Number three

When MS Dhoni comes in at three or four in ODIs he serves a purpose in context of the nature of the game, especially since he took over the captaincy and eschewed the whirlwind style of his early days. 50 over games are very rarely about hitting every ball you possibly can to the fence or beyond; strokemakers need someone with a cool head and an eye on the overall position to guide them at one end.

I am not so sure the same ploy works in T20s, though. Dhoni has batted at three just twice if memory serves; on both occasions, his tenure at the crease has coincided with a slowing down of the run rate that could potentially have been fatal.

It is not just about how Dhoni bats — openers by and large tend to check that first careless rapture of strokeplay once the power plays are done, and look to take singles and build on that early start. Dhoni at three, thus, gives India two batsmen looking to rotate strike or, in context of the T20 format, no batsman looking to keep the tempo up.

The greater length of an ODI requires that there be a judicious mix of aggression and cautious anchoring; in T20s, a batsman looking mostly to work singles around can end up using overs that are better employed by the regular strokemakers.

Dhoni at three works even less in a lineup where you have the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Yusuf Pathan sitting in the hut. All are incandescent strokeplayers; all of them could use extended time in the middle. As it happens, though, the likes of Yuvraj [who bailed India out in its first game of the World Cup with some feverish late order hitting] and Raina [who has been in electric form at three and four in the IPL] are now forced to come in towards the end of the innings, with no option but to swipe at everything in a bid to get the run rate back on track.

I’d far rather see Raina in at three and Yuvraj at four, while Dhoni bats at five or six depending on whether there is a need for caution — in which case he comes in — or berserk aggression — in which case he sends Yusuf out, saving himself to bat with the lower order in the unlikely event there is a mass collapse.

Unlike South Africa during the IPL, England has thus far proved conducive to big scores, and there seems no likelihood that this will change going into the Super Eights. A batting strategy that optimizes the array of freeflowing batsmen in the side looks the best option, at least IMHO.

Equally, I am not personally convinced about this new ploy of opening with Irfan Pathan and bowling Ishant in the middle overs. Irfan has shown glimpses of his ability to swing the ball away or straighten them back in — but they have been just glimpses, and in between those ‘look I still have the knack’ deliveries, his reduced pace and penchant for occasionally pitching short means opposing batsmen looking to maximize the powerplays are faced with a bowler they can take liberties against.

The tactic seems to be, open with Irfan and if he gets creamed, get Ishant to do damage control. The thing though is, Irfan is more likely than not to get creamed, especially as the competition heats up in the Eights and India faces teams packed with big-hitting openers. A far more sensible ploy seems, IMHO, to bring back the opening combination of Ishant and Zaheer, who have over time developed a knack of bowling well as a unit, with Irfan being held back to use the softer ball outside of the PPs.

One noticeable aspect of yesterday’s game is that Zak is  back — in more ways than one. His rhythm is good again; he has been able to bend the ball both ways seemingly at will, and the ball with which he took out Jeremy Bray shows that his thinking cap is firmly back on his head. In his first over, he pitched one up to Bray on off; spotted an intent to charge and swung one away outside off and away from the batsman’s reach; pitched another on length and cut it back in off the seam — and then swung a touch wide on the crease to get the angle in to off, increased his length by just that fraction, and used angle, marginal inward movement off the seam and a yard of extra pace to go through Bray’s defences and make a mess of the stumps.

It is when he is feeling good about himself that Zak works on batsmen, bowling a succession of deliveries as part of a plan with a predetermined outcome. It is also when he is feeling confident that he takes over from MSD the job of handling his fellow seamers — and that too was in evidence yesterday, as he took up station at mid on and talked Irfan and Ishant through their overs.

For Zak, who opted out of the first edition of the World Cup, to get into that zone just as the competition enters a key phase is likely the best news for the team, the ideal make-weight to the loss of Viru Sehwag.

Outside of this, yesterday’s game was a dud, with nothing much to recommend it outside of the jingoistic pleasure of watching India play — so enough of that. In passing, here’s Zak on his comeback.