Is one of international cricket’s finest finishers in the twilight of a great and glorious career?
The answer to that question would undoubtedly interest cricket aficionados who feel grievously aggrieved by skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s current performance on India’s tour of Australia.
To be precise, the 4-0 loss — thus far — in One Day Internationals is nothing new to Indian cricket. But what has shocked even the most ardent of Dhoni’s fans is his complete disintegration as batsman, wicket-keeper and, tellingly, as a leader. Once celebrated as Captain Cool and of having remarkable presence of mind and poise during run chases, the burnout of Dhoni seems total on this tour.
Forget the contentious choice of the playing XI, bowling changes or indifferent wicket-keeping in the first three ODIs. Those first three losses were passed off as the limitations of a poor bowling attack.
The fourth ODI, though, was different. India was chasing a target this time around, not defending it with an inept bowling and fielding combination. Additionally, the batsmen — Virat Kohli in particular, but also Rohit Sharma — were in the form of their lives. For good measure, Shikhar Dhawan too stepped up to the plate. Ad so, despite being confronted with a mammoth target of 349, India was still in fine fettle.
But this is where the Dhoni story came unstuck. The champion finisher of yesteryear — who had formerly made a mockery of chasing down impossible targets — lost the plot even as the match was virtually in India’s pocket. And that was something totally un-Dhoni like.
When Dhawan was dismissed, India at 277 for 2 in 37.3 overs needed to score at only six runs an over against a decidedly poor Australian bowling attack. Dhoni just needed to play himself in by handing over the strike to the rampaging Kohli.
The Dhoni of the past would have controlled the match from there; first by milking the bowling and then by inspiring confidence in his partners before unleashing his trademark powerful strokes to seal the match. But then, that’s what Dhoni of the past would have done.
Sadly, at Canberra the third ball dismissal for a duck at the hands of unheralded Aussie medium-pacer John Hastings was not just an ignominy, but a clear signal that the momentum had irrefutably shifted away from Dhoni.
The Dhoni of halcyon days had an invincible aura about him. He led India to World Cup triumphs in both the 50-over and T20 versions; piloted the country to the top of the World Test Ranking, where his calm leadership and timely batting interventions helped the team retain the number one position for over two years. This is besides the numerous ODI and T20 wins and also making Chennai Super Kings a champion team in the IPL.
Dhoni himself was such an inspirational leader that many of his handpicked boys revelled under pressure. The captain, with his cool and calm demeanour had trusted young kids like Joginder Sharma, RP Singh, Suresh Raina, Ravinder Jadeja et al to deliver at critical moments and they did not let him down.
Robin Uthappa, after that famous inaugural T20 World Cup win had said that if his skipper Dhoni “asked him to stand in front of a moving truck, he would.”
Of course enough has been written about Dhoni’s exploits with the bat, as leader and as a smart wicket-keeper to warrant repetition here. But the point that needs to be made is that Dhoni’s recent record of 24 matches, 692 runs, highest of 92 and an average of 38.44 compares poorly with his overall ODI record (274 matches, 240 innings, 8,884 runs, 51.35 average, highest of 183 not out). Another sure indicator of the slip in his standards is reflected by the fact that Dhoni, overall, has scored 50 or more runs once every four innings (3.48 innings to be precise). But in his last four innings he has had scores of 0, 23, 11 and 18. Immediately before that were scores of 27, 15 and 47.
These are a far cry from the time Sri Lanka’s master batsman Mahela Jayawardene in sheer admiration of Dhoni’s batsmanship had said: “One inch here and there and a guy like Dhoni could take you apart. He is a great finisher; he is cool and backs himself. He is a strong character.”
These days when a lot of power-hitting — so essential in T20s and ODIs — is determined by bat-speed, it seems that Dhoni had lost out on that count too. Technology could pinpoint whether an ageing Dhoni has suffered substantially on this score. However, the fact that he hasn’t deployed his famous ‘helicopter’ shot for ever so long could owe as much to the ‘outside off-stump’ line and length that the bowlers hurl at him as his slowing bat-speed.
There are one ODI and three T20Is yet to be completed on this Australian tour and hence, Dhoni might still bat out of his skin in one of the four innings.
Sadly, there is no denying that Dhoni’s days in the sun are almost over and India needs to look beyond him, if not for the forthcoming T20 World Cup, then surely after that.