Leading from behind
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For the 'thinking fan', the kind that prefers the many-layered intrigue of Tests over the 'more action, less thought' slogathons, the India-England ODI series has offered an engaging mind game. The cast of this mini-battle features a rookie swing bowler, an instinctive wicket-keeper captain, a twinkle-toed innovative batsman and his mate, a solid opener with textbook technique.
The Bhuvneshwar Kumar/MS Dhoni vs Kevin Pietersen/Ian Bell contest is the closest, perhaps, that cricket has come to doubles in any racket sport. In the last two ODIs at Kochi and Ranchi, the pacer-'keeper combination has outsmarted the batsmen and this has played a big role in the series scoreline reading 2-1 in India's favour. As always, the duration of time spent by Pietersen and Bell at the crease has decided the longevity of England's batting effort.
It's after the 10th over that Dhoni initiates this duel. By now the ball has lost some of its shine and Bhuvneshwar has got a grip of the pitch, conditions and the extent of his swing. This is when Dhoni takes position close to the stumps, not a conventional tactic for a bowler whose deliveries measure around 130kph.
This has forced Pietersen and Bell out of their comfort zone. The old ploy of standing outside the crease to negate late movement is suddenly a high-risk proposition, with a play and miss almost sure to result in a stumping.
With the batsmen forced back into the crease, Bhuvneshwar has found full value for his late swing. At Kochi, conscious of Dhoni watching his back from up close, KP couldn't handle Bhuvneshwar's in-coming ball. At Ranchi, Bell fell to the same pair, Dhoni holding a sharp catch standing up to the stumps.
Bhuvneshwar's pace is ideal for this tactic but not all medium-fast bowlers are comfortable with the keeper standing up. Besides being an ego issue, it's also about adjusting to an unfamiliar-looking target at the other end. Praveen Kumar, another 130kph swing bowler, wasn't the same bowler when Dhoni stood up to the stumps. Since Bhuvneshwar doesn't mind it, Dhoni is expected to repeat the trick for the fourth ODI. Here's looking for the English counter at Mohali.