Dhoni still has a lot left in the tank

Ever since his retirement from Test cricket, the questions around Dhoni’s presence in the limited-overs sides have grown louder. It is true Dhoni is not the batsman he once was. However, the 35-year-old demonstrated in Mohali that he still had plenty to offer with the bat. And Ranchi’s favourite son is unspeakably brilliant behind the stumps.

Dhoni's waning ability to clear the ropes and his supposed decline as a 'finisher', have been used as arguments to suggest he should consider retirement.   -  K. R. Deepak

It must not be forgotten that even at 35, Dhoni is unspeakably brilliant behind the stumps. He is capable, as that run-out of New Zealander Ross Taylor in the fourth ODI proved, of moments of magic.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

Wriddhiman Saha, India's wicketkeeper in Tests, is touted to take over from Dhoni once he hangs up his gloves. The Bengal 'keeper, however, is not in Dhoni's league.   -  AP

When Mahendra Singh Dhoni walked out to bat, in the second ODI against Bangladesh in Mirpur last year, it was the first time in 35 months that he had emerged at two-drop. Dhoni made a laboured 75-ball-47 that afternoon, as India was bundled out for 200, a score that Bangladesh easily overhauled to register its first one-day series win over its neighbour.

Despite all the tumult over the historic nature of that Indian defeat, the captain’s decision to promote himself up the order did not go unnoticed. “I would like to bat slightly up the order so I can play a bit more freely,” he said later. “In the last four-five years, I have batted at 6, and there is always some kind of pressure or the other, so I have not been able to bat freely. Yes, I have adapted to what the team needed of me since 2006, but for the longer run it is important for us to see who is a good batter at 6, 7, or maybe even 5.”

Recently, that conversation resurfaced when Dhoni pushed himself up to No. 4 again, during the third ODI against New Zealand in Mohali. The skipper made a 91-ball-80, stitching together a crucial 151-run partnership with Virat Kohli, as India won by seven wickets.

“I have batted lower down for a long time, I think 200 innings down the order. To some extent, I am losing my ability to freely rotate in the middle, so I have decided to bat up and let others finish,” he said afterwards.

Ever since his retirement from Test cricket, the questions around Dhoni’s presence in the limited-overs sides have grown louder. His waning ability to clear the ropes and his supposed decline as a ‘finisher’, have been used as arguments to suggest he should consider retirement.

It is true Dhoni is not the batsman he once was. Over the last two years, he has averaged 38.25, against a career average of over 50. Before his unbeaten 92 against South Africa in Indore last October, Dhoni had gone two and a half years without a man-of-the-match award. The previous time that honour had come his way was in the memorable final of the tri-series in the West Indies, where Dhoni was at his unflappable best. The man-of-the-match trophy is not, in itself, hugely important, but to look back at the finale of that game against Sri Lanka is to be reminded of Dhoni’s abilities as a match-winner, and how long it has been since we saw him single-handedly haul India to victory.

But the 35-year-old demonstrated in Mohali that he still had plenty to offer with the bat. He manoeuvred the ball into gaps, ran frightfully hard between the wickets with Kohli, and when the chance presented itself, launched the ball over the boundary.

“We were having a conversation in the team management about the things we want to do. One of the things was for me to play free cricket,” he said afterwards.

“Often when you’re batting down the order, you can’t play free cricket. The reason is the situation demands that you build some kind of partnership. I felt No. 4 was an ideal position where I can go and express myself.”

In January this year, in the aftermath of the ODI series defeat to Australia, Dhoni was asked — somewhat rudely — why his magic as a ‘finisher’ was not working anymore. “Yes, it is my responsibility (to finish games), it’s my job and I’ll always take it. But at the same time, there will be times when I won’t finish the job.

The others have also come to play — it’s not like there is a ‘tika’ on my forehead, because I’m batting lower down, that says, ‘Oh, he’s there so we have won the match.’ It doesn’t happen like that. If someone bowls a good yorker, he bowls a good yorker. You can’t hit it for six. Sometimes people complain that I haven’t hit a helicopter shot — but if there’s a bouncer, how will anyone hit a helicopter shot!” he responded.

The captain admitted, unflustered, that number six was not his ideal position anymore. He intended to move up the order to four for good, he said, but was hamstrung by the lack of options at 5, 6, and 7. “Till we don’t get a settled five, six and seven, I’ll have to bat lower down the order,” he stated that day in Sydney.

“I find it a bit difficult to go in and play the big shot and more often than not, I’ve batted after the 30th over. (But) I think that will be my responsibility, because I don’t see any other youngster doing that job. I would love to bat up the order, but I don’t see it happening.”

India still does not have a settled five, six and seven. Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Axar Patel, Ambati Rayudu, Suresh Raina, Stuart Binny, Gurkeerat Singh and Ravindra Jadeja, along with Dhoni, have all been tried in various combinations in these positions in the last 18 months. What, then, has prompted Dhoni’s change of heart on the matter between January and now?

Part of the reason for the re-think appears to be Anil Kumble’s arrival as coach.

India now has only three ODIs left before next year’s Champions Trophy: only three matches to settle on a first XI. Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav are still new to international cricket, while Suresh Raina last played an ODI over a year ago (and was then dropped). This New Zealand series was, thus, an opportunity to see how moving Dhoni up to four worked. It was better to get the best out of a “free” Dhoni and have a solid top four, the management felt, and experiment lower down the order.

Now, matters have not been helped by Manish Pandey’s failure to take his chances and Raina’s illness. The return to fitness of K. L. Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan will offer more options, though.

Any discussion on Dhoni’s exit, however, should first answer the question of not who will replace Dhoni, the batsman, but who will replace Dhoni, the wicketkeeper-batsman. It must not be forgotten that even at 35, Ranchi’s favourite son is unspeakably brilliant behind the stumps. He is capable, as that run-out of Ross Taylor in the fourth ODI proved, of moments of magic. During the course of his innings in Mohali, Dhoni became only the third wicketkeeper-batsman in the history of ODI cricket to complete 9000 runs. As decent as Wriddhiman Saha is, he is not in Dhoni’s league; and lest we forget, the Bengal ’keeper is already 32.

It is easy to demand change, but it’s often wiser to find ways to accommodate a good man than find ways to leave him out.