MS Dhoni will feature in an away series against Zimbabwe for the first time in over a decade and also lead what is a very raw Indian side chock-a-block with new faces. India’s 16-man squad comprises of seven batsmen, seven proper bowlers, an all-rounder, and one wicket-keeper batsman. Although on paper this Indian squad looks to be well balanced, the lack of experience could be a major factor and one that Zimbabwe could take full advantage of, if they are on top of their game.
I firmly believe that the hosts, if they get their act together, can trouble India, who have struggled in the 50-over format since exiting at the semi-final stage of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup. The Men in Blue have lost three of the four One-Day International (ODI) series they have played since the quadrennial tournament, and there has been no cohesion to their displays in ODIs and Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is) too. Ahead of this away series against Zimbabwe, India lack identity in their batting line-up that is bereft of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli – three batsmen who have scored quite heavily since the world cup while others have failed.
As one of the indispensable batsmen in this Indian side, at which position should Dhoni, the Indian skipper, bat in Zimbabwe vs India 2016 ODI series?
Dhoni was rested for India’s tour of Zimbabwe in 2015, but he has batted in 13 of the 16 ODIs India have played since the conclusion of the last edition of the 50-over world cup. The last time he batted against Zimbabwe was in the 2015 world cup pool B game at Eden Park in Auckland, where he led India to a six-wicket victory. The then defending champions, in pursuit of 289, had been reduced to 4-92 and were in serious danger of suffering an ignominious defeat. But then, Dhoni hit an unbeaten half-century (a 76-ball 85) and forged a match-winning 197-run partnership with Suresh Raina, who scored his fifth ODI century (110*), for the fifth wicket to take India home.
Dhoni is definitely one of the two experienced batsmen – the other being Ambati Rayudu – in the Indian squad for the upcoming series against Zimbabwe. He should definitely bat higher than where he usually has for much of his ODI career: at No. 6. It was during the three-match ODI series against Bangladesh in 2015, Dhoni promoted himself to No. 4 in the batting order and made his plans clear, going forward. Only thrice in those 13 innings, Dhoni has batted at No. 6. For someone whose powers are on the wane, the Indian ODI skipper’s decision to bat higher up is a sensible one. At various instances since India’s 2015 world cup campaign, it has become clear that Dhoni is no longer capable of playing the big shots with the kind of ease he once used to. Therefore, it is necessary for the 34-year-old to have time on his hands and construct his innings.
A lot of us can point to the simply breathtaking knock Dhoni played for the Rising Pune Supergiants (RPS) in their ultimate IPL 2016 fixture and led them to a victorious finish to their campaign. Needing 23 runs off the final over to win the match, Dhoni, coolly, dispatched Axar over mid-wicket, square-leg, long-off, and long-on, to accrue the required runs in quite a dramatic fashion. For once, Dhoni exuded his power and probably, proved to himself that he still has it. However, the scenario in T20 cricket is different from what you would mostly encounter in ODIs and not on all days will anyone be able to take their team home under such circumstances.
Since making his ODI debut in December 2004, Dhoni has shown that he can hold an innings together and occupy the crease for long hours whenever his team has needed him to – with the aforementioned world cup game being one of the prime examples. But, unlike on a lot of occasions when Dhoni has used the game situation to determine his batting position, the Indian skipper should have a settled batting slot regardless of whether India bat first or second, in the series against Zimbabwe. The reason is the naivety that permeates in this Indian side, especially in the batting line-up.
If he fails to be precise in his batting position, Dhoni could inadvertently put pressure on the likes of Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey and even the seasoned Rayudu – three batsmen who are likely to bat in the middle-order. The primary needs of this set of Indian batsmen are, a clear definition of their roles and to be given the freedom to play their natural game. And Dhoni has an important role to play in facilitating both those aspects for his young troops.
What Dhoni also needs to be mindful of is the absences of Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. Yes, there is Axar Patel, who is a certainty in India’s playing XI and will probably slot in at No. 7. But the Gujarat left-arm spinner is not quite as capable with the bat as R Jadeja or even Ashwin. So, the lower Dhoni bats, the more difficult it could be for him to build his and Indian innings, due to the lack of good, reliable batting partners at the other end.
Taking all these factors into account, No. 4 is the position where Dhoni should bat in the upcoming series against Zimbabwe and as long as he plays ODI cricket too. He has played a lot of cricket, incessantly, ever since he made his debut, and that has taken a toll on his body. Dhoni’s back has also started giving him problems of late and it’s not difficult to understand why the 34-year-old Indian ODI captain cannot power the ball as he once used to. Generally speaking, Dhoni has also become more measured as a batsman as his career has progressed. Batting at the No. 4 position would also mean that Dhoni does not always have to face up to the new ball, will have ample time to get himself in and open up his shoulders towards the end.