Dhoni and ‘TINA’

The captaincy issue apart, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is still hugely useful to the Indian team.-V. GANESAN

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is India’s best limited-overs player, and despite recent failures, should walk into the Test team as an all-rounder. The question mark is over his captaincy. There is too much on Dhoni’s plate — it would be a way to preserve his usefulness in the team if the captaincy were to be taken away and handed over to Virat Kohli. The time has come, writes Suresh Menon.

One of India’s most successful captains is at the crossroads of a career that has seen stunning highs and unbelievable lows. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has said he would take a call this year — should he prepare for the 2015 World Cup or stand aside for a wicketkeeper who “should have played at least 60-80 matches” to gain experience before the tournament? Should he reduce his hectic schedule as a player? Should he consider giving up captaincy in one or more formats?

Some of these decisions might no longer be his to take. After the disastrous tours of England and Australia where India lost every single Test, and the shock of a series defeat against England at home last month, the captaincy is hanging by a thread. But by a thread woven by the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India if former selector Mohinder Amarnath is to be believed. Amarnath has said that a unanimous decision to take the captaincy away from Dhoni was stymied by the President.

Dhoni’s 20 wins in 43 Tests puts him only one win behind India’s record holder Sourav Ganguly. Just over a year and a half ago his shining eyes lit up the occasion as he smashed the final six to help India to their first World Cup win in 28 years. Four years earlier, he had led India to the T20 World Cup, and changed the face of cricket. He also presided over the months when India were, for the first time, the No. 1 Test country.

Dhoni began as an aggressive, instinctive captain who trusted his hunches and the fringe players in his team. At some point later, he put his faith in a safety-first, security-conscious style that cost India matches, and converted them from a team bubbling with confidence into one constantly looking over its shoulders, unsure if a competent bowler like Monty Panesar ought to be hit off his line or given wickets as presents for persistence.

Cricket teams tend to reflect the mindset and attitude of the captain — and in recent months, India have become soft targets almost in the manner they were in the 1950s when victory always came as a surprise. Dhoni, himself, has been caught between the glory of the past and the uncertainty of the future as the greats who made it the golden age of the game in the country retired one by one: Sourav Ganguly, Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, and those remaining began to exhibit signs of age: Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag.

Yet, Dhoni’s transformation has been the most startling of all. He was a gambler, and some of his best moments as captain came as a result of following his gambler’s instincts. That last over to Joginder Sharma in the T20 World Cup final, for example, or the decision to ask Cheteshwar Pujara to go in at No. 3 against Australia. Perhaps the law of averages is catching up with him now. In the early years, he often made inexplicable bowling changes or changed the field for a plan that made sense only to him. When they worked, he was hailed as a genius; when they failed, he was forgiven because of his age and lack of experience. But so long as India were winning, no one complained except the purists who would rather do the right thing and lose than do the wrong thing and win.

Now clearly a reformed gambler (in a cricketing sense), Dhoni is less adventurous, and his captaincy has begun to make less sense. His refusal to go for a win in the Dominica Test against the West Indies, where India needed 180 from 47 overs was strange. India made 94 for three, scoring at under three an over. At Lord’s in the next Test, with Ishant Sharma having claimed three wickets in 16 balls to reduce England to 62 for five, Dhoni took him off the attack, presumably to preserve him for the rest of the series.

The bird in hand has been topping the two in the bush with a regularity that would do no Test captain any credit. As early in 2008, rival captain Graeme Smith was calling Dhoni “too conservative.”

Those who followed the Nagpur Test against England, where India, who had to win to draw the series, batted as if they were more keen on drawing the Test than in attempting to win, will agree with that assessment. At some point, Dhoni the Instinctive became Dhoni the Inflexible as he showed with his team selection in Australia where no changes were made either to the personnel or to the plan as India continued to lose with embarrassing frequency.

Dhoni has been luckier than many of his predecessors who were dumped after a poor series or two. Ajit Wadekar led India to away victories in the West Indies and England and followed that up with a home win against England; yet after a 3-0 loss in England in 1974, he was sacked as captain and announced his retirement aged just 34.

As he showed against Pakistan in Chennai recently, Dhoni continues to be one of the best one-day batsmen of all time. His 50-plus average is topped only by Michael Bevan among players with more than 5000 runs.

He has also been protected by the well-known Indian cop-out: TINA (‘There is No Alternative’), which is a weak-kneed reaction to call for change. But the fact remains that a team in transition needs an aggressive, and preferably young captain who can stamp that quality on the team. Virat Kohli is young, and ready, and can bring to the job the positive outlook that could change the attitude of the Indian team.

Isn't it time for Virat Kohli to come to the forefront?-K.R. DEEPAK

He is a certainty in all formats of the game, and has the hunger that made similar choices in similar circumstances so successful in Indian cricket.

Indian selectors haven’t shied away from handing the reins to youngsters who are obvious candidates. Half a century ago, when skipper Nari Contractor was injured in the West Indies, Tiger Pataudi, then 21, and the youngest member of the team, was made captain in a move that lifted Indian cricket to the heights of series wins abroad. Kohli can use Pataudi as the inspiration for team-building and focussing on fielding, two aspects that made India so successful under Pataudi and established the template followed by Dhoni.

When England split the captaincy, using different players for the different formats, it was seen as a path-breaking move. But in the 1980s, India already had two different captains — Sunil Gavaskar for the Tests and Kapil Dev for the one-dayers. It might be a system they could return to, leaving Kohli in charge of the Tests and Dhoni to handle the shorter formats. That is one solution. The World Cup is two years away, and Dhoni, one of the fittest of the Indian players, will only be 34 then. That he hasn’t paid the price for India’s recent defeats is one of the more inexplicable aspects of team selection. Captains have been sacked for less.

It is unlikely that Dhoni, from his position at the crossroads will pre-empt the selectors by calling time on his captaincy. “If there is anybody better than me,” he once said without any arrogance, “then he should have the job.” But that decision will have to be made by the selectors.

Dhoni is India’s best limited-overs player, and despite recent failures, should walk into the Test team as an all-rounder. The question mark is over his captaincy. ‘TINA’ cannot be an excuse. Nor can past successes be evoked to justify future captaincy. There is too much on Dhoni’s plate — it would be a way to preserve his usefulness in the team if the captaincy were to be taken away and handed over to Kohli. The time has come.