Why the search for Dhoni’s successor should start now

by Jul 4, 2013

We’ve predicted apocalypse after the retirement of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. We’ve dreaded the moment Sachin Tendulkar will call it quits. We’ve obsessed over Virender Sehwag. We’ve worried over Zaheer Khan’s lack of fitness. We’ve criticised Harbhajan Singh.

But rarely if ever – have we spared a thought for Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the same vein. He is among the fittest Indian cricketers; his batting is vital for the team, he has a knack of delivering when the team needs him most, and his captaincy has come in for praise from many quarters. He’s there and he delivers time and again. We think – it’s all good; all positive (at least when it comes to his cricket).

But his forced withdrawal from the tri-series in the West Indies allows us a rare glimpse into India after Dhoni. It is a glimpse that tells us of the challenges that lie ahead of the selection committee and honestly it isn’t a walk in the park.

An interesting analysis in the Cricket Country website, puts the number of matches that the Indian skipper has played since making his debut in December 2004 at 344. That is the most among all active international players; the most by an Indian player by a fair distance.

The fact that his workload is high shouldn’t surprise many – he has been playing all the three formats for India, he rarely ever misses a match due to injury and the moments when he himself has chosen to take a rest are rarer still (Sri Lanka and West Indies [after the World Cup] come to mind instantly).

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, left, is tended by the team physiotherapist after injuring his leg during the Tri-Nation Series cricket match against the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. AP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, left, is tended by the team physiotherapist after injuring his leg during the Tri-Nation Series cricket match against the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. AP

But the thought that applied to Dravid, Laxman and the other seniors also applies to Dhoni. Simply put, how is India planning for when Dhoni decides to retire? Do we have a succession plan in place? Are BCCI going to turn around and tell Dhoni to rest for the odd meaningless match and give others a chance?

We have seen wicket-keepers come in as back-up and go out of the squad often without playing a match (Wriddhiman Saha is one such example) and still other wicket-keepers have made it to the side as pure batsmen (Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik for instance). But do we have an understudy in place… someone who can learn from Dhoni and come into the team when the Indian skipper decides to hang up his gloves?

One might turn around and say that there is no reason to think so far ahead as Dhoni is just 31 but isn’t that the point of planning? India look pretty well settled on the batting and bowling fronts. Yes, the experience of the senior batsmen is missed at times but mostly we feel secure because we know that they are being replaced by a talented lot with potential to do pretty well.

Similarly, if we look at the India captaincy as a standalone – what is the planning being done to prepare Dhoni’s successor? No one in this Indian ODI team has any real captaincy experience at the first-class level – the odd match doesn’t count. Most Indian teams are named without the vice-captain being explicitly named. Virat Kohli is the man on whose shoulders the responsibility has fallen this time round and he seems to be the man being prepared to take over but can we be sure? The BCCI has never made it publicly evident.

For starters, the selectors need to ensure that he captain’s Delhi when he plays in the Ranji Trophy. It will serve as valuable experience – the stint as skipper of Royal Challengers Bangalore will help – but captaining in a four-day match is very different from captaining in a T20 match. The ebb and flow of the game is very different. Also Ranji Trophy will allow him to experiment will tactics and find his own style. He doesn’t need to be a Dhoni clone.

Kohli is aggressive and it reflected in his captaincy style during IPL 6. But in terms of tactical acumen it didn’t tell us too much. It might not be wrong to say that perhaps Rohit Sharma impressed more as skipper of the Mumbai Indians. Suresh Raina also has some captaincy experience but has since faded away from contention.

The whole idea of a handover is to make the transition as smooth as possible – so that the man taking over knows exactly what is expected from him. It took 14 months for Tata Sons to find the Chairman-Designate Cyrus Pallonji Mistry, who would take over from Ratan Tata. The decision was announced in November 2011 and he only officially took over a year later. It helps to know the ropes.

Dhoni has pretty much moulded the way this team plays its cricket and to find someone who understands the grammar of this team as well as him is crucial for India’s continued success. You can find the pieces but you need someone to bring it all together and that’s what Dhoni has done so well.

Finding a successor to Ratan Tata was not easy but similarly finding a successor to Dhoni isn’t going to be easy either which is why starting early is not a bad idea.

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