Towards the end it was a testing time

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the ODI skipper, will be remembered for his epochal moments on the global stage. Conversely, Dhoni, the Test captain, will be inextricably linked to the identical 0-4 drubbings in England and Australia, a trauma that returned to haunt last year as India lost 1-3 in England and conceded a 0-2 lead to Australia by the time ‘Happy New Year’ was hollered. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

The enduring images of M. S. Dhoni the leader are overwhelmingly coated in shades of blue — the jersey that the Indian team wears in ODIs and T20s — lit up by floodlights in a packed stadium.

Think of his greatest moments as the Indian skipper and inevitably you would recall him lifting the 2007 ICC World T20 in South Africa.

Closer home, it would be the glint in his eye as he clobbers Nuwan Kulasekara for six to seal the 2011 World Cup while Mumbai and the rest of India erupted in joy.

These are terrific memories, but on the downside, it also reflects the way Dhoni’s exploits in the limited-overs format overshadowed his influence in Tests, an arena he vacated through a sudden retirement that stunned everyone.

Dhoni, the captain in Tests, though, is no light-weight and the records speak well. He led India in the highest number of matches — 60; won more games than his predecessors — 27; and was skipper when India became the ‘Number 1’ Test side in 2009. There is also the fine-print of 18 losses (and more glaringly that includes 15 defeats abroad).

Once you digest these facts, the overseas-slump since 2011 begins to grate. Dhoni, the ODI skipper, will be remembered for his epochal moments on the global stage. Conversely, Dhoni, the Test captain, will be inextricably linked to the identical 0-4 drubbings in England and Australia, a trauma that returned to haunt last year as India lost 1-3 in England and conceded a 0-2 lead to Australia by the time ‘Happy New Year’ was hollered.

So where does Dhoni stand between his overall record as captain and the defeats that hamstrung India over the last three years including England coming here and out-spinning us? The truth lies in between.

While a large part of his initial golden run was charted upon spinner-friendly tracks at home, the tale was torn asunder once his men embarked upon overseas tours from mid-2011. It also coincided with the decline of India’s famous middle-order and though Rahul Dravid notched three tons during a blighted England tour, India’s batting lost its sheen.

Then the legends retired one by one and by the time Sachin Tendulkar bowed out in 2013, Dhoni had even bigger problems to contend with as the buffer-generation began to fade.

Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh struggled to recapture their magic of yore. Add to it, Zaheer Khan’s fitness-woes and suddenly Dhoni was saddled with a raw squad in which he had to bank on Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, R. Ashwin and Ishant Sharma, to shore up his thin resources.

It didn’t help that Dhoni the enforcer in ODIs adopted a passive role in Tests. May be the constraints of leading a side in transition forced him to back-pedal, but there were strange instances when he tended to freeze when a victory could have been sought. During the West Indies tour of 2011, he opted for a draw when a chase was very much on at Dominica.

If in India, he leant on spin, the moment he crossed the seas, Dhoni believed that the slow-art was merely a restrictive flank. He often preferred Ravindra Jadeja, who speared the ball at a tight length, over the more gifted Ashwin.

When it came to fast bowlers, Dhoni banked on bouncers. It did work at Lord’s when Ishant stoked England’s ego and a Test was won last year, but when the move didn’t work in other contests, the Indian captain still persisted with that approach.

It was as if when faced with the fixed possibilities of victory or defeat in limited overs cricket, Dhoni the competitor flexed his muscle and did the impossible. However, when the third-tangent — draw — came into the picture in Tests, he seemed to prefer that. It could be that Dhoni’s captaincy-tricks or the lack of it in Tests were the result of the context in which he operated: a young team, an emerging batting order and a weak attack.

As a player he did try to bolster the squad. His double century against Australia in Chennai in 2013 set the tone for a triumphant series and even on the away tour to England, last year, he along with Murali Vijay and to a certain extent Ajinkya Rahane, batted well, while the rest crumbled.

In the end, there was only so much Dhoni the player could do to elevate his squad and it also tired him out as a skipper.

Shorn of the exacting standards expected from Tests, he will be at ease leading India in the shorter formats. As far as perceptions go, he seems comfortable in that environment, restricting rivals, marshalling a tense chase and then walking away nonchalantly with a stump in hand.