Just what should India do with Mahendra Singh Dhoni?
This is the question that is gaining momentum with every passing limited-overs international in which the man with the big gloves fails to hit the high notes that once made him the most valuable 50-over cricketer of all time. This is the question that fans, who desperately want to see the Dhoni magic, the helicopter shots and the manic scoring at the end of an innings, are asking, even as they struggle to enjoy their hero’s current exploits. This is the question that the selection panel should be asking, given that there is a 50-over World Cup to be played a year from now.
To start with, the most critical of these stakeholders: the fans. Thankfully, they can stop at asking the question, and do not have to actually make a decision on Dhoni’s short-term or medium-term future. With India winning handsomely, their first ODI series triumph in South Africa being a case in point, it does not particularly matter whether Dhoni is as good as his old self.
The selectors, however, have a job to do, and this includes planning for the future while weighing the past. When Dhoni gave away the longest form of the game, Test cricket, as he stepped down from the captaincy in Melbourne in 2014, there was an overwhelming feeling that he could have played longer. But, in typical fashion, Dhoni handed over the captaincy to Virat Kohli, and also gave the new captain a clean slate to work with, to forge the future of the Indian team as he saw fit. The belief then was that giving up Test cricket would make Dhoni’s limited-overs future more secure, and indeed extend his efficacy in those formats.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. With scheduling leaving large clumps of Test cricket bunched together, Dhoni’s cricket workload is now very much stop-start. While this might be easier on the body than playing all the time, it makes it that much harder to get into any kind of rhythm and achieve and sustain form.
In South Africa, when Wriddhiman Saha was injured during the Test series, the selectors picked Parthiv Patel. When further cover was needed, they summoned Dinesh Karthik. The fact that the selection panel had to turn to two men who made their Test debuts before Dhoni, showed just where wicketkeeping stocks are in India. Dhoni’s total dominance of three formats, his presence in the team as captain, ensured that no other wicketkeeper got a look-in for an extended stretch, and one possible by-product of that is that little attention was paid to the development and grooming of a potential successor. Saha is sensational behind the stumps, by and large, but has underperformed as a batsman and is underwhelming as a presence.
Rishab Pant has caught the headlines repeatedly, but most times it is for his explosive batting rather than his work behind the stumps. Sanju Samson fizzled after a promising start and Naman Ojha was never quite comfortable keeping to high quality spin bowling on helpful pitches.
This brings us, and the selectors, back to Dhoni. While he is still fit, considerably fitter than many men a decade younger than him, and is not keeping out an outstanding prospect with a potentially long future, why on earth would he step down?
Consider also that this is India. Despite being handed key jobs, this selection panel will be acutely aware of the fact that they have 13 Test caps between them. That is 77 less than Dhoni’s tally, and it’s not worth going into the difference in limited-overs cricket or take into account his Indian Premier League feats. It’s unlikely that MSK Prasad, Sarandeep Singh or Devang Gandhi will be looking forward to the prospect of ending the career of one of India’s most popular cricketers, unless, of course, that is the direction that comes from the team management.
For the moment, Virat Kohli understands too well the value that Dhoni brings to limited-overs cricket. Even if Dhoni does not score a single run, his work behind the stumps is immaculate, if unorthodox. And, on the field, Kohli gains an education each time he watches Dhoni set fields, set up batsmen, coax and cajole bowlers and read match situations.
So, perhaps, the question that really should be asked, is not what Indian cricket should do with Dhoni. It might be worth asking what is best for Indian limited-overs cricket at the moment, a team with Dhoni in it or out. That answer is a simple one.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.