Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Defense As The Best Form Of Attack

To a cricket fan who has seen the decade plus domination of the Australian team, it has become almost an article of faith that ‘attack is the best form of defense’. That is how the Australians played their cricket; that is how they frequently got out of jail; that is how they turned troublesome situations into winning ones.

The rare occasions when they lost, they were beaten by a team that outdid the Aussies at their own game.

But never have they lost like this. Indeed you would have to go far, far back in time to remember Australia not only losing a series by a margin of more than one test match, but also failing to win a single one. The last team to inflict this sort of ignominy on the Aussies were the West Indies in 1984. That was when Mahendra Singh Dhoni was still a toddler, not yet old enough to attend kindergarten.

And yet, Dhoni has not attracted the unmitigated praise that ought to be the lot of a conqueror. The reason for this can be summed up by two numbers: 8-1. This was the field setting employed by him to slow down the Australian batsmen in a match they had to win.

Due to this tactic, Dhoni has been accused of various things – burying the spirit of the game, hastening the end of test cricket, not caring about the paying public…

These are serious accusations indeed, and ought to be examined in detail.

As far as the spirit of the game is concerned, it’s been well established that it died a quiet, almost unmourned death quite a while back. Its ghost does make a token appearance from time to time, but for the most part, teams play as hard as they can, pushing the law, and scrabbling to take what advantage they can over their opponents.

Frankly, it’s a bit ridiculous to talk about Dhoni violating the spirit of the game, when things like fielders appealing when they know a batsman is not out, or batsmen not walking when they are out, are considered routine.

The other accusation Dhoni has had to face is that he has brought Test cricket closer to its demise by his tactics. This is strange on several counts:

  1. It is not as if India played the entire test match with an 8-1 (or even a 7-2) field. It was for 2 sessions. Nobody in their right mind would want to play an entire match, forget about an entire series, in this way. Test matches are won by taking 20 wickets, and you can’t take 20 wickets by bowling defensively all the time. What Dhoni did was the cricketing equivalent of a tactical retreat. And no team can play in perpetual tactical retreat – it has to be a temporary ploy. If your opponent is coming hard at you, you don’t sit back and let them – you make it as difficult as possible for them. You make them fight for every inch gained. Dhoni had the luxury of being 1-0 up in the series, but even if the series had been tied, it was a brilliant move to choke the Aussie batsmen, helped in no small measure by the exemplary control displayed by Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan, who showed in fine fashion what is meant by ‘bowling to one’s field’. Regardless of the outcome of the match, this was not ‘negative’ cricket – it was cerebral cricket at its best.

  1. For a Twenty20 slam-bam-thank-you-ma’m type of fan, this would have been boring cricket. But are those the fans that test cricket has ever attracted, or would want to attract? Test cricket is the highest form of the game; it should aim to attract the highest quality of viewer. Thus even if runs were not scored in the day, the Test match fan would have appreciated the knife-edge tension that was building, the battle within a battle that was being enacted. The game was inching its way towards an explosive climax during that period of play. A wicket or two could (and did) change the entire complexion of the game. Conversely, had Australia adopted innovative, but risky, batting and pulled it off, the game would have swung the other way. Boring? For someone accustomed to thinking that the only way to enjoy cricket is for sixes to be hit and bowlers to be beaten to a pulp, yes, but for a Test match fan? Hell no!

  1. What this tactic also did was draw Australia out into unfamiliar ground. For much of their years of dominance, the only time teams have successfully challenged the Aussies is by beating them at their own game, and out-aggressing their aggression. Dhoni brought a new dimension into play, where defense became the best form of attack. Earlier, when teams fought fire with fire, the Aussies might have wilted occasionally, but they knew where they were at, and could fight back, mostly successfully. Now, they were in unchartered territory, and it showed in their reluctance to innovate against the defensive field settings.

  1. Also, considering the larger perspective of the series, this was a brilliant move by Dhoni, the leader. It helped him emerge out of the shadow of Dhoni, the latest poster boy of Indian cricket. Indian cricket was (and still is) at a crossroad. The old guard has begun departing, and within a year, it looks likely that only Tendulkar and Laxman will be around from the team that a generation of fans grew up watching. As such, with this one tactically brilliant move, Dhoni has imposed his authority as a captain and leader, shown he can think on his feet, read situations and implement appropriate strategies. He has eased the mind of the fan, who feels that the legacy established by the fab five is in safe hands, and more importantly, he has shown his team that he is worthy of being the leader that India needs at this point.

As captain, therefore, Dhoni has proved that his is the head on whom the crown should unquestionably rest.

So much for awareness of the game, but Dhoni has also shown a keen awareness of the moment and history of the game.

His gesture in giving the captaincy for a symbolic five overs to a retiring Ganguly was grand enough by itself, but he displayed a touching humility once again, when on being awarded the Border-Gavaskar trophy he beckoned, almost insisted, that Anil Kumble come up and hold the trophy aloft with him.

He had already displayed great acumen in throttling the Aussies, and he then displayed great character in scoring what for me, were the 55 most important runs of his career in the second innings of the fourth test. With India wobbling and enacting a time-honoured, familiarly frustrating scenario, a collapse seemed on the cards. However, he along with Harbhajan Singh (and Ricky Ponting’s over-rates!) ensured that did not happen.

A series was won, a leader was born, and a great team is now facing the beginning of the end of its dominance, while another can look with hope to the future.


Anonymous said...

With all the attention on Ganguly, it is true that Dhoni's success as a leader was played down by the mainstream media (perhaps not intentionally .... Ganguly deserved the prominence)
Anyway that was an insightful, trenchant analysis. Keep them coming...
There are some minor points about the article, but that's better we discuss... and oh, the sports editor spot at our start-up is vacant. :)

Anonymous said...

must say, really well written! the analysis was very neatly done and i totally agree with you on all the counts here. as for dhoni's persona and charm as captain there can be no doubt he seems a leader from head top toe. that gesture you mention, the one where he gave Ganguly the reins for one last time, it nearly brought tears to one's eyes. whoever called that final day of cricket boring, is most certainly not watchin the same game!

What's In A Name ? said...

8-1 should be our new anthem by now.

Thanks for deconstructing.

Saurabh Somani said...

@ arpit: thanx... have edited the post, and hopefully ironed out some minor points

@yuyutsu: thanx mate. and yes, it was very touching to see Dada captain the side

@ what's in a name: thanx