Virat Kohli must be ready to do a Dhoni to Dhoni
Ever since I started watching cricket, the one player who influenced and inspired me the most was MS Dhoni. India, of course, had produced plenty of great cricketers and captains before who had served the nation with excellence in their capacities, but there was something about Dhoni.
The man had this knack of landing trophies in world events on a consistent basis. It was a breath of fresh air for me, a mid 90s kid who had frustratingly cried himself to sleep on endless occasions in the past when the team under Sourav Ganguly failed to cross the final hurdle time and time again.
Apart from being tactically brilliant in white ball cricket and a master of gambles, Dhoni was a steel-tough character when it came to making decisions, which had a great probability of turning unpopular among the fans.
Whether it was sidelining Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly completely from India’s ODI plans very early in his reign or dropping the ODI superstars like Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir from the Champions Trophy squad only a couple of years after India’s World Cup triumph, Dhoni didn’t hesitate a wee bit, despite knowing pretty well that neither of those decisions was going to be embraced by the Indian cricketing fraternity.
As a limited-overs captain, one of Dhoni’s remarkable traits was that he was a great believer in building the team around youngsters and was not willing to give any aging cricketer an extended run once he felt that the cricketer had run out of fuel and had nothing significant to offer to the team in the format.
But life has now come full circle for Dhoni. After captaining India overwhelmingly well in limited-overs cricket for 9 years, he has passed the baton to Virat Kohli and is himself in the position of that “ageing cricketer” who is a subject of much debate.
The way Dhoni batted in the ODI series against England was alarming. Not for the opposition, but for India. The tempo of ODI cricket has changed in the last 5-7 years. Unlike in the 2000s when the middle overs were all about consolidation, teams are now starting to accelerate in that period.
Dhoni’s prime weakness as a limited-overs batsman has been his inability to rotate the strike early on. He takes plenty of time to get himself going before blasting the opposition at the death. While that approach was workable in the late 2000s when the par score used to hover around 290-300, it has become a flawed approach in modern day ODI cricket where the par scores have shifted in the range of 350s.
Dhoni’s experience and temperament still make him a very tempting option and watching him bat of late, it doesn’t seem as if he has run out of fuel. He can still smash the fast bowlers and hasn’t gone tentative against bounce which is often the case with players in their late 30s as the reflexes get slow.
But his World Cup spot shouldn’t be sealed just yet. Virat Kohli has been ruthlessly backing Dhoni since succeeding him as captain and to be fair, Dhoni has repaid his faith every now and then by playing some valuable knocks here and there, but there is no denying the fact that there has been a drastic decline in his authority as an ODI batsman.
After how Rishabh Pant fared in this year’s IPL and in the 5th Test against England recently and the way Dinesh Karthik has gone about his business in white ball cricket in the last one year, it’s only fair to say India have a couple of players waiting in the wings to pounce on the finishers’ role if there are any up for grabs.
That the team management trusts Dhoni to the core and believes that he has a pivotal role to play in the World cup is all fine, but there is no way Dhoni can continue to bat like he did in England and can still continue to be a part of the ODI side with somebody like Pant sitting outside.
Dhoni’s legacy as captain is built around the fact that he never compromised in selections when it came to building the team for world events. That legacy will take a severe knock if he goes into the next World Cup not deserving a place in the squad.
While Dhoni must judge himself exactly in the fashion he judged the other aging players during his captaincy stint, Kohli also needs to be ready to do a Dhoni to Dhoni. The skipper must be ruthless enough to convey to his predecessor that he feels somebody else can do a better job in his role, if he indeed feels so.
In the opinion of many people including my own, Dhoni still has got enough for the World Cup. He smoked sixes for fun in the IPL, but after an awful England tour, he will have to up his game in the Asia Cup and most importantly will have to revisit his approach. He must respect the fact that something which might have worked well for him in ODIs before is not working anymore as the nature of the format has changed.
Dhoni can’t afford a dismal Asia Cup. The kind of aura he carries, the selectors might still keep him in the squad, but it won’t be justified by any stretch. If I am Rishabh Pant, I would absolutely hate being kept out the Indian ODI XI if Dhoni doesn’t come up with good returns in the Emirates.