You have to feel for MS Dhoni. A little less than five years ago he was arguably the most popular person in the country after he led India to World Cup glory on home soil. Now, with another World Cup in India less than two months away, he is being forced to confront questions about his sell-by-date not only as captain, but also as an international cricketer.
Such is the ruthlessness of the modern sports machine.
All of which adds an extra layer of intrigue to India’s final stretch ahead of the World T20 that starts on 8 March. The first challenge is the three match T20I series against Australia, which, incidentally, will be India’s longest ever bilateral T20 series.
Yes, India has never played a T20I series longer than two games before. In fact, Since 1 December, 2006, India has played a grand total of 57 T20 internationals. Over that same period, they have played 95 Tests and 262 one-day internationals.
When a team takes the field only a handful of times a year, it is unlikely to know the identity of its best XI players. That this is the direct result of the BCCI wanting to protect the Indian Premier League makes it a bitter pill to swallow but and the Indian team has no choice. They must make do with what they have been given.
India’s win-loss record of 1.291 in T20Is is also the team’s lowest across cricket’s three formats since December 2006 (in Tests it is 1.392 and in ODIs 1.663) and they have won just two of their last 14 T20I series while losing eight (the other four were drawn).
It means India are not only the least experienced in the shortest format, it is also the format in which they have had the least success. Not exactly a combination for success.
While the pressure on Dhoni to win is immense following India’s loss in the ODI series, the selectors have already appointed him captain for the World T20. With his position seemingly (there’s always room for a sacking or resignation) secure, India should use this series to move closer to deciphering their best XV (and best XI) for the World T20, something Team Director Ravi Shastri has already indicated that they will do, saying "I think every game form here on till the World T20 will be extremely important. It gives you a chance to try different players and see what combination works best for you.”
The perils of not knowing your best team were laid bare during the one-day series, and India need to establish their identity before the World Cup begins.
The selectors have gone back to the past in the hope that experience and wiser heads can provide the stability – at least in the short term – that is a must for any successful team. Much therefore rests on the shoulders of Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra.
The return of Yuvraj Singh, who has been in good nick in domestic cricket, and the presence of Suresh Raina, has the potential to add balance to the team. If these two make runs, it will ease the pressure on the batting and the bowling. A top six that features Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni could do a lot of damage to opposing bowlers.
The inclusion of 36-year-old Ashish Nehra, the oldest player in either squad, in may seem like a strange one – he hasn’t played for India since 2011 and Geoffrey Boycott’s grandmother would be a better fielder – but his IPL successes justify his selection.
He could also provide a bandaid for one of India’s biggest weaknesses. A lack of experience has hurt India’s bowling in particular. The attack cries out for a Zaheer Khan-type figure who can guide the younger bowlers during the course of the match and teach them how to adapt to different situations. If Nehra could fill that role and bring some discipline to the bowling attack, it would benefit India far beyond the short term of the World T20.
Picking the bowling combination is also a complicated task for India. With two offspinners in the squad, India will likely have to choose between Harbhajan Singh and R Ashwin, who was dropped after the first ODI despite having been India’s best bowler in the home series against South Africa by a considerable distance. Harbhajan had the better IPL Season but Ashwin is obviously the long-term choice. Picking between them won’t be easy.
What should aid India is Australia isn’t a settled side either. Australia played just one T20 International in 2015 and have also recalled a senior player – Shaun Tait – who hasn’t played international cricket for years. They have their own chopping and changing to do.
But India shouldn’t be worried about all that. A series win would be nice but the eyes must be on the bigger prize.