“He has a degree in people,” Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg once said of Mike Brearley, one of the most successful captains in Test cricket. Brearley led England in 31 Tests, aged 35 to 39 years. He won 18 and lost only 4. Brearley, a top-order batsman, averaged only 22 runs per innings in those matches — a performance that would see him struggle to hold his place in any side. But as a leader of men, Brearley was outstanding, especially for the talent-rich England team of the time.
In the way his IPL 2023 has played out, MS Dhoni evokes shades of Mike Brearley. Dhoni has not done much with the bat, mostly because his batters have not left much for him to do. But he’s pulled off his usual astute execution as a captain and reader of the game to keep the Chennai Super Kings juggernaut rolling. On Sunday, Chennai will play their 10th final in 14 appearances and try to add to their four trophies — led by a man who is a month-and-a-half away from turning 42.
In IPL 2023, Dhoni has faced just 62 deliveries and scored 104 runs. In the list of run-getters in this year’s IPL, he is ranked 73rd. In his own decorated IPL career, this is the fewest balls he has faced and fewest runs he has scored in a season. Before this IPL edition, he averaged 253 balls and 331 runs in an IPL season. In other words, Dhoni in IPL 2023 has faced a quarter of the deliveries and scored one-third of the runs he previously averaged.
A part of the reason is that Dhoni has been holding himself back in the batting order — and his batters and all-rounders have given him ample reason to do so. All the players in the Chennai batting order have fired. They have had a set and productive opening pair in Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devon Conway. Ajinkya Rahane is a sparkling new T20 version of himself. Shivam Dube has teed off when needed. And Ravindra Jadeja, Moeen Ali and Ambati Rayadu have essayed useful cameos.
Short and Sweet
As a result, Dhoni has not had opportunities, or demands, to construct an innings of any longevity. In this IPL, Dhoni has batted nearly all the time in the death overs. As many as 95% of the 62 balls he has faced have been between overs 17 and 20. Normally, over his IPL career, he has faced somewhere between 30% and 50% in these overs. Conversely, in the previous IPLs, he was facing a majority of his deliveries in the middle overs (overs 7 to 16), which has not been the case this year.
Coming in the death overs means going for broke. As a result, the 104 runs Dhoni has accumulated this season have been scored faster than in any other IPL season. His strike rate is 168 runs per 100 balls, a significant bump over his IPL career average of 131. It’s also a marked improvement over his strike rate in the last four seasons, of 131, 103, 114 and 117 respectively.
The Chennai team’s effective batting and success have meant that Dhoni has not been adequately tested, or scrutinised, as a batsman in this IPL. Batting is a primary skill for wicket-keepers in the IPL. While other captains and wicket-keepers have toiled as batsmen, for varying personal and team returns, Dhoni has marshalled his resources and seen them do their jobs, and burnished his credentials as a captain.
Among all captains and main wicket-keepers in this year’s IPL, Dhoni has faced the fewest deliveries — about 58% of those faced by Dinesh Karthik of Bengaluru (106), who has had a sub-par season. Captains such as David Warner and Sanju Samson have been heavy-lifters. At one extreme is Bengaluru captain Faf du Plessis, who faced 483 balls and amassed 730 runs. Yet, Bengaluru toiled to a fifth-place finish and Chennai rolled into the finals. That is a testament to the depth of the respective sides, and the effective defining and essaying of roles, marshalled by able leadership, that lets Dhoni sail through a season like this.
Art of Captaincy
That was Brearley, too, between 1977 and 1981, winning seven of the nine Test series he led in. He was blessed to have towering talents such as batsman David Gower, all-rounder Ian Botham and fast bowler Bob Willis in their prime. Among male cricketers who have captained at least 30 Tests, Brearley’s win-loss ratio (number of tests won per test lost) is only second best, and only just, to Steve Waugh of Australia.
But as a specialist batsman, Brearley wasn’t the same calibre, averaging just 22 runs per innings. Among the top 10 captains by win-loss ratio, that’s the lowest. This list, dominated by top-order batsmen, has five captains averaging above 50 with the bat. In fact, Brearley’s average was even lower than compatriot Ray Illingworth, a bowling all-rounder. Brearley was an affable and intuitive captain, traits associated with Dhoni too. In 1985, Brearley wrote a book called The Art of Captaincy, a treatise on captaincy. As IPL 2023 reaffirms, Dhoni could perhaps write his own book on that subject.
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