Mahendra Singh Dhoni!
This name has seen all superlatives attached to it over the years. From being hailed as India's greatest ever captain to being proclaimed by many as the game's best ever finisher, Dhoni can be classified among cricket's all-time greats.
Despite all the accolades he's won, critics, who are able to find chinks in his armour still exist. His technique both with the bat and the gloves isn't the soundest you will see in the game, but some how this man from Ranchi has proved to be the most effective cricketer of his generation or even beyond that.
The one thing that's always set him apart from the rest is his exceptional cricketing brain. At 35, while rapidly closing in on 36, Dhoni is suffering what most sportsmen belonging to this age bracket do — physical slowdown. It doesn't necessarily mean the wicket-keeper batsman isn't fit to play at the highest level, but it is equally clear that he isn't at the peak in terms of sharpness.
An ordinary cricketer in a similar situation would struggle to play for his country, but not Dhoni. Even at this age, with able youngsters bidding to take over his role in the team, the former captain has a lot to offer.
This Indian team is undergoing an evolution, especially when it comes to the One Day International format. The team hasn't had too much action in this format since the 2015 World Cup, and in the limited opportunities to do so, they seemed to have stumbled upon a combination that could carry them back to the pinnacle of world cricket.
Narrow yet impressive series victories over New Zealand and England on home soil, mean India go into the Champions Trophy with momentum. They have a unit that has won together in the last year, and the ICC Champions Trophy is the perfect time to test the credentials of this team.
It isn't just the first overseas test of this revamped Indian team, but also its maiden challenge at the highest level of the sport. At the top, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma would be looking to rekindle their partnership after both these players were out of the side for varied reasons. Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya will have the responsibility of finishing the innings, while an Indian pace attack that's shown so much promise over the last two years would be looking to deliver against the best teams in the world.
Even though the names featuring in this Indian team are household ones, their roles in the side are slightly varied. Unlike Indian sides from yesteryear, this team holds no fear. They are full of youthful exuberance and on their day can steamroll any team. This group is aggressive from the word go, perfectly reflecting their captain Virat Kohli.
However, even Kohli is new to captaincy and this will be his first ICC tournament as skipper. While the Indian captain loves to match opponents blow to blow, this single-minded strategy might not be enough for India to retain the Champions Trophy.
This is where Dhoni will play a key role in the team. Even if he may not be in the best of forms with the bat, his presence will offer the much-needed calm that this energetic bunch needs. Even after relinquishing the captaincy, Dhoni has the ears of his players. This is evident from the way the players, including Kohli, listened to him when he gave a pep talk to the team during a practise session recently.
— BCCI (@BCCI) May 28, 2017
Kohli said before jetting off to England that having the likes of Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh in the side comforts him as a captain,. The 28-year-old captain added that he will be using some of Dhoni's advice when the situation in the match gets really tight. Dhoni's immaculate reading of the game coupled with Kohli's aggression could prove to be a deadly combination on the field for India.
Hardik Pandya, who is slated to take over from Dhoni in the role as a finisher recently revealed in an interview how his constant guidance has helped him perform better on the pitch. Pandya smashed a quickfire 81 in the warm-up game against Bangladesh on Tuesday to help India post a score over 320 and eventually record a 240-run victory.
"I still remember one incident when I asked him how to finish the games. And he said that you need to make sure you look at the scoreboard. You need to make sure you see the situations and play accordingly. That way I have noticed that you don't put pressure on yourself. Because you want the team to win, that's the motive. So you don't have your own personal thing that you have to do something special, that pressure is not on you. You just have to focus on what you can do for the team and play according to the situation. So that was a big tip which he gave me and which eventually helped me." Pandya said.
In terms of the batting order, Dhoni could find himself batting at number four or five, which is higher that his usual position at number six. The former captain averages 58.23 at a strike rate of 94.8 playing at number four. He's made 11 fifties and a hundred playing at than position in ODIs. While batting at number five, his average is 52.87 with a strike rate of 88.81. Dhoni has made four hundreds and 12 fifties playing in this position.
It is clear that playing up the order will help Dhoni take his time to settle in at the crease and guide the innings from there. "The one thing we needed to strengthen was our lower middle-order contribution. Too much burden was coming on MS in the past couple of years, was what we felt. He wasn't able to express himself purely because of the fact there are not enough guys showing composure to finish off games with him," Kohli said recently.
With the pressure off his shoulders, Dhoni could be back to his swashbuckling best, adding considerable strength to the Indian middle order in the matches to come.
His performances in the Champions Trophy have been particularly poor by his standards, and a strong show in this competition would be another frontier conquered for him. The Indian wicket-keeper batsman, who averages just 19.33 in this competition, would be keen to improve on that figure in 2017.
Dhoni may not be the force he once used to be, but his all-round cricketing wisdom would be precious for India if they are to defend their crown. Replacing Dhoni the wicket-keeper batsman, is going to be one hell of a hard job when he stops playing for India, but filling the shoes of MS Dhoni the cricketer, would be nearly impossible. However, for as long as he continues to wear the Indian blue, Kohli and friends would do greatly by making his incredible cricketing abilities count.