Indian captain Virat Kohli faced some hard choices before the start of their final ODI clash of the tour against England. India's middle order had failed them badly in the previous game. It wasn't a new problem, India has struggled to find a settled middle order for over a year now.
To fix the issue for this series decider, Kohli decided to include Dinesh Karthik in the team in place of KL Rahul, a move he declared as "tactical" during the toss and again at the post-game presentation ceremony. But tact was precisely the thing missing from this move.
A like-for-like replacement policy has been one of the cornerstones of the current Indian regime. It's the reason someone like Ajinkya Rahane can't find a place in the team unless one of the openers is in poor form because one must replace an opener with an opener. However, Dinesh Karthik, India's back up keeper has to find his way in the team as a batsman if he has to get a game. Surely, if Karthik is fit to bat at the tricky number 4 slot in the series decider, then he must also be good enough to replace a struggling Dhoni at number 6, especially at a time when KL Rahul looks in the form of his life and shows promise to make this his breakaway tour.
MS Dhoni is far from finished as a cricketer even if his batting returns have diminished. Dhoni is still India's most accomplished gloveman and offers immense wisdom to bowlers and captain from behind the stumps. But the biggest issue that this team has to address at the moment is its middle order and based on current form Dinesh Karthik seems like a better bet.
Dhoni should still be a part of India's plan for the 2019 World Cup, just that he should not be considered an automatic selection. Dhoni's struggle with the bat at the international level is not just about getting the runs but about playing the situations. In a 50-over game, a middle-order batsman must be adept at rotating the strike at will and then switch to ballistic mode when the team needs quick runs; skills Dhoni has been a master of over the years. These days Dhoni struggles to find the big shots when the team needs them. More importantly, he struggles to rotate strike, especially against wrist spinners.
With the abundant talent pool at India's disposal, there is no reason to restrict yourself in selection choices these days. When England was faced with a similar choice in T20s, they took the tough decision of dropping an out of form Joe Root. It didn't mean Root is finished as a T20 cricketer, but it sent a strong message to Joe Root and the team on what is expected from each one of them.
Mind you, this isn't about Dhoni's age at all. Fitness, form, skills and team's needs are the only factors for selection. Sachin Tendulkar played 2011 World Cup when he was 38, but he was still India's best batsman by a distance. If Dhoni can make a claim based on merit, then he deserves to keep wickets for India even in his 40s, like Alec Stewart did for England.
If India’s experiment with Dinesh Karthik, or Rishabh Pant, or whoever selectors see as the best bet to replace Dhoni doesn't work, then they can always go back to MS Dhoni in time for the 2019 World Cup. But in the run up to cricket's biggest event, when Kohli's team promises to try all options at hand, blocking the wicket keepers spot doesn't allow them to figure out the best playing eleven.
Exactly a year ago, India lost the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan. Kohli learnt from that loss and made some bold selection choices that have made India a better limited overs side since then. Dropping Ashwin and Jadeja, Test crickets top 2 bowlers wasn't easy but Kohli stuck with the more aggressive wrist spin options and the team has reaped the rewards for it. Hopefully, this loss in the virtual final will have the same effect.
At no other point in India's cricketing history, we were so spoiled with choices. To make the most of these cricketing riches, India can afford to be more liberal in picking and dropping cricketers based on form. The team shouldn't settle for anything less than complete domination of all forms of cricket in the coming decade. If it requires making some tough decisions on the way, then so be it. It was none other than Dhoni who essentially laid the foundation of the current ODI team by dropping some of the biggest names in Indian cricket, who also happened to be his former captains, a decade ago. Kohli may have to do something similar to stamp his authority and mark his legacy in Indian cricket.