You can only try to avoid paying heed to the debate on Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s future with the Indian one-day international (ODI) cricket team. But there is more than a good chance that you cannot escape being part of a conversation at some point of time through the weekend when the national selectors meet to pick the squad for the tour of the West Indies.
Let us not beat about the bush and come to the point.
Should Mahendra Singh Dhoni retire from international cricket? That is a query that only one man who can consider and make that decision. Everyone else must refrain from even making a suggestion on this most personal of issues. And it is true of all athletes, not just the man whose inspirational journey has sparked dreams in a generation and more.
Of course, it is the other question that can be asked freely: Should he be picked in the squad that will tour the West Indies? Honestly speaking, it is the selectors who have the power to address this important issue, given that Dhoni will most certainly not be around in the next ICC Cricket World Cup, to be held four years later in India.
It is unlikely that with only a few weeks left for their tenure to end or be up for renewal, the selectors will stick their necks out and decide to leave Dhoni out of the tour party if he is fit and available. For, they will restrain themselves from planning for the next World Cup now. It should surprise no one if the former India captain remains in the squad for some more time.
Besides, after the World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand, Virat Kohli indicated that Dhoni had as much respect in the dressing room as ever. “He (Dhoni) has been given the role after the first few games where he can, if the situation's bad, control one end like he did (in the semi-finals) or if there is a scenario where there are six or seven overs left he can go and strike,” he said.
Yet, despite indications that Dhoni would remain integral to the side, the selectors and the think-tank needs to groom someone for the pivotal job of the wicket-keeping all-rounder in the Indian team. It was evident even before the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 that India’s middle-order batting would be tested. Circumstances and rivals conspired to expose the fragility.
Even if Dhoni made more runs for India than everyone but the top three batsmen and finished with a better average and strike rate than KL Rahul in the recent World Cup, India must look ahead and start building the team for the next edition. It is imperative that a bunch is identified and that each of the players goes in to the 2023 World Cup with the experience of playing around 100 ODIs.
It is not Dhoni who is at a crossroads in his cricketing journey. It is the Indian team who begin the new World Cup cycle and the selectors, as key drivers, must learn from experience and have a plan in place so that the side is not caught short on some count or the other, not the least being without a wicket-keeper who can bid fair to serve the team with distinction.
There are many, not just fans but also vastly experienced administrators, who point out that Dhoni’s age cannot be held against him in making a selectorial decision. The only judgement call that selectors make should be whether he continues to contribute to the team’s cause selflessly and to the best of his abilities.
Of course, it is not his 38 years that must come under scrutiny when the selectors sit together on Sunday. It is always a tricky task to have to balance the team’s immediate needs with the long-term goals. And most certainly, some decisions will come across as more cruel than necessary, especially when they relate to cricketers whose deeds are imprinted in millions of minds.
In an ideal world, the selectors will probably have a conversation with Dhoni to decipher his own thought-process and then make a decision. Whether that happens is anybody’s guess. Yet, it must be remembered that change does not need to be ushered in immediately upon the end of the team’s World Cup 2019 campaign.
Just as in Sachin Tendulkar’s case – his retirement came more than a couple of years after the 2011 World Cup victory – it is possible that Dhoni’s farewell from the ODI team could come only later this year or in the first half of 2020. No matter when that happens, the selectors will have to identify and groom a wicket-keeper-batsman to be prepared to serve the team in the 2023 World Cup.
You can expect Dhoni to understand any decision of the selectors, made in tandem with the captain and the coach. For, he has himself been in control of the plotter in the wake of the 2011 World Cup conquest in India. When it appeared to the thinktank that Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Harbhajan Singh would possibly not be as effective in 2015, change was ushered in.
Given his association with international cricket over a decade and a half, Dhoni will know more about the rebuilding process than anyone else in the present set up. With the ICC Champions Trophy not featuring in the calendar anymore, the next milestone for the ODI team will only be the 2023 World Cup.
It is imperative that the selectors draw up a blue print for the ODI team’s journey while taking on the challenge of disentangling themselves from the surge of emotions when it comes to considering Dhoni. There is no doubt that this could prove to be a tough ask for men who could possibly be overwhelmed by thinking of his contribution to Indian cricket.