Once upon a time, not too long, the Indian team was a closed-out unit. No information would flow out from them, and one is not talking about dressing room leaks. There were severe restrictions on speaking with the media, with only pre and post match press conferences the norm. When it came to strategy, it was a wonder what the captains and the selectors were thinking about.
Now, it is quite different. Thanks to all the changes that the BCCI’s administration has seen since 2013, there is a lot more communication. So much so that the chief selector has enough freedom to come out to a post-selection press conference and announce that ‘KL Rahul will bat at no.4 in the upcoming Sri Lanka ODI series’.
There are many conclusions to be drawn from this declaration, mostly regarding the opening combination and that Manish Pandey will probably continue to sit out. There is another – more singular – pointer that matters as well. All of them, Rahul, Pandey, Kedar Jadhav and Hardik Pandya, wherever they bat in the middle order, they will revolve around MS Dhoni at No 5.
“We cannot say it is an automatic selection. We will see how it goes. If he is delivering, why not (keep selecting him)? If not, we will look at alternatives,” said Prasad, launching another bombshell.
This ‘automatic selection’ is a question mark that has hung over Indian cricket over the past season or so. It first reached a crescendo after the 2015 ODI World Cup when people began wondering about Dhoni’s future. Everyone simply assumed that after losing in the semi-finals in Sydney, he probably wanted another shot at last-moment glory in the 2016 World T20. Another semi-final loss there meant people started looking at the 2017 Champions Trophy, a relatively poorer alternative in truth though.
Two important things happened in that interim though. One, he had that press conference, after the World T20 semi-final loss, wherein an Australian journalist called up to sit next to him and answer a few choice questions. “Do you think I am fit enough?” “Do you think I am quick between the wickets?” “Do you think I can still play the 2019 World Cup?”
The poor journalist was caught like a rabbit in headlights. It isn’t something that he had experienced before – no one in that had such an experience, actually! – and he gave the obvious answers. “Yes”, “Yes” and “Yes” he had said. “There you go, you have answered the question yourself,” Dhoni had replied. The underlying point of this stunt was clear. He wants to play on until the 2019 ODI World Cup. That is his last marker, that ‘one more’ desire.
Yet, it is remarkable how everyone misses on this clear indication from the former skipper. It was the most intrinsic look he had ever given to the outside world as to what precisely was going on in his mind. The keen sense would be to leave him be, to concentrate on his game, and see if he does indeed last out until that 2019 tournament. But that would be too much to ask from the vulture-like instinct with which media in this country is run today. And Dhoni is a huge headline grabber, perhaps the second biggest after Sachin Tendulkar in recent memory, atleast until Virat Kohli became the alpha male of the Indian dressing room recently.
The Tendulkar parallel steps in again at this juncture, albeit in a different way. When the Master Blaster featured in the 2012 Asia Cup in Bangladesh, no one knew it was the last time he played ODI cricket. Later that year, it came to be known that then chief selector Sandeep Patil had held a frank chat with him about the 2015 World Cup. If he wasn’t in plans for that tournament, he – the greatest Indian batsman in this format yet – was out of contention.
Again, Dhoni’s stature at present matches Tendulkar’s. So does his standing in the current scheme of things. This is where the second consideration comes in. Dhoni quit ODI and T20 captaincy at the end of 2016. It meant that he was no longer in control of his destiny. He didn’t have any power to influence upon the selectors how to pick the squad for any tournament, or indeed any control over the selection of the playing eleven. Look at it whichever way you want, it was a bold move, particularly at a time when his batting was on an assured downcurve.
There is not even an iota of doubt that MSK Prasad has had a similar chat with Dhoni about the 2019 tournament, with Kohli privy to their thoughts as well. It was obvious from the way Prasad compared Dhoni to Andre Agassi, who played till age 36. “He won many Grand Slams despite people asking about him about retirement,” said Prasad.
His analogy is a bit of a stretch herein. Agassi’s last Grand Slam win came at the 2003 Australian Open, and he finished runners-up at the 2005 US Open, at ages 32 and 35 respectively. In between, he had only two other semi-final appearances. The big difference is that this is a team sport whereas Agassi was only faced with an individualistic decision at best.
Statistics cannot be used to judge Dhoni because, batting at No 5 or 6, it is more about impact than form. For example, he helped push India past 300 against Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy, never mind that game was lost. Cynics will argue about his snail-like innings in the West Indies thereafter, but without considering the slow wicket and drab conditions on offer that day.
Then there is the element of experience that he brings to the table. He was imperious during the Champions Trophy when consulted about DRS, and even gave inputs about bringing on Jadhav to bowl at vital points, advice which proved valuable against both Lanka and Bangladesh in the semi-final as outlined by Kohli himself. At different points, the likes of Jadhav, Pandey and Hardik Pandya have spoken about how he is helping them learn about finishing games as well.
All of it points to one conclusion. The team management desires Dhoni to play the 2019 World Cup. They just don’t know yet, if he will make it that far based on fitness, and more importantly, form.