On Friday morning in Melbourne, Andy Murray sat giving a press conference in tears, revealing his just 31-year-old body, once a virile work of splendour, could no longer be trusted. The three-time Grand Slam champion had to compose himself on several occasions before managing to announce that this year's Wimbledon, if he and his achilles hip make it even that far, will be his last professional tennis tournament. "I spoke to my team and I told them I can't keep doing this. I needed to have an end point..."
Murray is not the only thirty-something superstar currently in Australia now striving hard to finish their illustrious career in London. As the Scot fights against his own flesh and bone to make it to SW19 in July, MS Dhoni will simultaneously be struggling to ensure he can take his bow at the World Cup, and most preferably at Lord’s in the final on 14 July. Tears are unlikely to be seen from Dhoni whatever happens, but his fate as an international sportsman increasingly seems to be as parlous as that of Murray.
On Saturday at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) in the first ODI, Dhoni once again played the sort of innings that invited scorn for its lethargy, inching to 51 off 96 as India left it too late to chase down Australia's 288. There were plenty of things to say in mitigation, though, and not least that any number five who walks in at 4 for 3, as Dhoni did in Sydney, is not going to crack on with things terribly quickly. He also seemed to be suffering from some sort of queasy illness during his innings, which was his first time at the crease in any form of cricket for two months. He nonetheless managed a partnership of 137 with Rohit Sharma, going pass 10,000 ODI runs for India, as he did and his dismissal, trapped in front to a ball pitching outside leg, was a little unlucky.
Yet all his dogged innings ultimately achieved was to invite more questions and winces from his doubters. Where once Dhoni steadied the ship before steering it home he now often seems to maroon his side in the middle of nowhere. All the while Rishabh Pant, with his shark-like instincts and scoring speed, circles round menacingly as the calls for his inclusion at his fellow glovesman’s expense grow ever louder.
Whether to keep Dhoni in the side remains a divisive issue, but the trend in his ODI numbers is less ambiguous. His strike rate in the last 12 months in ODIs is just 68 at an average of 27. From 2013 to 2018, the steady decline in his yearly strike rate has been stark: 96, 92, 86, 80, 85, 71, with Saturday's 53 not the most dynamic way to get off the mark in 2019. In the twelve matches India have lost since January 2017, he has a strike rate of just 68 with an average of 39. In the nine of those games where he got to 20 he still ended up with a strike rate of 68 at an average of 50, not a combination modern oppositions now fear.
Seven of the twelve losses came when chasing, and here his strike rate falls to 56 and his average 27. In the four of those where he got to 20, he struck at 55 with an average of 42. Dhoni has contributed to wins in this period, and it is clearly not fair to cite him as the sole reason for these defeats. Yet it is possible to see why, when India lose, he particularly draws the ire of fans infused with lust for the modern game’s customary aggression and, of course, Dhoni’s once customary gift for acceleration.
Looking at Sydney’s effort itself, Australia’s quicks bowled rather full at him, offering numerous half-volleys which were nonetheless pokily mistimed to the men at cover. His drives have always been a thing of muscular will rather than Laxmanian beauty, but it was far from pretty watching him repeatedly miss out on boundaries, or at least miss out on keeping the sweeper busy. His wristy forward press, employed against both spin and seam so effectively over the years, once relentlessly used to result in strike-rotating singles to leg. Now it regularly just results in sighs as the ball plops listlessly down onto the cut strip for another dot. For all his helicopter brawn, Dhoni has always – helped by his still lightning legs – been a consummate nurdler, and the loss of this part of his game is both significant and a mystery. We might expect the power hitting to decline with age, but not the nuanced manipulation of space. It is peculier.
None of this means that Dhoni will certainly lose his place before the World Cup, and there is evidence Kohli himself may feel he owes his predecessor a debt of gratitude when it comes to team selection. When he took over the ODI captaincy from him in 2017, he said that Dhoni “will always be the person who guided me initially and gave me opportunities. He gave me ample time and space to grow as a cricketer, saved me from getting dropped from the team many a times.” There is also a suggestion Dhoni keeps his place because Kohli is still lacking tactical nous. His insight is doubtless still highly valuable, but after a well-regarded strategic display in the Test series, Kohli may well feel more emboldened in this regard. Indeed, the claim he needs help in any regard may not really appeal to a man of his seismic pride.
More worrying still was Kohli’s post-match interview when, although praising Dhoni’s rebuilding of the innings with Sharma, India’s current skipper also stated that “we could have done better with the tempo of the game”. Hardly a damning or direct criticism of his number five, but it was an interesting, slightly pointed, comment nonetheless. Not to read to much into it, but “tempo” is probably not a word Dhoni's still loyal hordes of supporters would want to hear Kohli say in lament in relation to India's batting after a loss.
There remain other more innovative scenarios for Dhoni’s future in the side. Sharma, who scored a stunning and evenly paced hundred, was asked about his ex-captain’s sluggishness and used a bit of deflection every bit as clever as one of his ramp shots. “Personally I always feel that Dhoni batting at No. 4 will be ideal for the team but we have got Rayudu who has done really well now at No. 4,” he said. “It totally depends on what the captain and coach think about it. Personally, I would be happy if Dhoni bats at four.” This would indeed be a little unfair on Rayudu, but would at least in theory free up a spot for Pant. Facing slightly harder, newer balls may also be beneficial to Dhoni's early innings scoring rate but those who would have him dropped entirely might baulk at the prospect of him being given even more time to construct, brick by brick, block by block, one of his knocks.
For some time now Dhoni has been using a bat with the bottom corners smoothed off into a curve. Post-sandpaper gate it's tempting to suggest it looks as if Cameron Bancroft has spent an afternoon with it, but in fact it is the work of Pune-based batsmith Mahesh Ransubhe, a favourite of Kohli, who passed his blade guru’s details on to team mates. Dhoni requested the unusual shape to reduce the impact of yorkers hitting the base of his bat and thus reduce the chance of the grain being split. His critics might say it’s not just the base he’s worried about breaking, such are his growing levels of passivity. Yet he still, despite the current scepticism towards him and justified adulation towards Pant, has the chance to set his own career “end point”. Both Murray and Dhoni richly deserve a fairytale finish. Regrettably, the next six months might have other, rather less heartwarming, ideas.