MS Dhoni has received a lot of flak over his field placements and defensive captaincy strategies over the past week at SCG. This is not the first time that his field settings have left cricket watchers frustrated in muted agony. Some just shrug their shoulders and say that it's become a part of the modern-day captaincy, while others grit their teeth and wonder who-the-hell ever called Dhoni an attacking captain!
I find Dhoni strange and difficult to understand. Sometimes, his field placements and other strategies are so good that you feel the need to applaud him even if they do not work out the way they were intended... and at other times, they are so lousy that you question whether you are watching the right match!
Less than 10 months ago, on 24th March 2011, India played the Quarterfinals of the ICC World Cup 2011 against the then three-time defending champions Australia at Ahmedabad's Sardar Patel Stadium. In that match, Dhoni had attacked like I have never seen him do before. He had a fielder at silly point even on Yuvraj Singh's bowling in the 39th over of the Australian innings to Ricky Ponting, who was batting fluently in his 60s and 70s. In fact, Ponting had either a short square leg or a silly point virtually every time he faced a spinner till he was in his 70s.
Those attacking field placements may not have directly earned India any wickets, but they surely sent a statement of intent to the opposition. One might argue that Michael Clarke's horrendous attempt at slog sweeping Yuvraj Singh might have been caused by the attacking field settings (even he had a slip for him in the 31st over bowled by Yuvraj Singh), but that is arguable both ways.
Even in the Semi-finals against Pakistan at Mohali, I was impressed by the fielding positions he had set. The fielders were within the 30-yard circle were up very close, in order to stop the singles that result if they are fielding on the edge of the circle. On the other hand, the fielders in the deep were right on the boundary line, in order to cover as much ground as possible to prevent a boundary. For the gaps in the middle, he relied on the lack of athleticism of Asian batsmen for converting ones-into-twos. That was quite brilliant to watch as the pressure built on Pakistan, with Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq almost stalling their progress in the middle overs.
Post the World Cup win, when I had done a post on the main architects of India's World Cup triumph, I focused more on Dhoni's captaincy in the knock-out matches than his knock in the World Cup final. Those kind of knocks when India is chasing a target in ODI cricket are a Dhoni-specialty, but that brand of attacking captaincy as we witnessed in India's last three World Cup matches was a pleasant change.
And now with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that it indeed was just a "pleasant change". I had secretly hoped that Dhoni might have turned over a new leaf during the World Cup, and we would see a more attacking Indian captain post that win. The first crack in that hope came with the draw at Dominica. The England tour also a big question mark, but to be fair to Dhoni, he never really had a bowling unit there with whom he could attack well.
But here in Australia, that reasoning does not hold good. Sehwag claimed at Melbourne that the current pace-bowling unit is the best he has ever played with. Even if that assertion is over-the-top, there is no denying that this indeed is a very good bowling unit that India is carrying (obviously when fully fit). They may have flopped miserably at SCG with only 4 wickets to their name (reminds me of the Centurion Test on India's 2010-11 tour of South Africa), but they are the very same bowlers who grabbed 20 Australian wickets at MCG.
It can be arguably held that a bit less defensiveness of Dhoni's part might have helped the bowlers in a big way. It wouldn't have allowed the Australian tail to wag as much as it did at MCG, which could (and I am just saying COULD) have altered the result there... and while at SCG, the result may not have changed, but there was definitely a scope for a little more attacking cricket when Ponting and Clarke were early in their partnership. Even when their association had crossed a 100-run mark, Australia was still trailing India (albeit not by much). I would have expected a truly-attacking captain to use that slender margin of lead to continue attacking rather than having a sweeper cover and a deep square leg. It just so happens that because of the size of the SCG, Dhoni continued to be unable to stop the flow of Australian boundaries and runs.
I wonder which 'alter' of Dhoni's multiple-personality will need to be strengthened to see him attack once again like he did at the World Cup!