As long as the Indian team keeps winning, Dhoni, the skipper, is inseparable from Dhoni, the player.
But once the side starts losing its moorings, Dhoni, the player, comes under the microscope.
The Indians lost the T20 series 2-0 to South Africa. A fair result would have been 1-1.
And the questions about Dhoni’s place in the squad start cropping up all over again.
This is not a new phenomenon.
The very same doubts were raised earlier this year when the Indians were outclassed in the tri-series Down Under.
A semi-final finish at the ODI World Cup and all doubts were swept under the carpet.
The victories have dried up; Mahi has lost his magic touch.
Dhoni’s batting record in ODI’s over the past year has been 485 runs at an average of 44.09 and a highest score of 85 not out.
This is against his career average of 52.24.
His T20 record is insignificant since he has batted in just two T20s this year.
While critics may be baying for his blood, his performances with the bat cannot be held against him—yet.
It is his position as skipper that is under threat especially given the new-found aggression Team India have discovered under Virat Kohli.
It is always going to be difficult for team-members to adjust from one leader’s all-out attacking instincts to another’s more laidback, restrained approach.
It is results that matter though and that’s where Dhoni will have to take charge in the upcoming ODI series against South Africa.
His leadership is being disputed.
His treatment of Ajinkya Rahane baffles cricket connoisseurs.
How can Team India’s best batsman over the past two years be left out from the ODI and T20 sides?
Does Dhoni really prefer Ambati Rayudu, a player more in the Dhoni mould?
Rayudu is no slouch with the bat in T20s as his exploits with Rajasthan Royals in the IPL prove.
Does he really need to warm the bench?
Dhoni does not feel the need to change his mind.
Talking about Rahane’s chances of selection for the first ODI at Green Park in Kanpur, he said:
“I think four is the number for Rahane. Even four is quite low for him I would say. Opening fits him really well. Take the example of Rohit Sharma for that matter. In domestic cricket he bats lower but in international matches he opens for us. Our openers more often than not are who bat in the middle order in first class cricket.
So it is tough for him as of now. If am looking for someone to bat five or six I don’t think he is the person. His strength is top of the order. If given a chance, we will try to feature him in the top three, if not then we would find it tough to place him in the playing eleven.”
Speaking about his own performance in the T20 series, the Indian skipper characteristically remarked:
“I personally feel that I used too much brain in this format.It’s very important I keep myself free and go and play my strokes. Depending on that I play a bit slow initially. In this format, I believe I should play the big shots from the word go irrespective of whatever the scenario is because that’s what this format is all about. A lot of time when I go into bat, be it the 16th or 17th over or in the fourth or fifth overs when wickets have fallen down, I have the tendency of like let’s go to 130, that will be good score.”
Former India bowler Ajit Agarkar has sounded the warning bells about Dhoni’s place in the side.
“The selectors need to have a closer look at what Dhoni is doing, not just as captain, but as a player as well.He has been a great player for India, but you don’t want him to become a liability for the team. And he needs to perform a lot better than he has (been). Just because he has done it over the years, doesn’t mean it’s okay for him to fail.”
Agarkar feels that Dhoni’s moving up the order is simply to give himself chances to keep his place in the side and not in the best interests of the squad.
“I’m not convinced he should bat at four. Just after a World Cup, you’re now trying to develop your team for the next World Cup. Four years is a long time, but for Dhoni, towards the end of his career, to put himself up, I’m not sure about it. You can understand if there are batsmen who can’t bat 3 and 4. But there is Ajinkya Rahane, who has been one of your best players in Test cricket and I don’t think he can bat lower than four in ODIs yet, unless he changes his game over his career.
Dhoni seems to have lost that ability of going out there and smashing it from ball one. He obviously takes his time. But he batted up the order in Bangladesh, and India still lost the series. All his career when people wanted him to bat up because he is so good and has that destructive ability, he has always maintained that he wants and needs to bat at No.6, where he can handle the pressure.
It’s a hard job batting at 5, 6 and 7. I’ve seen Yuvraj and MS himself do it for so long, but that doesn’t mean that it changes at this stage in his career. You’ve got to have guys who are good at certain numbers. And at the moment MS by promoting himself, is getting a Rahane or anyone else who bats there, into trouble. I would still have Raina and Dhoni at 5 and 6, so contrary to what a lot of people have said, I don’t think Dhoni should be batting at four at this stage in his career.”
Agarkar believes that Dhoni may not be the future when it comes to ODIs and T20s, specifically when it comes to leading the side.
“Looking at the results, India have generally been good in ODIs, but you’ve lost the World Cup semi-final, then you’ve lost in Bangladesh where Dhoni was captain twice, and you’ve now lost a T20 series. Yes, the T20s can go either way very quickly so you don’t want to judge someone, but for Dhoni this is a big series.
The selectors maybe need to look at where the Indian team is heading because Virat Kohli has done well as captain in Test cricket so maybe the selectors need to make that call after this series.”
Sachin Tendulkar, meanwhile, batted for his former skipper and teammate.
Speaking to Gulf News, he said:
“Cricketers like Dhoni have played for a long time, over ten years, and he understands himself, understands his body and mind-set better than anyone else.
The best thing one can do is move aside and let him take decisions [about his career] rather than taking decisions for him. You have got to give that respect to the player who has done so much for the nation and I would leave it to him and let him be the best judge. He has served Indian cricket in the best manner and let him be the decision taker.”
Dhoni, skipper and player, has been written off before; he has always proved his detractors wrong. He believes in going by gut instinct whether it is handing the last over in the T20 World Cup final to a rookie like Joginder Sharma or quitting as Test skipper midway through a series Down Under. The timing of these moves has been impeccable. The unorthodox acts may no longer work as expected but he is still capable of surprising scribes and fans alike.
This series could either be his swan song or the beginning of another golden chapter until the next T20 World Cup.
Whatever his fate, Indian cricket will always cherish ‘Captain Cool’ and his formidable achievements in the shorter versions of the game.
It’s extraordinary when one looks back that this is Dhoni’s 11th year as an international cricketer. It seems much longer. That’s the kind of impact he’s had both as captain and player. It’s also a tribute to his supreme levels of fitness that he has rarely missed series due to injury. He will be missed.
Go well, MS.