Mahendra Singh Dhoni: Overrated Test captain of a dream team?
Is Dhoni the Test player really worth the hype he is getting?
Harbinger for a better future
As an overzealous Indian cricket fanatic, my fandom for Mahendra Singh Dhoni can be described, at best, as tumultuous. His emanation into Indian cricket was a breath of fresh air – a hard-hitting, fearless batsman from Jharkhand (who sported long locks and rode motorbikes at will) who was quickly lapped up by fans.
This was a time when Indian cricket was in a state of vile disarray under the coaching of Greg Chappell. A shameful World Cup 2007 exit later, Rahul Dravid surrendered the captaincy to this swashbuckling leader who led India to a victory in the inaugural T20 World Cup. Anil Kumble was quick to hand over the Test captaincy reigns as well, leaving Dhoni the unchained liberty to build an Indian team of his liking.
To young ardent fans like me, Dhoni was untouchable and undeserving of any sort of criticism, harbinger for a better future for Indian cricket that he was.
The transformation of MS Dhoni
The T20 World Cup victory transformed Dhoni – he chopped his locks and became everything Indian cricket needed in a captain, and a true ambassador for the sport. In the process, however, he the fearlessness that got him there. Somewhere around this period, I lost my infallible love for Dhoni, and it opened my probing eyes to the blind devotion he was showered with by most fans.
Not many record books or Wikipedia pages would record this, but Dhoni’s form was in a rut leading up to the 2011 World Cup; it continued to be that way throughout the tournament. The most annoying thing as a fan was to watch the touted world’s greatest finisher walk in, give singles to tail-enders during death overs and walk back with an unbeaten score that was a poor reflection of his talent, yet a handy addition to his batting average.
This was a time when Dhoni’s captaincy was in the spotlight way more than his batting or wicket-keeping, and he smugly cemented a place in the team because of it. As a critic at that time, my only solution to the whole problem was ‘hope he strikes form’ because there were no other plausible solutions.
In retrospect, people would just see the average of 50+ in ODIs and claim he was the greatest finisher in the world, and no one would remember that period of rust. This article is about his Test captaincy, but it was essential to point out this period in his ODI cricket history. Fans are fickle; all they need is a memorable knock in order to wipe out any memory of Dhoni’s struggles, which will only live on in memories and no record books.
His knock of 91 in the World Cup final was his only memorable knock in a long while, and while many devotees would exuberantly tell you he saved the match, his effort was a tad bit easier than what Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli put in at a moment when it looked like India would collapse. Dhoni’s single timely accomplishment eclipsed every failure and even other players’ contributions, and for a while, I didn’t care because he gave me the bona fide greatest moment in my cricketing fandom history.
Indian cricket’s untouchable golden boy
This preface was necessary in order to point out that I’m not a blind hater – I respect the man for everything he did for Indian cricket and truly believe he deserves a lot of the love. However, as it is with lost love, I also tend to be less lenient than his legions of fans who live in denial of his shortcomings. For the man had many, yet they were never scrutinized.
Test cricket was never his favourite, and it showed. With an unconventional technique not suited to weather the longer format, Dhoni’s batting, keeping and even captaincy were, unfortunately, disappointing.
In 30 away matches as Test captain, he has led India to victory in 6 of them played away from home. His overseas batting average as captain is 32 with a high score of 90. In fact, his overall batting record is rather poor for a batsman everyone touted as one of India’s best.
Fans play this off with the ‘middle order batsman’ excuse, but let’s remember that Tests are no ODIs, and given India’s bicycle-standesque top order, everyone got a fair chance to score in this team. For anyone still wanting to persist with that excuse, kindly look up Adam Gilchrist’s Test career.
It’s not inhuman to fail; it’s just absurdly irksome to watch his failures never get the scrutiny everyone else got. He was India’s golden boy, shielded by a mask of impassive leadership. This same mask obscured his persistence with Ravindra Jadeja, Suresh Raina, Murali Vijay, Mohit Sharma (all from Chennai Super Kings too, unsurprisingly) and other favourites despite numerous failures and when this persistence vanished for established legends like Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Sehwag, one of the world’s greatest openers, was dropped at the hint of a clash with Dhoni with his rollercoaster form given as the reason at a time when Dhoni himself was struggling.
Dhoni’s Test captaincy got mind-numbingly insipid and conservative, his keeping lethargic and batting clueless. His abysmal Test performances were engulfed by his ODI and T20 triumphs in a matter of weeks, and we would start afresh for the next series. No one could question his coveted spot, because if not Dhoni then who else?
Greatest? Not sure; Smartest? Most definitely
It’s important to showcase the difference in these emotions. The legacy of Dhoni will live on, but before we fall over in order to upgrade him to ‘god’ status, give him the same criticism the likes of Sachin Tendulkar got for every failure.
The age of 33 is no age to retire for a man who fans claim ‘was one of the greatest captains’. But Dhoni was, if not anything else, one of the smartest players to step onto the field. He stepped away the moment he knew he was beginning to overstay his welcome, and with Virat Kohli’s raw, aggressive approach standing in contrast to his meek defensive tactics, it wouldn’t be long before he was exposed bare.
So ended the era of Test cricket under Dhoni, taking with him laurels for the ages and criticism that will very soon fizzle out in retrospect.