Examining why MS Dhoni's Test captaincy could not reach his limited-overs success
Right at the end of 2014, MS Dhoni took the country by surprise when he suddenly announced his retirement from Tests. The decision was symbolic of the man in many ways – enigmatic and nonchalant in the same breath.
Often pulling off the trickiest of chases or defending meager totals in ODIs as well as T20Is, Dhoni decided that he was done with the rigours of red-ball cricket. If one were to go purely by numbers, the wicket-keeper batsman has led India to more Test victories than any other skipper. However, Indian captains are almost always judged by their overseas records.
In that regard, the Ranchi-born cricketer receives considerable flak. When not presented with turning pitches or in-form bowlers, Dhoni has looked short of ideas and subsequently resorted to inexplicable tactics.
Catching opponent teams by surprise may work in limited-overs cricket unlike in Tests where picking 20 wickets is the primary aim. The 34-year old’s serene mode of operation fits perfectly in the shorter formats, particularly in ICC events.
Time and again, Dhoni has masterminded victories in crucial ODI/T20I matches by setting traps for specific opposition batsmen and waiting for them to fall right into it. This approach enabled him to capture a World Cup, World T20 and Champions Trophy each.
Even in the sport’s traditional format, the stalwart has had his share of success. After taking over the captaincy on a permanent basis from November 2008, Dhoni did not lose a Test series until August 2011. During that term, India defeated New Zealand and held South Africa to a 1-1 draw away. The all-round consistency helped them to the top spot in the rankings and the accompanying Test mace.
Of plummeting away fortunes and inclination towards the shorter formats
The problems arose during the English summer of 2011 when India arrived for a highly anticipated showdown. Having won the Test series during their previous tour under Rahul Dravid's captaincy, expectations were sky high on Dhoni’s side.
But, things took a disastrous turn when the experienced Zaheer Khan injured himself on the very first day of the trip. Dhoni found the lighter side of the situation by rolling his arm over in an attempt to become the team’s fourth bowler. England eventually obliterated them in a one-sided affair.
Worse times were to follow with the visitors getting whitewashed 4-0 again, this one in Australia. An aging unit was dismantled without any mercy and he was perilously close to being sacked as skipper.
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The common denominator in both tours was the impotency of the bowling attack and a lack of will to fight out tough phases. Dhoni had no answers on how to goad his bowlers to deliver the breakthroughs during vital moments. As a consequence, the game was allowed to drift farther and farther away from the Indians.
Admittedly, it was not the first time that India were thoroughly outplayed in overseas conditions. However, considering the reputation of the men involved, those defeats could not just be brushed under the carpet.
The following home season saw them conceding a series to England after 28 years which officially signaled crisis. Interestingly, Dhoni played down the predicament and instead claimed that the pattern of losses did not hurt as much as the group stage exit in the 2007 World Cup.
While many cricket aficionados in the country felt that his statements rubbed salt into their wounds, Dhoni's preference towards the limited-overs formats evoked a bigger question. Was IPL and business dynamics changing the priorities of senior Indian players? Nevertheless, he restored some sanity to the proceedings by demolishing Australia by a 4-0 margin which also made it the first time that India had won more than three Tests in a single series.
After the retirement of the iconic Sachin Tendulkar, the dressing room comprised of a promising bunch still finding their feet in a format that Dhoni christened as ‘days cricket’. The circumstances called for a more pro-active leader who was willing to lead from the front.
Just as it appeared to be improbable, India somehow squandered dominant positions in Johannesburg and Wellington. Though he shepherded his side to a famous triumph at Lords, ‘Captain Cool’ was caught in the crossfire of a grueling transition period.
In contrast, the limited-overs side fared much better due to a simple reason. The core part of the batting line-up was fairly settled and the right-hander had the services of a bowling combination which repeatedly punched above its weight. His strategy of choking the opposition by setting defensive fields were in sync with the bowlers’ limitations.
When the younger and aggressive Virat Kohli opted to go for a daunting chase on a spitting Adelaide track, it became apparent that Dhoni’s clock was ticking. Dispelling the need for a farewell Test nor a eulogy, he wound up his whites at the MCG on 90 matches.
Perhaps, Dhoni’s captaincy can be summed up by utilizing one of Harsha Bhogle’s intriguing quotes – “Sometimes your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness if the context changes.” His patient and ingenious style of leading a cricket team triggered a revolution in the limited-overs formats. However, the same approach might have also prevented him from leaving behind an enviable legacy in Tests.