The Gabba, Brisbane, March 4, 2008: The heat was on. Australia needed 13 runs off the last over. James Hopes was at the crease. A young Irfan Pathan had the ball in hand. Near the bowler’s mark, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir were frantically giving out instructions to Pathan. The two batsmen stood in the middle of the pitch, trying to figure out their next move. Amid all the chaos, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain, dispassionately looked on, his face giving nothing away. In between, he even managed to beam at Yuvraj Singh, who was standing at point. Three balls later, it was all over. India had just won a historic tri-series Down Under. Dhoni took off his right glove, uprooted a stump and slowly walked off. The emphatic punching of the air when India won the T20 World Cup some months earlier was replaced by a gentleman-like handshake with the square leg umpire. As the Indian players drenched themselves in the ecstasy of a historic win, the Indian skipper walked around as if nothing had happened.
This was Dhoni for you. An unflappable captain, an outstanding leader of men, and so often a catalyst for the Indian team. Three years after the Gabba victory, the man from Ranchi struck the winning blow at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai to give India its second World Cup title win. All through that tournament, Dhoni was a colossus in the Indian dressing room, whose unrivalled tactical acumen and courageous decision-making brought India so much success during that period.
But a lot has changed since that magical Mumbai evening. The beard has greyed, the wrinkles on Dhoni’s face are more prominent, and the challenge of leading a cricket-obsessed nation like India seems to have taken its toll. In the last three years, India has lost five consecutive Test series abroad. It all started with a 4-0 thumping by England in 2011. World Cup gladiators just three months earlier, the Indians were ruthlessly swept aside by a rampaging England. The Indian batting, led by the ageing Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag, was soft target for a quality home team bowling line up. Rahul Dravid was the only senior batsman who performed, notching up three centuries in the series. India lost its bowling spearhead Zaheer Khan early in the series, leaving Dhoni to work with RP Singh, Ishant Sharma and S Sreesanth. Dhoni’s captaincy came under sharp criticism from all quarters. But everybody, including the experts knew that this was a team in decline. Against a team like England, which was at its absolute peak at the time, this was a disaster waiting to happen. And India’s deficiences were corroborated when it was again whitewashed 4-0 when it toured Australia later that year.
A week ago, at the Oval, Dhoni cut a sorry figure. The scoreline of 1-3 against England might not be as humiliating as the one of three years ago, but the loss was hard to stomach, especially after India had won a great match at Lord’s in the beginning of the series. In honesty, it was the Indian batting that let the team down. Against the seam and guile of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, most of the Indian batsmen looked like 15-year-olds catapulted into international cricket overnight. So often, Moeen Ali, the part-time spinner, was made to look like an imperious version of Graeme Swann. In fact, Dhoni was one of the few batsmen to put up some resistance. With the loss, cries for Dhoni’s head have reignited once more.
“You can’t single out the captain,” says former Indian coach Anshuman Gaekwad. “This is an inexcusable loss no doubt. But if the team isn’t performing, then Dhoni can’t do much.” But then Dhoni did make some perplexing decisions. He opted to play with two spinners on a seamer-friendly wicket in the fourth Test at Old Trafford. While Ravichandran Ashwin went wicketless, Ravindra Jadeja picked up one wicket. Dhoni’s muddled tactical approach and erratic decision making played a major role in India’s abject showing. The most baffling was his decision to start with Jadeja and Pankaj Singh on the third morning at Old Trafford. The previous evening’s two wicket takers, Varun Aaron and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, found themselves cooling their heels on the boundary line. The Indian captain’s tactical miscalculation meant that the game drifted away from India, ensuring that there was only going to be one outcome of the game. Dhoni, who so often is the man who transfuses confidence into his players, appeared a lost man.
According to former Indian wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani, this is the worst touring team India’s ever had. “We’ve lost Test matches abroad in the past, but never in such a manner. Lack of application is the problem,” he says. “In terms of technique, the Indian players haven’t been good enough. Dhoni is the leader, but he can’t bat and ball for you.”
In sheer numbers, Dhoni is India’s most successful Test captain with 27 wins in 58 matches. But that is because he possesses an impeccable record at home. In Indian conditions, the team, over the last decade, has been hard to thwart. At home, Dhoni finds it to easy to control a game. Aided by good batting performances, Dhoni unleashes his spinners on the opposition, setting attacking fields. Overseas, Dhoni deploys defensive fields to contain the opposition, knowing he has limited fast bowling resources. A habitual follower of the ball as captain, it is not unusual to see fielders at the point or cover fence on the first morning of a Test match. Once a proactive captain, whose imagination was his hallmark, Dhoni now often waits for things to happen. The Test against South Africa at Johannesburg earlier this year is a prime example. Set a target of 458, South Africa were tottering at 197-4 on the fourth day. Instead of going in for the kill, Dhoni let the game slip, enabling Francois Du Plessis to notch up a hundred in the process. South Africa not only saved the game, but came perilously close to pulling off an unexpected win.
In limited-overs, Dhoni, however, is a great captain. He no doubt possesses great leadership qualities, but the the structure of the shorter format aids him to a certain extent. The limited-overs format is a batsman’s game all the way. Batsmen win you matches, not bowlers. Dhoni can afford to go, with his characteristic penchant, on the defensive because the modern day limited overs game is all about damage control. Also, India’s large pool of talented, young batsmen has almost always bailed the team out of trouble. In the Test arena, Dhoni does not get the batting totals his defensive mindset can exploit since India is yet to fill the void left by players like Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid and Zaheer Khan.
Also, we often forget that Dhoni not only has the burden of captaincy in Tests, one-dayers and T20s, but he also keeps wickets and is India’s best-limited overs batsman. That means in addition to captaincy, he also faces pressures due to batting and keeping. Moreover, the lack of coach Duncan Fletcher’s influence on this team cannot be overlooked. Captains and coaches work in tandem, and Fletcher has failed to strike a chord with Dhoni. Dhoni formed a great partnership with Gary Kirsten, whose inputs and style of working ensured success for the team. The same cannot be said for Fletcher. The Zimbabwean has failed to stamp his authority on this team. Fletcher and Dhoni in the past have often gone wrong with team selection. Dhoni’s unrelenting persistence with the likes of Ishant Sharma, Jadeja and Ashwin in the longer format is not only hard to fathom, but also a matter of grave concern. As ill luck would have it, the men he has mentored have failed to give dividends.
Then why have the selectors stuck with Dhoni as Test captain for such a long time? Is it a lack of options or do they feel he is still the best man for the job? Gaekwad feels its both. “Dhoni is possibly the best captain we’ve ever had. There is nobody else who can lead India right now. The selectors must stick to him,” he says. The names of Virat Kohli and Gambhir have cropped up as potential replacements. While Kohli is struggling to put bat to ball these days, Gambhir is destined for cricketing wilderness after an abysmal showing in England. So for now, Dhoni’s job looks safe.
There is no doubt that Dhoni must shoulder a lot of the blame for India’s Test failures abroad. But, we have to understand that Dhoni hasn’t been blessed with the greatest of resources in the last few years. Most of the members of the current Indian team are great limited-overs players, but are yet to earn their reputations in Test cricket. Yes, Dhoni may not be the captain he once was, but right now, given the poor backing he has got from his players, he is perhaps more a scapegoat than the perpetrator of the overseas disaster.