Where should MS Dhoni bat in One-Day Internationals (ODIs)? In the last game at Bangalore, Dhoni walked in at No. 7, with India facing a stiff ask at the death. A couple of years ago, one would have backed the Indian wicketkeeper-batsman to tee off from ball one but times have been different. While Dhoni does possess the ability to clear the field, he needs a little more time in the middle before going for those famous big hits.
Finishing in one-day cricket is no easy job, but Dhoni took on the mantle with distinction. In high pressure situations, he delivered often and set very high standards for himself. That level of consistency in those situations is simply phenomenal. But, as a sportsman ages, his game and approach may change inadvertently, and must take a role that suits that skill set. Dhoni has left a great legacy as a finisher but now the Indian team must use him more effectively considering the stage of his career.
Dhoni has largely batted at Nos 5 and 6 in his ODI career. The last time he batted at No. 4 was during the series against New Zealand last year. As India chased 286 at Mohali, he walked in at No. 4 and smashed 80, which helped guide the run-chase along with Kohli. That was an example of what he could do with time on his hands, by pacing his innings and playing a sheet anchor role. Earlier this year in Cuttack, he struck a big partnership with Yuvraj Singh when India lost early wickets against England. In the ongoing series, he showed that when India collapsed batting first at Chennai as he saw them through to the 50 overs. That time in the middle allows him to get his eye in and then charge at the death.
Now, some may argue that there have been a few notable innings where he has failed. Some may bring up the run-chase at Antigua where he batted for a long time, yet couldn’t see India through while chasing a modest target. However, your players have to be utilised in a way that gives them the best chances of success. In such cases, one needs to maintain a little bit of flexibility in the batting order and give him a good run.
So let’s say, if India lose three wickets by the 20th or the 25th over, one can give Dhoni a run then rather than wait for the slog overs. But yes, if India lose wickets the way they did in Chennai, it is better to hold him back to Nos 6 or 7 as he may still get the many overs to bat. The key is to assess the situation and use him as a floater who can anchor and hold the innings together.
Normally, the term floater is used to describe someone who can inject life into the innings with some big hitting and can be unleashed as a surprise package. Hardik Pandya has been that for India in this series with him coming in at No. 4. It is somewhat similar to the way Dhoni was handled early in his career, where he batted in the top order more regularly. You need the same flexibility with Dhoni but with a different approach.