Why the series against New Zealand would be crucial for MS Dhoni
Dhoni is entering the final phase of his career and the New Zealand will be a key test of his captaincy and his batting.
Among the myriad applications of the Bell Curve, many studies suggest that the mythical popularity of an athlete is always inversely proportional to his current form. There are innumerable instances of the popularity of great players. Virat Kohli would be a suitable example.
But 'mythical' is the operative word here. In other words, by the time the popularity of a legendary athlete reaches mythic status, the aura of myth around him, based on his past contributions, makes it easy to overlook his current form. His achievements that propelled him to legendary status now make him untouchable.
The particular study with the Bell Curve also suggests that by the time this mythic popularity of a legend is on the rise, his performances have already reached the zenith and are on the decline. A good example in this regard would be MS Dhoni.
The recently released biopic on Dhoni that has now crossed the 100-crore mark in the box office, is a good exercise in myth-making; while it sells to us the dream of liberalisation in highlighting how a poor, small-town boy became one of the biggest brands of cricket, it conveniently leaves out the controversies and the decline in Dhoni's form.
It is ironical that while the filmmaker and producers are laughing their way to the box office, Dhoni, the cricketer is actually struggling for form. Hardly a day goes by without speculation about his retirement and questions about whether he can hold up performances till the next World Cup.
The decline in form
A brief glimpse at the numbers might not be enough to tell you the complete story. Dhoni still averages 51.25 in ODIs and 35.87 in T20Is for India. For someone who hardly bats above no. 6, those numbers are impressive, to say the least.
Combine with it the fact that Dhoni has scored 8918 ODI runs and that is some serious contribution by a no. 6, who plays as a finisher. Not to mention the fact that he is also the wicket-keeper and the captain of the team.
But going by Dhoni's record till date, is once again a mistake of dwelling in the past, only to ignore his current form. In the last 28 ODIs from January 2015, Dhoni has only scored 726 runs and scored four half centuries. Out of these matches, Dhoni did not bat on six occasions and stayed not out in three matches.
His last century came against Australia at Mohali when he scored 139 back in 2013. Most importantly, Dhoni's finishing abilities are waning and he is beginning to make costly mistakes.
At Kanpur last year, Rohit Sharma's 150 had almost propelled India to a successful chase but they fell agonisingly short of the South African total of 303 by five runs. All hopes had rested on Dhoni but he failed, having scored a 30-ball 31, unable to have answers to Kagiso Rabada's brilliant death bowling.
In Birmingham a couple of years ago, with India needing 17 off 7 balls, he played a bizarre knock, not trusting Rayudu to do the job. Needless to say, India lost. In Harare this year, in the T20I against Zimbabwe, Dhoni chose to leave the job to Axar Patel and Rishi Dhawan even when 8 runs were required off the last over. Dhoni stayed not out on 19 off 17 balls as India fell short by 2 runs.
In the T20I against the West Indies at Lauderhill this August, India fell agonisingly short by one run while chasing a total of 245. K.L. Rahul's century had set India en route a seemingly successful run chase and his partnership with Dhoni was extremely crucial.
Yet, the captain faltered at the end. With eight runs required off the last over, Dhoni once again decided to work the ones and twos till he was caught off the last ball.
Dhoni as the classic finisher has known all along how to take the match to the last over, to delay pulling the trigger and the perfect timing of delivering the punch. Ironically, as his skills begin to desert him, this delay is proving to be his death as Dhoni now does not know when to deliver the blow.
He trusts others to do the job and even when the time comes, the situation gets too big on him and he fails to remain unruffled as he used to be. For a man who re-defined the art of finishing, it is painful to see Dhoni falter and flounder, doubting himself at the art which was his biggest strength till date.
Questionable captaincy decisions
The upcoming series against New Zealand would be of utmost importance for M.S. Dhoni. With cries of Virat Kohli to take over the captaincy gaining momentum, Dhoni will have to make a strong case for himself to re-earn some of the lost favour.
Despite the likes of Kohli and Rohit Sharma having been in belligerent form, India under Dhoni have largely struggled in the 50-over format since 2014. India went victory-less in the tri-series against England and Australia leading up to the World Cup.
India did play some splendid cricket in the World Cup but had an ignominious semi-final exit when they were expected to at least reach the final. The Men in Blue were then humiliated by Bangladesh and then lost a series to South Africa. 2016 continued in the same vein with India losing 1-4 to Australia.
From being a maverick, fearless skipper who famously gambled with throwing the ball to Joginder Sharma in the last over of the World T20 final in 2007, Dhoni has become a reactive, stubborn captain who rigidly sticks to his beliefs even in the face of impending failure.
His strange decisions include giving the long rope to Shikhar Dhawan despite his 16-match streak of single-digit scores in the T20Is in 2015-16, snubbing Irfan Pathan for his franchise in this season of the IPL and his reluctance to try out youngsters like Jayant Yadav and Jaydev Unadkat in the ODI series in Zimbabwe.
And strangely enough, Manish Pandey, who was universally hailed for his match-winning innings in Australia, faced only one ball in the ODI series against Zimbabwe while Ambati Rayudu, who only finds places whenever India sends in a second-string side, regularly batted at no. 3.
The IPL was also a good yardstick of an obvious decline in Dhoni's prowess as a captain as he failed to bring in the tactical changes and his franchise had a forgettable outing this season.
On too many occasions recently, Dhoni has failed to remain unfazed of the situation and had rare emotions, perhaps giving away the fact that he is losing control as the captain.
His decline of form on-field has also witnessed his decline of relationship with the press, as he has expressed his distaste or open contempt for journalists, including the infamous incident involving an Australian journalist after he had popped the retirement question to Dhoni after India's semi-final exit from the World Cup.
Why the India-New Zealand series would be vital
As Dhoni's cricketing stocks continue to plummet, Kohli's star is undoubtedly on the rise. The Indian Test captain, who has been the country's best batsman for some time now, is currently in the form of his life. His good performances with the bat have translated into his successes as a captain.
Under Kohli, India have won the Test series against Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand, ascending to the number 1 rank in Tests. With Kohli's passion and aggressive outlook proving to be infectious, there is a strong consensus that Dhoni's laid-back style is now a passé.
The series against New Zealand would, therefore, be of utmost importance for Dhoni as the skipper. If inside sources are to be believed, Dhoni had all but lost his captaincy back in 2012 when N. Srinivasan used his veto power to prevent the change. With the tide in favour of Kohli at this moment, a change of guard now looks inevitable, if not immediately imminent.
And it actually will not be a bad thing. From the World T20 to the Champions Trophy, the World Cup and the IPL, Dhoni, the captain has won absolutely everything. It would be apt to let India plan for the next World Cup under Kohli's stewardship while Dhoni – without the added responsibility – can play freely.
And play freely he must if he wants to salvage his career as a player at his crucial juncture. The greatest adjustment that Dhoni must make now is to give up the role of a finisher and bat higher up the order. With his finishing skills in steady decline, his penchant for building the innings and great running between the wickets makes him suitable as a good middle order batsman.
In fact, every time Dhoni has had more time to build his innings, he has performed well in the recent past. Be it the memorable knock in the 2011 World Cup final, or his unbeaten 92 against South Africa in the second ODI at Indore last year, Dhoni has scored runs whenever he has given himself more time in the middle.
His averages go up as he bats higher up the order - he averages 53.80 at no. 5, 60.61 at no. 4 and a little short of 78 at no. 3. With youngsters like Manish Pandey and Hardik Pandey coming up, it's high time Dhoni gave up the finisher's role to give himself more time in the middle.
It is agonising to be able to accept that you can no longer do what you have been famous for all your life. For Dhoni, the fact that he now cuts quite a sorry figure as a finisher might be too difficult to come to terms with. Yet, stubbornness and hubris cannot assert their sway when one's career is at an important crossroads.
One look at Dhoni's innings building ability will tell you that he still remains a vital cog in the Indian batting wheel. Come important tournaments like the Champions Trophy or the World Cup, Dhoni's experience will be invaluable in a team filled with youngsters.
It is the adaptability of a sportsman that always ascertains his longevity. Tendulkar reduced his backlift and cut down on his flourishing stroke-play the end of the career. Maverick wingers and attackers in football drop back to the midfield at the end of the career.
The mind must be ready to accommodate these subtle tactical and positional changes at the bidding of the ageing body.