Unless you’re at the ground, you rarely see it. The telecast cuts away to adverts between overs. But were you to see the short interlude after one over and before the next you would see the pitch becomes a swarm of movement. Bowlers. Fielders. Batsmen. Umpires. Twelfth men. The occasional groundsman.
It’s a hubbub of activity.
But not if you’re Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Watching Dhoni walk between overs is like watching a movie star walk away from an explosion. His expression is neutral. His face betrays nothing. His stride is equal. His gait anodyne. That walk is almost ritualistic, an overly rite of passage. It has become a cliche to describe him as such, but Dhoni on a cricket field is the personification of equanimity.
Taking a look at the scorecard from India’s victory over Pakistan you would think that Dhoni had no impact on the result. He didn’t take a catch, made one stumping and didn’t bat. But if you were to look more closely, his influence marks the scorecard and the result, both literally and figuratively.
In Twenty20 cricket, the captain is more important than in any other format.
The parameters are narrower, the margins are smaller, thus the importance of every decision is magnified in context of the final result. Centimeters, not meters matter. Seconds not minutes. Balls (or even a ball) not overs. The pressure is unparalleled. Consider that as you consider India’s opposition and the stage of the tournament. Yet, Dhoni remained sage against the machine.
Of course, it is perhaps a stretch too far to attribute the calmness of his charges in their comfortable victory to his influence, but it is Dhoni’s ineffable effect that makes you even consider such a possibility in the first place.
Ultimately, Dhoni’s more tangible influence on the game can be gauged in the details of his strategy in the field. Within the first 11 overs, all six of India’s bowlers had bowled at least one over. None of them had bowled more than two overs in a row. Indeed, no one bowled more than two in a row all innings. The Sylhet pitch was a sticky turner and not easy for batsmen to attack on.
Dhoni’s expert shuffling of his pack only made things more difficult still with barely enough time for the batsmen to have a sighter before a bowling change had been made.
Indeed, batting in T20 cricket is all about rhythm and momentum—building an innings to a crescendo. Dhoni’s captaincy didn’t allow Pakistan to establish any kind of coherence to their innings, and it showed. Kamran Akmal’s run-out was a dismissal emblematic of the indecision that filtered through the Pakistani batting order.
The pitch was certainly not one that lent itself to panicked hacking, but before long, they were reduced to such in pursuit of a competitive total.
Dhoni’s tactics were only half the story, however. It was his luxury that his bowlers—the one erroneous over from Yuvraj Singh aside—bowled so well. Man of the Match, Amit Mishra, in particular was impressive. At 31 years of age, he has rather snuck under the radar, this being just his second T20 international. Yet, a superb Indian Premier League for the Sunrisers Hyderabad last year demanded inclusion.
It speaks volumes of Dhoni’s captaincy that in a match that he appeared to do so little in, he can be interpreted as having such an effect. As the tournament progresses, and in closer matches, such subtleties and nuances will become increasingly important.