How Mahendra Singh Dhoni is critical to Indian cricket
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is going to be critical to the future of Indian cricket.
M S Dhoni is currently the most popular and the most scrutinized cricketer in India at the same time. The chief of the selection committee for the Indian cricket team recently described him as the most important player in the Indian squad for forthcoming cricket world cup. M S K Prasad, the selection panel head, was speaking about the possible composition of the team for the prestigious tournament.
He identified four clear roles in which the contribution of Dhoni is going to be critical. The first two—wicket keeping and batting—relate to his role as an individual player. The other two arise exclusively from his seniority and experience. He is expected to play an advisory role to captain Kohli and mentor younger players. Kohli has on several occasions acknowledged Dhoni’s inputs, commending his tactical acumen in plotting dismissals of opposition batsmen.
Mayank Markande, a young leg spinner from Punjab who has been selected in the Indian team for the home series against Australia for the first time, recently observed that he is looking forward to Dhoni keeping wickets to his bowling. It would seem as though the selectors, fellow players or the lovers of the game cannot have enough of him.
Yet, it may well be his last appearance for the national team. He will turn 38 in July. As a player or a captain, there is absolutely nothing left for him to achieve. He has led India to world cup victories twice, once in 2007 for t-20 internationals and again in 2011 for the limited overs internationals. India had been the number one test team for a longish spell under him during 2009-2010.
As a wicketkeeper or batsman, his records are much more than impressive. He is the first wicketkeeper to score more than 10000 runs in one day internationals. In other blue chip tournaments, such as the IPL, his records are phenomenal. As captain of the Chennai Super Kings, he has won them the championship thrice over the last ten years, and took them to the final seven times. He has almost single handedly created a new batting position, that of the finisher.
A finisher generally comes down the order, and consistently pushes the run rate, with a controlled audacity. The finisher is different from the lower order slogger in that he can repeat this designed aggression, match after match. Dhoni has for years performed this role with extraordinary success. In fact, it is as a finisher that Dhoni stands totally singular in the history of cricket.
There have been great wicket keeper batsmen before him, and great captains too. But few in contemporary world cricket has played the finisher with comparable success. All this, along with his rise from a small town in Jharkhand and from a lower middle class family, has conferred on him an almost mythical status in India.
But he has not been playing the finisher over the last one year or so. Instead, he has chosen to play the sheet anchor, with younger players like Hardik Pandya, or reinvented contemporaries such as Dinesh Karthik, now taking over the finisher slot. In test cricket, Dhoni had long been successfully replaced by Wriddhiman Saha, and later, by Rishabh Pant. Pant and Karthik have been breathing down his neck in terms of performance as wicket keeper batsmen over the last several months.
Against this background, his advisory or mentoring role assume greater significance and will certainly see him through to the starting eleven in the world cup. As wicket keeper, his reflex is still top class, as displayed by some of his recent exploits in combination with young spinners such as Chahal or Yadav.
But Dhoni the batsman is on regular trial, especially since both Pant or Karthik, his possible successors, have staked claim to the slot of a finisher. Dhoni does not speak to the media these days.
There were questions a few months ago, when he was dropped from the ODI team for a couple of matches, whether selectors no longer wished to include him in the world cup squad. He subsequently returned to the team, and his performance quietly buried those queries.
Questions about his utility, however, persist. There is no doubt that his tactical acumen or experience is still a great asset. But if India already has already found possible wicket keeping or batting successors for Dhoni, they cannot be kept in the bench for too long.
No one understands it better than Dhoni himself, who quit playing tests at his peak, long before there were questions about his utility. Given this history, it is more than likely that he would announce retirement immediately after the world cup.
(The author is an Associate Professor at Karnavati University, Gandhinagar. He has written on sports and politics for publications across the country.)