Indecision is not a characteristic one associates with MS Dhoni. Whether it was throwing the ball to Joginder Sharma or Ishant Sharma in the final of the World T20 and the Champions Trophy respectively, or promoting himself in the batting order in the biggest final of all, he has typically been decisive and resolute.
Even when it hasn’t succeeded e.g. when he refused to give Ambati Rayudu the strike in the final moments of a T20 against England in 2014 at Edgbaston and India lost, there was no second guessing. He had decided what was in the best interest of the team and acted accordingly. If it did not pay off, so be it. He understands that every decision isn’t going to pay off. What’s important is to act in accordance with your convictions.
But in India’s ODI series against South Africa, Dhoni appeared to lack the courage of his convictions. He had called out Ajinkya Rahane on the previous tour of Bangladesh, saying the Mumbai batsmen was not suited for the middle order on slow subcontinental pitches and needed to wait his turn since the top three in order – Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli – were set (the stats backed Dhoni up on this one).
Yet in the very next one-day series against South Africa, Rahane was not only back in the team but batting at No 3, thereby pushing Kohli down to No 4. And then after two games, and two half-centuries, he was moved down to No. 6, a position he was not supposed to be suited for, while Dhoni slotted himself in at No 4.
It didn’t end there. Rahane was back up to No 4 for the fourth game, as if the team was picking its batting order by playing musical chairs in the dressing room.
Dhoni also stated he wanted to bat up the order, but also that he couldn’t because nobody else had the experience to bat at No 6 or No 7, so he did both over the course of the series. Captain Cool had transformed into the Tinkerman.
All of which is to suggest Dhoni is not only uncertain of his best XI but also how to get the best out of the players as a combination. There also appears to a mismatch between team director Ravi Shastri's "ra-ra approach" and Dhoni's understated, balanced way of functioning. In theory, the two approaches could complement each other, or equally lead to confusion. And confusion is the enemy of effective leadership. When doubt creeps in, as with any endeavour, the end product typically suffers.
Against Australia, Dhoni will not only have to figure out how to integrate a handful of new faces in the squad - Manish Pandey, Gurkeerat Man Singh, Rishi Dhawan and Barinder Sran – but he has to do so in the absence of a couple of dependables in Suresh Raina and Mohammad Shami.
Will Dhoni back Pandey or Gurkeerat to play the finisher at No 6, or will he resign himself to that slot even though he knows that he is no longer as brutally effective as he used to be? One thing to keep in mind is that the only way for a player to gain experience as a finisher is to do it. If the next generation is to be groomed, they can’t start fast enough.
To do that successfully, India need Dhoni to be at his clear-headed best. Experienced players can often figure things out for themselves but rookies generally need their roles in the team to be well defined. Ideally, they need to feel they have the backing of their captain too.
The stakes are high for Dhoni personally too. Excluding the abandoned West Indies series in India in 2014, India has won only one of its last five ODI series under his leadership, losing to South Africa home and away, New Zealand away and most tellingly to Bangladesh for the first time ever. They failed to win a single ODI series in 2015.
Hopefully the tinkering against South Africa has resolved the dilemmas in Dhoni’s mind and he is now comfortable with how the pieces of this team fit together, because you can be sure Australia will punish any hesitation or uncertainty. Dhoni, and India, can’t afford to vacillate any further.