There are some moments that stick in your memory and Virat Kohli’s dismissal in the second ODI against England at Kochi is one of them. He had done all the hard work and helped India recover from 18-2 to 71-2.
But then there was a rush of blood. He stepped out and tried to hammer a full delivery over the in-field. He ended up slicing it to the man at sweeper cover. Kohli’s reaction was the usual mixture of disappointment and anger.
His run of scores in the recent past is a clear indication of him having hit a wall of sorts. A brilliant run that started on 28 February 2012 with a 133* against Sri Lanka, was followed up by scores of 108, 66, 183, 106, 1, 38, 128*, 23, 0, 6, 7, 15, 37. The dip is clear.
And it’s pretty clear that he can use a guide to help him through this stage. It’s also pretty clear that the only man fit for the job is perhaps coming in too low in the batting order to have any impact.
In the past, the Indian ODI team always had a Sachin Tendulkar to turn too. On an average, Tendulkar played 47.27 balls per innings in ODIs and on at least 145 occasions (49 100s and 96 fifties), he did better.
His role evolved – from swashbuckler to anchor – but he always seemed to be playing to a plan and he was confident in his ability to carry out the plan.
The same can be said of Dhoni – but not of too many others in the line-up. Sehwag’s gone for now, Gambhir’s personal struggles with form continue, Raina remains a decent player but not a match-winner.
So who does it leave? Dhoni, of course. Kohli’s from, despite the recent dip, has earned him the number three slot.
But the number four slot will be ideal for Dhoni. It will allow him to mentor in the middle, it will allow him to dictate terms to the other batsmen and change the course of the match with his patented approach.
The numbers have been paraded many times before but they merit retelling: In 216 matches, Dhoni has 7215 at an average of 52.28. At No.3, 16 matches, 993 runs at 82.75. At No.4, 18 matches, 910 at 70.00. A majority of his innings have come at No.6 – 80 matches, 2478 runs at 43.47 and no centuries.
Over the 12 months, Dhoni’s average is 65.27 in 20 matches. The next best in the Indian team – Kohli comes in at 57.42 in 21 matches. No one else comes close. So why wouldn’t you want these guys to bat together?
Even in the second ODI, it was Dhoni who helped steady the ship after Kohli got himself out and Yuvraj Singh was unlucky to be dismissed. He started off slowly, 12 off 26 balls, and then slowly built the momentum, as has become the norm. By the time, he finished, he had 72 off 66 balls including 7 fours and 2 sixes.
There could be the thought that if Dhoni also falls early, there will be no one to salvage the innings. But frankly, the Indian team management shouldn’t have any second thoughts about Dhoni batting up the order in India – the gains outweigh the risks many times over.
And in Yuvraj Singh, the team has someone who has batted at No.5 before. Indeed, the left-hander’s average at number 5 (3007 runs at 41.76) is higher than any other position he has batted in. At No.4, where he bats currently, he averages 35.24 and also frequently comes up against the new ball.
In Yuvraj, Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin – India have enough players to make the final push. But India need someone to guide them through the tricky middle overs with experienced calm and Dhoni is a shoe-in for the spot. In pacer friendly conditions (Australia, England, South Africa), he might want to come back down the order. But in India – given his mastery of the conditions and the format – he must bat higher up.
Simply put, right now in India, the team needs Dhoni the batsman, more than it needs Dhoni the captain.