Readers Write In #254: Sachin and Dhoni – The Generations

Posted on August 28, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

When MS Dhoni came out to bat in the early 2000s, he was one of a kind. He could hit any ball onto the stands and you could see why bowlers were afraid to bowl to him. It was the same kind of fear that Virender Sehwag inspired among the opposition in Tests. But Dhoni was able to do it in ODIs with the asking rate always on the rise or when the team was in the death bowlers needing a strong score to compensate for a slow start. His first fifty innings or so, Dhoni simply was a magician. Someone like Bheema of the Mahabharata who knew no rules of war. All he knew doing was to attack and rampage and confound the calculations of the opposition.

The 2007 T20 World Cup came, he was made the captain, he won to everyone’s surprise and soon things turned out differently. He became responsible which began to reflect in his batting, his savage unorthodoxy that always hid an explosive underneath slowly began to mellow down and he was learning to play proper cricket shots that silenced both critics and cricket snobs. For the next ten years or so, his ODI batting began to reflect his captaincy mindset – to hold back as long as possible and go out firing on all cylinders only when the situation demanded. This was a wholly new technique in ODI batting – accumulate as many singles as possible without taking risks even if the balls were bad and asking to be hit and reserve all entertainment to the last. This technique was something Rahul Dravid had conceived when he became a permanent fixture in ODIs, playing sheet anchor when wickets were tumbling at the other end and allowing big-hitters a space to score even more freely. But Dhoni improved it, made it even more flexible and suitable to the team’s needs givingit a final touch that bore his own explosive finishing signature.

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But Dhoni from my point of view, in his peak that spanned between 2008-2018 was a boring batsman in ODIs. Since he was not an elegant player of strokes in the league ofDravid or Sachin, his methods of meticulous, workman-like accumulation of runs in the middle overs was not much to my liking. His innings were like some Tamil masala movies, whose first halves were simply lengthy contrivances to pad the running time out that pushed the reasons of the movies’ existence to be revealed only in the last thirty minutes or so.

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When Kohli made his debut in 2008, he was precocious just like Sachin was, in terms of his range of strokes, his ability to adapt and score in any condition or surface. And when he was given the Test captaincy in 2014, I expected just like everyone else, a slump in form that happens to talented batsmen burdened with newer and stranger responsibilities. But the best thing about Kohli was, whatever he lacked in qualities of leadership, he was able to compensate through something that came to him naturally –his batting. He turned the challenge of captaincy into an opportunity to improve his batting and within a few years, became the only batsman in the team to play all three formats equally well.

But that came at a cost. His flamboyance was nowhere to be found except in the T20s or the death overs in ODIs. His ODI batting edifices that played a great role in India’s most famous victories were all great and wonderful but, for the most part they were just boring repetitions of running between the wickets that needed forwarding to the last few minutes to see how brilliant and purposeful they actually were. So as you see, the accumulation patterns and the styles of batting of both these great modern-day batsmen –Dhoni and  Kohli were quite similar. But, they were also unusual in a different way for Indians- for we had never seen anyone like them before.

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Wehave had plenty of modern-day ODI legends in Azharuddin, Sachin and Ganguly. All three of them had never adopted the tiger-on-the-prowl approach to batting, waiting patiently for the right moment to seize and subjugate the prey. Their approaches were quite open and less secretive. When Sachin batted, his intentions were never in doubt. He could hit you out of the park even if you were only slightly wavering or if you were quite vigilant, he had the knack of making you err and submit to his strength. The only way to escape Sachin was to get him out and he gave you a lot of opportunities to do that. He was always the cat in the cat-and-mouse game and the opposition simply did not like to be on the lookout always. They came, they attacked and got ensnared in their own traps. But whatever happened, the cricket fan always got his money’s worth.

Another factor that made Sachin the legend he was, was his inability to conceal his spots and join the harmless herd. There was only one innings if I remember correctly where he wore a Dravid-like camouflage on the last day of the test against England in 2008, when he scored a century to chase an improbable 387. Sehwag won the man-of-the match deservingly but Sachin’s innings was one of a kind- the batting equivalent of a slow poison that must have given Kevin Pietersen a sleepless night for having declared a bit too early while setting a target. But apart from that, all the greatest knocks of Sachin were all veritable delights to the senses and there were absolutely no moments of dullness in any of them.

It was not just Sachin those days, almost all batting greats of that era approached One-Day cricket similarly. Accumulating, entertaining and winning were all strongly interlinked strands in their batting DNA and very rarely they traded one for the other. As a result, even innings that had premature endings such as their half-centuries or incomplete hundreds managed to be fulfilling and self-contained pieces that gave their own, worthy doses of satisfaction even within truncated frames of time. But the same could not be said about the innings of modern-day legends such as Kohli and Dhoni whose first seventy runs or so usually contain nothing but equivalents of talk and pleading and praying that a cornered Wisar Ahmed does against Nirupama’s secret lover when he is about to be killed. And if they get out due to some unfortunate circumstances in their sixties or eighties, it gives us virtually nothing to talk about. There is simply no Viswaroopam.