MS Dhoni may have been on an extended sabbatical since the World Cup, but remains in the headlines as the press continues to ponder over his cricketing future.
“We are moving on, we are very clear.”
Over three months have passed since MS Dhoni fell tragically short of his crease at the striker's end while returning for a risky second run — a direct hit by Martin Guptill ended India’s World Cup hopes and sent New Zealand into the final. The former India captain may have been on an extended sabbatical ever since, but remains in the headlines as the press continues to ponder over his cricketing future.
MSK Prasad’s comments on the selection committee “moving on” from Dhoni and focussing on giving Rishabh Pant enough time and support to make him a mainstay in the team has only added fuel to the fire. Dhoni personally might hate any mention of the R-word during press conferences, as one journalist found out the hard way, but discussions on the cricketing exits of waning stars have always been a hot topic for gossip, and will likely remain so until he makes the big announcement for good.
It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a replacement for Dhoni once he walks into the sunset, to give an idea of the size of the void he will be leaving behind. Pant might be an exciting prospect for the road ahead and can very well be the superstar that many are expecting him to be, and he certainly has his captain’s confidence in his ability in this regard.
That said, Dhoni continues to make an impact despite getting within touching distance of the age of 40. He is fitter than youngsters half his age, as his running between the wickets and his reflexes behind the stumps would suggest. Sure, Dhoni may have watered down his big-hitting skills a touch over the years, but he continues to be a calming presence at the crease and helps absorb the pressure, letting his partner take charge from the other end.
Maybe if Dhoni had batted a little higher up the order on that fateful Wednesday at Manchester, Pant and Hardik Pandya might not have been dismissed off rash shots and the burden of a billion hopes would not have rested entirely on his and Ravindra Jadeja’s shoulders. That, along with his statesman-like presence on the field in terms of setting the field, discussing bowling plans and assisting captain Virat Kohli still makes him something of a central figure in the side, despite the team management’s statement of looking towards the future.
The current team is largely young and is being touted as one of the best India’s ever had — coach Ravi Shastri often insisting on this being the greatest ever. But injecting some experience into the squad, especially when it doesn’t come at the cost of fitness and contribution to the team, never hurts.
Back to the original question: Are Dhoni’s cricketing days over? Well, Prasad’s comments while unveiling the India squads for the upcoming home fixtures against Bangladesh certainly seem to point in that direction. But let’s not forget what Sourav Ganguly had said in his first press conference after taking over as the BCCI president.
"You know champions don't finish quickly. I don't know what's in his mind and what he thinks about his career. So we will deal with that you know… Till I am around, everybody will be respected and that doesn't change," said Ganguly, under whose captaincy Dhoni made his international debut in 2004.
While Prasad hasn’t mentioned anything on his own future as the chief selector, speculations are rife that the Bangladesh announcement could be his last act in the role. That, coupled with Ganguly’s cryptic comments earlier on Wednesday somewhat suggest that we might not have seen the last of Dhoni in the blue jersey yet.
MSD will probably not figure in India’s World T20 plans given how drastically his batting strike rate has fallen over the years.
Since the World Cup in England earlier this year, the Indian team have begun their preparations for next big ICC assignment that takes place in a shorter former Down Under, a campaign popularly dubbed 'Mission 2020'. Nearly every tour since between the World Cup and the next edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) contains T20I fixtures, and India's 20-over assignments will only intensify heading closer to the grand event. A T20-heavy calendar could raise questions over Dhoni's match-readiness among other barbs.
A different format however, sometimes brings with it a different set of personnel, and Dhoni still has a role to play in the 50-over format, at least till the youngsters in the middle order find their feet and the problems surrounding No 4 and other batting positions are solved.
India do not play an ODI until January, and Dhoni’s break from the sport will likely be a lengthy one. However, do expect MS to come back firing when India host Australia in a three-ODI series. Even if 2020 is his last year in international cricket, Dhoni deserves a swansong like the ones accorded to other Indian cricketing legends for his contribution to the game.
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