment of an ODI cricketer was getting adulterated with their views on his IPL, Test cricket, overseas Test losses, imaginary fixing allegations, and how this man supposedly treated the superstar cricketers they loved.
They frowned because they were not prepared to see this name alongside the Ultimate God Who Can’t Be Breached.
I have never played cricket, or any sport for that matter, even in streets or the neighbourhood or at school. But, cricket mesmerized me. Because it had a lot of maths in it. It had statistics. It had averages. Yet, the man who has mesmerized me most in cricket is a man who defies statistics.
Dhoni doesn’t need stats to predict how much he will score. He doesn’t need averages. Unlike the lesser mortals who need averages to please themselves because they scored 10 in one outing, 60 in the other, and 30 in yet another, Dhoni doesn’t need averages. He is the average himself: you always know what exactly he is going to do and achieve.
Come in at 50/4, he would be the Wall just refusing to get out, score 50 from 70, and then accelerate his way to 130 off 100, give India a fighting total. Come in at 100/4, he would be the Wall, refusing to budge, score 40 from 50, and then move on to 80 off 70, give India a handsome total. Come in at 200/4, he would score a quick 50, finishing the innings smartly. Come in at 300/4, and his reputation of finishing and hitting quick runs would either eat him or immortalize him – except that by then, his innings wasn’t too important.
With him, you always know.
Talk about the chase. Come in at 50/4, he would be the Wall and keep your hopes alive, till his batting partners would make it hopeless – not before he scored 50 or 60. Come in at 100/4, and he would keep one end alive, and then win you the match towards the end. Come in at 200/4 or 300/4, and usually victory would just be a formality left for a man so skilled at winning. A formality made exciting with some late sixes.
Even in a chase, you always know. Even when he would be about to make adventures with his batting position, you always know.
There are times people say “you never know till Dhoni’s there.” It isn’t that difficult. He has made himself predictable. He has been too consistent to be unpredictable. Based on when he comes in to bat, you know more often than not, is he going to get a 50? Is he going to get a 100? Is he going to get out cheaply? Is he going to win it for us?
There were times when he failed. So did the best of them. But how often?
If 30 were the least score that can be called “respectable” in an ODI innings, Sachin Tendulkar, an opener, got out for less than that 219 times out of 452, that’s 48.5%. Sourav Ganguly: 156 out of 300 – over 50%. Ricky Ponting: 167 out of 365 – over 45%.
Dhoni got out for less than 30 runs in an innings 89 times out of 228, that’s 39%; with 79 of those at no. 5 or below – positions where you either don’t get enough time, or you play by the sword.
I am not talking about skill or technique. Or flair or beauty. Or greatness or longevity.
I am talking of sheer dependability to stay at the crease and just score. Tame the bowlers calmly, not dropping a hint, and then suddenly start milking them. Regardless of situation and conditions.
Outside Asia, Sachin scored a half-century every 3.56 innings, Dravid 3.38, Ganguly 3.45, Kohli 3.25.
Dhoni scores one every 3.85, very comparable, and extraordinary for his batting position. Brilliant for a batsman said to be poor outside Asia.
To be extra sure, count the number of times he has been out of form in his ODI career.
His captaincy and his finishing overshadowed his scoring skills. April 2006, he reached the top of the ODI batting rankings. The world took note. He wasn’t captain, after all. 2007, he became captain – and unfortunately for the publicity of his batting, a great one. Since then, till 2011, he was the most prolific run-getter in the world. He was getting half-centuries every 3.0 innings in those four years. He was the no. 1 ODI batsman in the rankings for nearly 24 months in a row. But, the world was busy praising his captaincy. He was the man who had won everything.
Enter Virat Kohli. The world changed.
With Kohli, came a battalion of new star batsmen, seeking opportunity to succeed. Dhoni, the fabled selfish man, slid himself down the batting order, in the best interests of the team.
His stats have never been the same. He still scored heavily when he got the chance, but the chances have not been frequent. The star batsmen often denied him the opportunity to bat much, and suddenly, his finishing skills were what we were talking about.
His ODI batting prowess, while it had stayed in the form of concrete statistics and yet remained unnoticed, was destined to remain unnoticed forever. Now, it was too late.
It was too late, because now, his towering average was all set to be criticized for having been “inflated” due to the number of times he remains not out, not due to skill.
It’s not that the world never acknowledged his batting and scoring abilities in ODIs. But, it was unfortunate that he didn’t get noticed as the most prolific and the most dependable run-machine of his time. He didn’t get noticed as one of the few batsmen who never fell out of the top 10 in the ICC ODI batting rankings, but for eight months.
His not-outs received far more negative attention than his runs.
There haven’t been many batsmen who are doubted despite a 50-plus batting average. His average is often treated with disrespect by haters. The way they react to his average, seems to suggest it’s a faulty calculator displaying a 50-plus figure; they scowl as if it should be clear to the donkeyest of donkeys that this is a batsman who wouldn’t last 30 balls.
There was a reason. Apparently the high average overshot his stats much above the reach of the stats of the Batsmen Past those fans had loved more. And they protested. They hated.
The haters lived in denial. Sachin Tendulkar was a batsman they just couldn’t see out-scored, out-averaged. Sourav Ganguly was a captain they just couldn’t see out-won, out-loved.
The haters stayed in denial; the Dhoni stayed loyal.
He scored when no one did; he scored even when everyone else did. He became the fourth-fastest ever, and third-fastest Indian, to reach 8000 ODI runs. A statistic indicative of longevity, and sustained, immense skill. A statistic much more indicative than the natural flaws of inflated batting averages.
Love him or not, the least we could have done for this man was respect him unconditionally.
For tributes to his selflessness, leadership, calmness, humility, and fitness, search Google. This post was about his batting, which has been either underrated, or renowned for the wrong reasons like great finishing abilities and great six-hitting skills. It’s time his batting is admired for its sheer dependability amidst the chaos of captaincy and wicketkeeping, and a billion howls and scowls, even into the eighth year.