It’s time for change at the helm

Dhoni has done Indian cricket proud but this is the Time of Kohli. The way needs to be cleared for him to take on the responsibility of ODI captaincy – and put his ideas and team-building projects to work.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's one-day captaincy should be handed to Virat Kohli as soon as possible as there is an urgent need for fresh ideas.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan have done a decent job and should continue to open.   -  PTI

The highest Ajinkya Rahane can bat is 4.   -  B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Suresh Raina can be a contender for the 4, 5 and 6 slots.   -  PTI

When, in an uncharacteristically testy response to an ODI series loss to Bangladesh earlier this year, Mahendra Singh Dhoni offered to “step away” from his ODI captaincy and “play as a player” if that would enable Indian cricket to do well, a number of retired Indian cricketers protested. They reminded fans, the news media, and presumably the selectors of Dhoni’s outstanding record as India’s captain. Sourav Ganguly and Sunil Gavaskar justly emphasised the need to “respect” this record. But there was a subtle difference in the courses of action they proposed. While Gavaskar’s concept of respect led him to the conclusion that the captaincy decision “should be left” to Dhoni and that nobody else should have any say in this, Ganguly made it clear that the issue of captaincy was “not an individual decision” and that it had to be carefully thought through and settled keeping “the long-term aspect in mind.”

The concept of respect has rich and varied meanings in philosophy as well as in everyday life. Cricket, like many other sports, has embraced this concept and even sought to give it a special place in its code of values. Thus the “Spirit of Cricket,” which now constitutes the Preamble to The Laws of Cricket, privileges “Respect for: Your opponents; Your own captain and team; The role of the umpires; The game and its traditional values.” Whether this moral injunction is actually respected on the cricket field, or honoured quite often in the breach, is another matter, which need not concern us here.

Dhoni has been involved in some off-field controversies, in particular in a conflict of interest situation arising from a stake he had while being captain in a sports management company, Rhiti Sports, which was managing current players. His role in the intersection between Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and India Cements has come under scrutiny. Although it emerged that he had made statements about Gurunath Meiyappan’s role in CSK that were at variance with the Justice Mudgal IPL Probe Committee’s conclusions, no finding of wrongdoing was recorded against him.

But when it comes to on-field behaviour and giving respect as demanded by the “Spirit of Cricket,” Dhoni has rarely, if ever, put a foot wrong. That itself is a considerable achievement for a man who has captained India in 60 Tests and 185 ODIs (up to the 4th South Africa v India ODI), carrying on his powerful shoulders an enormous burden of national expectation.

As in philosophy, in cricket too the concept of respect can mean different things to different people, nations, and cultures. In Australia especially but also in England, respecting a great cricketer certainly does not imply letting him be the sole decision-maker on when to “step away” from the captain’s job or from the international cricket field. When they think the time has arrived, selectors and sometimes other establishment figures do not hesitate to tell a great cricketer to his face, or at least send a clear message, that he is going to be replaced if he doesn’t step down or away.

Virtually every successful Australian captain in recent memory, right up to Michael Clarke, has encountered this moment of truth, the near-final intimation of cricketing death.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II, scene 2.)

Smart captains and cricketers pick up the message when it is being whispered behind closed walls. Instead of suffering death by a thousand cuts at the hands of selectors, the cricket establishment, and the media, they step away near the natural end but at a time of their choosing. Greg Chappell (in January 1984) and Gavaskar (in March 1987), true valiants, did just that in magnificent style. As recently as December 2013, the great Jacques Kallis did this with an assured Test century against India in Kingsmead, Durban.

Ganguly and Gavaskar were both right in counselling against hasty reactions to what happened in Bangladesh. More important, Ganguly was right in envisaging a process of cool and objective decision-making on the ODI captaincy, keeping the longer term in mind. But Gavaskar was surely wrong when he asserted that “out of sheer respect for the man,” the captaincy decision “should be left to him” alone.

It is unlikely that Dhoni, a natural philosopher among cricketers, as stoic as they come on the cricket field, would want to hang on to his ODI captaincy at a time the whispers are getting louder and gathering force, and not just behind closed walls. The time of Virat Kohli – a fresh, aggressive, and upstanding leader with ideas of his own, going by the half-a-dozen times he has captained India in Tests – seems to have arrived. The transition can wait no longer and it is best that it happens as soon as this ODI home series is done, no matter who wins the decider at Mumbai.

It would be best of course if Dhoni stepped down as ODI captain on his own. But if this does not happen, the selectors must not hesitate to go for the big change. In either event, Dhoni’s continuing productivity and resourcefulness as a batsman, who is even now capable of playing a match-winning innings, as he showed in the second ODI in Indore, and his dependable wicket-keeping – will entitle him to play on under captain Kohli.

The case for retaining Dhoni as captain

A case may be made for retaining Dhoni as India’s ODI captain through the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy to the 2019 ICC World Cup, both of which will be hosted by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Interestingly, he will be celebrating his 38th birthday during the World Cup. After all, Dhoni partisans might point out, didn’t Sachin Tendulkar play his last ODI at the age of 39 and his last Test when he was past 40? But then Tendulkar was not captain – was never a good one – although he often led by example and shouldered a burden of expectations as heavy as Dhoni’s during his world-beating playing career.

It can be agreed straightaway that Dhoni walks into any ODI eleven India, which is currently No. 2 in the ICC rankings, can put together – on sheer batting performance. His ODI career batting average (52.41) and strike rate (89.09), maintained over 235 innings, is right up there with Kohli’s (50.92 and 89.48), achieved over 157 innings. His 2015 ODI batting average (47.15) and strike rate (86.58), taken together, are superior to Kohli’s (38.50 and 80.31), and second only to Rohit Sharma’s comparable numbers (53.26 and 95.80).

When it comes to the captaincy record of international cricketers who have led their teams in 100 ODIs or more, the numbers tell only part of the story. Ricky Ponting is at the top of the list, with a winning percentage of 76.14, and there are five others – Hansie Cronje, Steve Waugh, Vivian Richards, Wasim Akram, and Allan Border – who place above Dhoni, who has a decent enough winning percentage of 60.34.

Captaincy is one variable that is acknowledged by everyone who knows the game to make a difference. But how much of a difference? “In cricket,” observes Mike Brearley in The Art of Captaincy (1985), “the role of the captain has been consistently underrated in recent years. This should hardly surprise us. We have been living in an era in which the measurable has increasingly become the predominant mode of valuation.” The influence of a leader, while continuous, is “elusive.” What Brearley means by this is that, besides tangible factors such as selection, field placing, the organisation of practice, and the handling of dressing room situations, there are “the less tangible effects which arise from the personality and attitude of captain and coach.” It is these intangible effects that represent the creative side of leadership in cricket.

Today with data-driven analysis and planning at work for every game, and instant ‘expert’ wisdom pouring out of television on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ captaincy even for a short period of play, it can hardly be said that the role of captains is underestimated. Michael Clarke’s Test captaincy, Dhoni’s (and, more recently, also Brendon McCullum’s) ODI leadership – these have been rated by peers as among the best in the business. But no captaincy quotient has yet been discovered by cricket’s data analysts and statisticians, so assessing the difference that good, mediocre, and bad captains make to the fortunes of their teams must remain, largely, a subjective exercise.

Why the change must happen now

To test my own impressions and emerging conclusions, I put the case for retaining Dhoni as ODI captain as robustly as I could to a London-based NRI friend, a cricket aficionado who is clear that valuable time has been lost and the transition must be effected urgently.

I reproduce here his composite email response, which is interesting and, in the final analysis, persuasive and even compelling:

“To me building a one-day team should be in four-year cycles with a view towards having a settled team a year before a World Cup and peaking at the World Cup. The first 18 months after a World Cup are meant to experiment with some new names as some of those who played the last World Cup won’t be in the reckoning (based on their age) for the tournament four years later. India has done precious little of this in the last six months after this year’s World Cup.

“Averages are a good indicator but at certain positions strike rates and the ability to hit boundaries with today’s rule changes matter too. And one doesn’t want homogeneity through the batting order.

“Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Rahane, and Kohli give you that to a certain extent while the old line-up of SRT, Sehwag, Kohli, Dhoni, and Yuvraj gave you a lot more flexibility and variation. There is a need to bring some of this back into this line-up now, in preparation for the 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup.

“Some thoughts from me:

1. Rohit and Dhawan have done a decent job and should continue to open. Rohit, for all his faults, is one of the few guys who can win a game on his own and his scores of 150+ indicate that.

2. Kohli’s preferred position is 3 and he’s got to bat there. The only exception is if an early wicket falls when we are batting first; then we can consider someone like Rahane. In the first ODI [against South Africa], we were 42 when the first wicket fell and MSD sends Rahane in, which is ridiculous. Kohli needs to be the number 3. Form in bilateral ODIs is just one indicator to me.

3. Given points 1 and 2, the highest Rahane can bat is 4. I’m not sure he’s the best there, although there aren’t that many alternatives. We are top heavy with a weak middle order.

4. The biggest difference in today’s team compared with the previous team is lack of power. We’ve lost Sehwag and Yuvraj who were incredible players on their day and could destroy bowling in the shorter formats. In addition, MSD’s power hitting has taken a dive – we saw some of it during the World Cup -- and I think he’s not the same player today. Like Srikkanth earlier, Sehwag recently, I think players who rely on hand-eye coordination and a natural instinct lose it quicker and more suddenly. When it goes, it goes and there’s no technique to fall back on. MSD, I think, is in this camp currently. In addition, do you see him playing in the 2019 World Cup? I don’t. So I think it’s time for him to make way. He’s a huge hole to fill but I think it needs to be done with the next World Cup in mind. One-day form in the interim is less important.

5. Who are the possible power players? Manish Pandey looks excellent every time I see him and I think it’s time to give him a run at number 5. I like him a lot and he’s a bit like Rohit Sharma. Who can replace MSD? MSD’s primary role in ODIs is as a finisher and batsman and not as a keeper. The pure keepers aren’t candidates for ODIs, given their batting – Naman Ohja may be an exception. I would give Robin Uthappa a go. He’s a power player and can keep. So 4, 5, 6 can be from Manish Pandey, Rahane, Rayudu, Uthappa, and Raina. To the list of newcomers, I would add Gurkeerat Singh [Mann].

“The big message is we can continue with some people but must replace the power hitting that this line-up has lost. Kohli has to bat at 3. There is a need for new power players at 5 and 6 as Kohli needs power players at the end to help him guide a chase. MSD was doing this but is losing his power.”

Questions of context and priority

While this analysis is entirely sound and the conclusion persuasive, I would like to make two additional observations – one contextual, the other a point about cricketing priorities, which needs to be made whenever India and ODIs, as distinct from Australia and ODIs, or South Africa and ODIs, are seriously discussed.

The first observation relates to my London-based friend’s proposition, stated in the form of an axiom, that “building a one-day team should be in four-year cycles with a view towards having a settled team a year before a World Cup and peaking at the World Cup.” There is a substantial literature on how the cricket World Cup has evolved over four decades into the Great Game that every cricket-playing nation wants to play more than anything else.

“Test cricket is the gold standard” amongst the three formats, Rahul Dravid observed in his 2011 Bradman Oration with a mixture of transparent sincerity and pragmatism, but “the 50-over game is the one that has kept cricket’s revenues alive for more than three decades now.” Professional cricketers are essentially pragmatists with an eye to the main chance; they have no difficulty in reconciling, and establishing compatibility between, international cricket’s three formats, which are actually three different games. This apart, most cricketers genuinely believe that the one-day game has had an overall positive impact on how Test cricket is played today. We need not look beyond the astonishing repertoire of just one superstar of the contemporary game, AB de Villiers, to recognize the truth, or at least a modicum of it, behind this belief.

On the other side, there is a shrinking body of purists who recognize only Test cricket as real international cricket and have no time for the shorter formats. An Australian friend who has been deeply involved in Labour politics and cricket administration over the years never refers to ODIs and T20 Internationals as anything other than “the rubbish” and makes it a point of principle not to watch them live or on television. This is going too far but I must confess I feel closer to this school of cricket valuation than to those who have scant interest in an ICC Test Championship but regard the ODI World Cup as the platinum standard.

A point needs to be made here about context. While Test cricket follows its own, exclusively bilateral course, with some countries taking it more seriously than others, it is the World Cup that is seen to provide context for ODIs. It is true that too many ODIs are played “without context” and the 50-over format appears at times to have lost its way. However, I am not entirely convinced that bilateral or trilateral ODI series must be seen essentially as a means to an end, as different points in a four-yearly progression towards success at the World Cup. Soccer at the international level can afford to do something like that; after all, it is the same game, with the same laws and rules, that is played wherever and whenever it is staged. But for cricket, meaningful context can come from playing a keenly contested series with an evenly matched team, like the current ODI home series, or from faring well against a higher-ranked team in an away series.

Re-setting priorities

Finally, this is a period of promised reform for Indian cricket. A re-set of cricketing priorities must be an integral part of this reform. There can be little doubt that despite India’s fairly recent but sadly short-lived No. 1 ranking in Test cricket, the unhealthy obsession with success in the shorter formats has contributed to the decline of spectator interest in Tests, which is evident and in-your-face in virtually every Test-playing venue. The hyper-commercialisation that inevitably comes with ODIs and T20 games in the Indian context has taken a heavy toll of the game in every sense.

It is not that India does not play a fair number of Tests at home and away. But Table 2 that accompanies this article reveals a subtle difference in cricketing priorities among the major contenders. Assuming that a lower ODI-Test ratio is desirable for the game we love, we can see that Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India have had the unhealthiest ratios over the past decade and also over the past half-decade. The BCCI under the stewardship of Shashank Manohar would do well to bring this ratio down to below 2 for the good of our cricket and our cricketers.

The Dhoni era is nearing its end. His long-term contribution as a player and captain in all formats has been outstanding. The story of his social origins, his rise to stardom, his physical strength, his courage, his inventiveness, his resilience, his equanimity, the strength of his character sends out a powerful message to young people everywhere in India who are interested in making a career out of sports. Dhoni clearly has more cricket left in him, in the shorter formats. He will surely lead India in the ICC World Twenty20 that will be played at home next year. If he wishes, he can play on in ODIs by dint of continuing performance. But this is the time of Kohli and the way needs to be cleared for him to take on the responsibility of ODI captaincy – and put his ideas and team-building projects to work.

>Click to view: Vital statistics

>Click to view: Most Tests and ODIs