Midas Touch is ebbing away

AP

During normal times when India's batting lived up to its regal status, Mahendra Singh Dhoni's numbers would have been overlooked but these are days when men of impeccable pedigree have failed atop the order and the captain's inability to stem the rot in tandem with the tail has meant that the bowlers have poor totals to defend. Lost in the contrasting terrains of ‘attack' and ‘defence', Dhoni has been a fidgety presence. It is an anomaly that has added to his woes. He also shown a tendency to let things drift after being in control in Tests. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

In about two months, it will be time to dust up nostalgia and celebrate an anniversary. April 2 and its memories that swirl around Mahendra Singh Dhoni's World Cup-winning six in Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, are drawing close, but ironically the lead-up to the day is laced with the despair of watching the Indian team lurch from one defeat to another in Australia. Dawns are no longer about the sun slicing through mist but it is more about watching Dhoni's men struggle in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth while reading newspaper despatches that chronicle the tale of sagging shoulders.

The gloom that enveloped the Indian team during a disastrous England tour has returned with full force and the travails of a team in transition have set the alarm bells ringing. The interlude of victories at home against the West Indies has been forgotten, India's earlier number one status in Tests is now history and Dhoni's role as captain, has come under scrutiny.

Dhoni's ‘Midas Touch' is ebbing away in the game's longer version and queries have been raised about his role as a player in the Test squad. In the West Indies, Dhoni had scores of 0, 16, 2, 5 and 74. When he was in England, Dhoni notched 28, 16, 5, 0, 77, 74 not out, 17 and 3 with the good patch coming in Birmingham. And now in Australia, the skipper has mustered 6, 23, 57 not out, 2, 12 and 2. Yes, he did score a 144 against Darren Sammy's men in Kolkata but overall, his batting, especially overseas, has remained tepid. In England, his skills behind the stumps also came under the radar and the man with innumerable bruises on his weather-beaten fingers battled on.

During normal times when India's batting lived up to its regal status, Dhoni's numbers would have been overlooked but these are days when men of impeccable pedigree have failed atop the order and the captain's inability to stem the rot in tandem with the tail has meant that the bowlers have poor totals to defend. Lost in the contrasting terrains of ‘attack' and ‘ defence', Dhoni has been a fidgety presence. It is an anomaly that has added to his woes. He also has shown a tendency to let things drift after being in control in Tests. It happened in Sydney with Australia struggling at 37 for three in reply to India's 191 but Dhoni failed to increment the pressure and soon Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting wrested the initiative.

Dhoni, a blend of ‘Captain Cool' and ‘Hustler of Runs' in One-Day Internationals, has inexplicably been lukewarm in Tests. Anil Kumble, who led India in Tests before Dhoni took charge, pointed out that his successor has to be assertive. “When you play Test cricket, you need to be slightly more pro-active in terms of making decisions and taking risks which probably in a one-dayer or a Twenty20 you can't really do. But in Tests when you want things to happen, you got to take those risks rather than wait for things to happen,” Kumble said.

Anil Kumble with M.S. Dhoni. Kumble who led India in Tests before Dhoni took charge, pointed out that his successor has to be assertive. “When you play Test cricket, you need to be slightly more pro-active in terms of making decisions and taking risks which probably in a one-dayer or a Twenty20 you can't really do. But in Tests when you want things to happen, you got to take those risks rather than wait for things to happen.”-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Besides getting back his spark in Tests and also leading from the front, Dhoni has to factor in a squad that will evolve faster in the coming months. There might be over-the-top demands to strike out the names of V. V. S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid while Sachin Tendulkar too is in the twilight of his career, but lost in the medley of rhetoric and cold statistics is the failure to accept the fact that these are proud men, who will go even before the words ‘burden-on-the-team' is tagged to their resumes. The final pause is drawing close for these greats and after the Indian Premier League this summer, India will largely play at home for close to two years and fresh blood will be infused into the middle order.

The fear for Dhoni would be that even the number six slot vacated by Sourav Ganguly in 2008 still remains open after Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina failed, while the current incumbent Virat Kohli is slowly finding his feet after a jinxed run in the Caribbean. The question that would weigh heavily on Dhoni's mind is: ‘do we have the players who can replace Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman?' Rohit Sharma is now billed as the ‘great-hope' and earlier S. Badrinath and Cheteshwar Pujara were considered ready for the big stage. Patience with the replacements and a scaling down of expectations might do the trick while accepting that the batting unit will take time to find its moorings.

Dhoni has another headache to contend with in the days ahead. Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh were the next rung of proven players, who were expected to soften the blow when the golden generation bows out. (While Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman are still around, Kumble and Ganguly have retired.) However, the quartet has struggled. Sehwag and Gambhir are searching for runs, Zaheer has had a history of injuries and Harbhajan has been dropped. Reportedly Dhoni's equation with Sehwag has a large share of frost and a thaw is needed as India gropes ahead in the cricketing field. Clarity is also needed on Dhoni's thoughts of quitting ‘one format' in the future.

The third generation is now expected to spring forth but though there were encouraging signs during R. Ashwin's debut series against the West Indies, more needs to be done. India's fast-bowling club too has been a frustrating mix of promise, inconsistency and injuries and that played a part in the below-par showing in England and now against Australia. Dhoni needs a steady crop of fast bowlers, who can scythe through the top-order and blast the tail but right now expectations are entirely saddled on Zaheer's left shoulder.

The Indian skipper meanwhile can peer into the Australian commentary boxes and find two gentlemen who coped respectively with a team in transition and dwindling personal form. There are enough lessons to be learnt from Allan Border, who steered Australia past the tears of his predecessor Kim Hughes and the void caused by the retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. Add to it the portly presence of Mark Taylor, who despite a long phase of meagre runs, led well and also found batting salvation.

The question that would weigh heavily on Dhoni's mind is: ‘do we have the players who can replace Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman?'-A. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Dhoni and the selectors have to sit down and put a framework in place that will ensure Indian cricket will revive itself from the current stupor and the various stake-holders should also refuse to be swayed by positive results in ODIs. The primacy of the longer version needs to be drilled into the youngsters and it was a point stressed by Kumble, who said: “Today's youngsters grow up playing Twenty20 and the 50-over games rather than the four-day variety but having said that, there is enough talent. Going forward India needs to address these issues and at the domestic level ensure that the youngsters who come in are made to understand the importance of the Test level. You need to give all the necessary support where it means you need to travel more often on the ‘A' tours and that too more often for the three-day games.”

Ponting struggled with a team that was plagued by a long transition. It is the same with Dhoni now. It will not be easy but the manner in which Dhoni deals with this crisis will determine how he will be remembered for posterity though that six off Nuwan Kulasekara has given him a toehold. But Indian cricket needs more from the skipper and Kumble said: “You have to stick with him and ensure that he is given all the support.”