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.
Does position matter?
Coaches don’t seem to think so but players certainly do.
I know for certain—when playing my brand of gully cricket—I’d never open. Simply because I never felt comfortable facing the bowling right off, maybe because I wanted to have a dekko at the opposition first, or maybe simply there’d always be someone clamouring, “Hurry up and score some runs and get out; I want to bat too.”
That’s beside the point.
There’s a comfort factor associated with a player’s favoured position. That’s his lucky number.
Or that’s what he’s been accustomed to playing at or where for a long, long time. To move him around is a travesty of natural justice—to him.
Team Director, Ravi Shastri, the man who began at No.11 and batted his way up to No.1, does not believe that Indian batsmen can own a spot in the line-up. He feels that there’s a crying need for horses for courses. A player’s position will depend on the quality of the opposition.
“In this team, no one owns a batting position. It all depends on the situation. We will play horses for courses and see what the situation and the opposition demands. Accordingly, we will see what the best batting position in the side is for each batsman against that particular outfit and seeing the state of the series.”
Flexibility is the demanded norm. Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara responded splendidly scoring centuries at No.3 and No.1 respectively.
The ploy worked.
The original strategy, though, of having Rohit Sharma come in at No.3 has fallen flat.
Sharma oozes talent but he needs the extra protection and a long rope for him to succeed. There’s little doubt about his calibre. He needs some time to come into his own. His lazy elegance is his undoing, much like David Gower, but both batters would defiantly deny any such claims vigorously.
(The most technically adept player—after your openers, of course—should be No.3. In this side, it appears to fall upon either Pujara, Kohli or Rahane to fill this spot. Sharma is probably best at No. 4 or 5. In my opinion, you cannot have Rohit batting at that spot when the wicket’s a belter and then push him back when seamers make the ball talk and he fails. It’s just not fair to the others in the side.)
Former India hockey coach Arjun Halappa is on the players’ side when it comes to switching them around.
Paul Van Ass’ implementation of ‘Total Hockey’ is criticised as being too ‘harsh’.
“It’s very tough. When I started playing under (Jose) Brasa, I was a right winger and I was played as a central midfielder. I got really irritated at first, but gradually when I started to understand what the team wanted, I adjusted. But everyone can’t adjust.
I think it was too harsh on the part of Paul Van Ass to make those position changes straightaway in a big tournament (Hockey World League Semifinals). It could’ve been done gradually. Europeans have their own thinking, and they think they are always doing the right thing. But when they come to India, they have to understand the culture, language and players. You can’t just walk in and get things done the way you like.”
It differs from player to player. Every player needs to feel secure that he will not lose out when he’s moved to unfamiliar territory and where he may not immediately perform as expected. They deserve to be given some time to prepare and adjust. The challenge is mental. Visualization exercises with the team psychologist are not a bad idea.
Results will come when players are happy. Unhappy players are a dampener on performance and results. Process must take precedence.
Ajinkya Rahane is a quiet man.
He lets his bat do the talking and how his willow has conversed with the game and the fans over the past two years.
Ajinkya Rahane is a team-man.
He is in the Rahul Dravid mould.
Dropped in Bangladesh for not being suited to the ODI format and having a slower strike rate than his contemporaries, the Mumbaikar is now the stand-in skipper for the upcoming Zimbabwe tour in the absence of MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma.
Rahane—refreshingly—has no pretensions about his new role.
“The decision of naming me captain did come as a surprise because I wasn’t thinking about captaincy ever. I didn’t know how to react when I heard the news.
Once the news slowly began to sink in, I became really confident of handling this new responsibility.”
“Firstly, playing under MS Dhoni I would observe how he would be calm on the field. He has a very peculiar and calm way of handling situations. I would like to take that quality from him.
What I would like to take from Virat Kohli would be controlled aggression. You can see that quality in his batting and his captaincy.
And finally, Rahul bhai is someone who likes to keep things really simple on the field, which I got to know while playing under him with the Rajasthan Royals.
Having said that, I have my own set of ideas and I know what I have to do on the field.”
This is the first series for Team India since the re-framing of the ODI rules.
The changes are as follows:
The obvious effect is to reduce team totals. 400+ scores may once again become a thing of the past.
A return to a more traditional format implies that batsmen should eschew risk-taking and play to their strengths. Technique would be of paramount importance again. Spinners, of course, benefit with the extra fielder in the deep in the slog overs. Captains can be either offensive or defensive in the first 10 overs.
Murali Vijay, too, gets a chance to buttress his ODI credentials.
And the likes of Robin Uthappa and Kedar Jadhav can stake their claims to the wicketkeeper’s slot should Dhoni decide to quit sooner than later.
I suspect that it is this game of musical chairs that is of more salient interest to the selectors and the Indian think tank.
Other stories to follow are whether Manish Pandey, Ambati Rayudu or Manoj Tiwary can make a lasting impression. Opportunities to be in the full XI are few and far between.
Despite the absence of the main stalwarts, the squad is not a young lot with Harbhajan Singh leading the spinning trio.
Cheteshwar Pujara is missing from the above. He leads the India A side at home against Australia A.
Now Rahane, Vijay and Pujara may consider themselves hard-done by that they are not first choices whenever the ODI squad is chosen. They are labelled ‘Test specialists‘.
But , to be frank, is that really an injustice to the troika? Is it not an indicator of the selectors’ faith in them that despite the relatively fewer opportunities given them, they are penciled in ahead of the glory boys when it comes to the guts-and-gore version of the sport?
Being a Test player is the pinnacle of achievement. For Rahane, Vijay and Pujara to be considered head-and-shoulders above their counterparts should be a matter of pride and not despondency.
Class always tells.
It was the same old story all over again. Ishant Sharma, the hero of the Lords test, looked on dejectedly, while his teammates squandered all his hard work and repaid him with a Sisyphean task for the final Test—if it comes to that.
Sharma injured his ankle and will be sitting out the fourth Test as well.
His replacement, Pankaj Singh, proved to be an inadequate replacement. His time is past though he is a game trier. A few chances of this bowling went a begging but if Dhoni was brave and honest with himself, he would have admitted that Varun Aaron or Ishwar Pandey were better bets. You do not replace your main strike bowler with a medium-pace trundler.
Rohit Sharma’s entry into the squad in place of Stuart Binny upset the balance of the squad. Just four main bowlers and two-three part-time spinners is hardly the recipe for a side looking to seal the series.
The Indian skipper does not have a lot of trust in his top order and preferred to either go in with an extra batsman or a couple of all-rounders. This decision seemed sound in the first two tests in retrospect; it was the lower order that saved the team blushes in the first three innings.
It is time MS Dhoni had a hard look at his resources and what he’s trying to do with them.
Gambhir has the gumption and the patience to play long innings. Bring to mind his effort at Napier, New Zealand in 2009.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli stay. Class will tell.
Rohit Sharma goes out. The talented Mumbaikar has even his most ardent fans tearing their hair out in frustration; I am but one amongst them. Duncan Fletcher should have a quiet word with the young man and tell him that if this continues he will be touring a lot more—with the India ‘A’ side.
Dhoni continues and should back himself to the hilt about being aggressive with the bat.
At the start of the series, Dhoni said:
“I’ve realised that I have to be far more aggressive in my batting because I play much better that way than when I try to play like a proper batsman. It’s important to back your instincts and not think too much about the situation. I shouldn’t look to bat out time because there are other batsmen who can do that. If the ball is in my slot – whether it’s the first or the last – I should go for it.”
They were not the most heralded of the Indian bats when the series began. But they have quietly become the mainstays of the line-up.
Ravindra Jadeja, bat and moustache twirled, sits out. Ravichandra Ashwin comes in.
(How the selectors could overlook Amit Mishra and Praghyan Ojha for such an important series is anybody’s guess. Among the back-ups, are two wicket-keepers who may probably never get a game. It is effectively a 15-member squad.)
Varun Aaron and Ishwar Pandey lend much-needed support to Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami.
My side for Old Trafford:
Gautam Gambhir, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni, R Ashwin, B Kumar, M Shami, V Aaron and I Pandey.