India had just got a pasting in the 2015 World Cup semi-final and the media contingent was rushing down towards the press-conference room when Shane Warne crossed them. “What was your captain doing there, ask him that,” Warne said, referring to Dhoni’s painstaking 94-ball 65 that didn’t help as India lost by 95 runs.
Of course, nobody asked Dhoni anything about it then, but two-and-a-half years down the line questions are being raised again. Dhoni, in his attempt to play the consummate finisher that he once was, ‘guided’ India to a 11-run defeat in the fourth ODI in Antigua against a team which failed to qualify for the recently-concluded Champions Trophy. The Indian think-tank, which invariably puts up a show of unity in a crisis these days, will obviously have reasons for MSD’s batting performance on Sunday night on a pitch that was two-paced but was in no way a graveyard for batsmen. The fact remains, though, that an effort which fetches 54 off 114 balls is difficult to defend in today’s time where strike rates have sky-rocketed.
Even during the business end of the chase on Sunday, Dhoni kept banking on Hardik Pandya (20 off 21 balls) and Ravindra Jadeja (11 off 11 balls) to hit the big shots. Incidentally, both had strike-rates of 100, while he stayed a dismal sub-50 with only one boundary to show.
It’s hard for Indian sporting heroes to believe that they are over the hill and Dhoni doesn’t seem to be an exception. Even if we forget all about the Sunday night horror show, has Dhoni inspired confidence in any of the batting roles that he has been trying to perform in recent times? Take the Champions Trophy final for example. True, India had lost two quick wickets and were staring at a huge target, but did Dhoni-who is projecting himself as the middle-order anchor nowadays, create a situation where India could hope for a fightback? Or the IPL final playing for Pune Supergiant, when all the team needed was the ‘finisher’ Dhoni to stay there to take home the title chasing a small total against Mumbai Indians?
It’s almost an acknowledged fact now that MSD is no longer the finisher that he once was. He tried to be one again on Sunday, and failed. The ability to keep the game alive till the last over and bring out the big shot from the bag out of nowhere -the qualities that lent a mythical status to Dhoni the finisher, are well and truly gone. “Isn’t that obvious? With age, you may not stay as good a finisher as you were at an earlier stage,” former selector and a wicketkeeper batsman himself, Saba Karimsaid. “It’s time Dhoni should be seen as the No. 5 anchor,” Karim said, trying to defend the superstar.
But that’s exactly the role that the new Indian team has given him. Dhoni, even in his prime, wasn’t a batsman who could graft for his runs. It’s difficult to change the essential nature of a cricketer when he is on the wrong side of the 30s. Karim argues that India should try to address their No. 4 and No. 6 problems instead of putting too much pressure on Dhoni. “But I can’t tell you with a degree of certainty that Dhoni will be good enough for the 2019 World Cup,” the former selector said.
And that’s the critical point-is Dhoni good enough to stay on as a No. 5 batsman till 2019? What has been on offer in recent times doesn’t inspire confidence. Yes, he is still a magnificent limited-overs wicketkeeper, a brilliant reader of the game, but the batting is letting him down. And it’s not that India don’t have talent! Among others, there is Rishabh Pant, who is waiting in the wings for the opportunity. Many are impressed by the Delhi boy’s guts and ability to hit the big shots, but the Indian team management is strangely reluctant to give him a go.
It’s time for the think-tank to take a call.