Missing — Dhoni, the finisher

For long, Dhoni has been the quintessential slogger, someone who can swagger in, with the team in trouble, and swagger out, with yet another win for India. That swagger has been missing. In fact, the last time Dhoni executed the role was exactly a year ago...

MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, India

CHANGING TIMES: Since that match-winning innings of 92 against South Africa in Indore in 2015, Dhoni hasn't scored a half-century even as Kohli has racked up seven in nine games, becoming the team's go-to man.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

Two of the fastest runners in world cricket, with a world of experience playing together, undecided about a tight single in a match where they had all the time in the world to complete the win, resulting in a run-out: It wasn't expected.

It was also not the way Mahendra Singh Dhoni would have wanted to come back to action after a four-month break following the Zimbabwe tour but perhaps it was an indication that Dhoni's era as the ultimate finisher in Indian cricket might be fading.

For long, he has been the quintessential slogger, someone who can swagger in, with the team in trouble, and swagger out, with yet another win for India. That swagger has been missing. In fact, the last time Dhoni executed the role was exactly a year ago, against South Africa in Indore (top-scoring with an unbeaten 92 in 86 balls).

Hunt for the successor

No wonder, then, that the Indian team and Dhoni himself has been talking about finding a successor. It isn't easy, as Dhoni is the first to admit. “You have to see the consistency of players, which is one of the most difficult things in cricket. It's not for just six months or one year, you have to get used to the role and the responsibility and have to have the confidence to keep on doing what is required of you over a period of time,” he said here.

That consistency has been the key factor behind trying out several names in the role, with little success. Suresh Raina was for long considered the heir apparent, before his form deserted him, while Yuvraj Singh was the original hitman before Dhoni turned up.

Hardik Pandya, after a dream ODI debut with the ball in the first game against New Zealand, has the ability to use the long handle as well but needs both opportunities and perseverance – things Dhoni has admitted are in short supply.

“One of the biggest challenges is the cricket we play in the subcontinent. More often than not, I personally feel a finisher is someone who bats at Nos. 5, 6, 7, and there are not too many opportunities there if the top order is doing bulk of the scoring. A lot of times in India the lower order doesn't get a chance to bat, and I keep saying this, it becomes more and more difficult for a youngster to come and fill that space and you start counting the opportunities. In 15-20 games you get that opportunity and have to score 100 runs but we have to admit, it is one of the most difficult things to do,” Dhoni has said.

Changing roles

At 35 and having already called time on his Test career, Dhoni would be aware of the changing times. It isn't a coincidence that since that innings in Indore in 2015, Dhoni hasn't scored a half-century even as Kohli has racked up seven in nine games, becoming the team's go-to man. The baton of leadership has already passed, virtually.

A couple of years ago, Sunday's run-out would have meant a big blow to the Indian batting, the other guy might even have sacrificed his wicket for Dhoni; now it was just a blip, courtesy the man at the non-striker's end.

“When you are a senior member of the squad, whether you are captain or not, there are a lot of extra responsibilities on you. You have to talk to the youngsters, you have to guide them as to what needs to be done. A lot of things have changed since I made my debut in 2004, from then to now. The way cricket is played has changed a lot and the kind of players coming into the Indian team now is drastically different to what we are used to. That's where a bit of sharing experience with the youngsters comes,” Dhoni said.

It was perhaps the closest Dhoni has come to acknowledging that the world had moved on. But for far too long, sports in India has hurried with foisting retirements on proven performers and then struggled to find their replacements. That is something Dhoni would like to avoid.

With two of his three roles in the side already taken over, he would be hoping to get the final act and a finisher in place before calling it a day. That's easier said than done, of course.

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