Even after four hundred-and-some years, cricket still has its mysteries, such as whether the weather really causes swing, exactly what happened to the ball Garry Sobers hit for that sixth six, and quite why so many of the best players seem to end up advertising hair transplants. You can make a great team of these, say, off the top of my head (and theirs), Graham Gooch and Virender Sehwag, Michael Vaughan, Ricky Ponting, Martin Crowe, Jacques Kallis, Sourav Ganguly, Greg Matthews, Shane Warne, Darren Gough, and Doug “the rug” Bollinger. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The cricketers get one sort of plug and the hair studios another.
It’s been sweet and satisfying then, to watch two 30-something pros overcome all this in the last few weeks. On Saturday MS Dhoni made a match-winning fifty against Australia in Hyderabad, and, nine hours behind, Chris Gayle another against England to level up the series in St Lucia. Three months out from the World Cup, Gayle, 39, and Dhoni, 37, are both among the 10 leading batsmen in ODI cricket this year. After Saturday, Gayle had 424 runs in four innings, at an average of 106, Dhoni 301 in six, at an average of 150. The beautiful part is that while they both seem to feel every last hour of their age, they have developed very different ways of coping with it.
At this point in his career, the only thing Gayle seems to be able to do really well on a cricket field is hit sixes, something which, fortunately for him, he does better than anyone else alive right now. Of those 424 runs he made against England, 234 of them were scored in sixes. There were 39 altogether, as many as Ireland hit in the whole of last year, more than most batsmen score in their entire career. Really. Ireland hit 39 in 15 games in 2018, and of the 2,496 men who have played one-day international cricket, only 145 of them hit as many sixes in their lives as Gayle did in those four innings.
Odd thing is, aside from that, Gayle is really not much of a bat. Because the even more extraordinary stat is that while Gayle faced 316 balls in the series, he only managed to turn for a second run off four of them. He is such a lumbering runner that he turns the likely twos into lazy ones, and the sharp ones into certain zeroes. It’s an approach entirely at odds with the busy business of modern batting, when everyone’s supposed to hustle for runs and teams track how many dot balls their batsmen use up. Gayle wastes most of the deliveries he faces but does so much with the rest that he gets away with it.
Dhoni, though, has a very different sort of problem. At times it looks as if he can barely get the ball off the square. He didn’t make so much as a single fifty in ODI cricket last year, when it really seemed the only reason he was still in the team was because no one was brave enough to tell him he wasn’t really needed.
Virat Kohli scored 1,202 runs at an average of 133 and a strike rate of 103 in 2018, Rohit Sharma 1,030 at 74 and 100, Shikhar Dhawan 897 at 49 and 102. Dhoni contributed 275 at 25 and 71. His batting grew so becalmed against England that even his own fans booed him for his slow play at Lord’s.
In the last six weeks or so, though, Dhoni has played three unbeaten match-winning innings: 59 not out off 72 balls, 87 not out off 114, and 55 not out off of 54. Two of those matches finished in the last over, the other in the last-but-one. It’s as if the only way Dhoni can make these run chases interesting for himself is by concocting close finishes, as though he wants to see just how close he can cut it. In the 55 he made at Adelaide he hit only two boundaries, both sixes, and the second of them was to tie the game. The rest of the time he just nudged and flicked and pushed the ball around, doing nothing more than the minimum.
Dhoni has become a second-innings specialist, a sure steersman in any low run-chase. And he suffers for it. He started to keel with cramp as these innings went on, kept stopping to suck up great lungfuls of air after each single. It’s been brilliant to watch, all the better because he started the year with an innings that was so slow, 51 off 96 balls in Sydney, that people were calling for him to be dropped so India could bring in Rishabh Pant.
When Gayle was first recalled at the start of this series, no one was quite sure whether West Indies should stick with him either. But he and Dhoni have proved they can still do it, each in their own particular way.