India have only 9 ODIs left to iron out their flaws before the World Cup.
A lot of things have fallen in place for India pretty nicely – their top three batsmen are among the best in the world, Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav have promised to sort out India’s middle-order woes, all-rounders Hardik Pandya (currently recovering from an injury) and Ravindra Jadeja add balance to the side while the bowlers have been in great form. The only issue plaguing India is the form of MS Dhoni: where does he fit into the scheme of things? Probably No.6. But he has not looked as woefully out of form since he stormed into the international arena 14 years ago.
From 19 matches this year, Dhoni has scored only 275 runs at an average of 25 – his lowest returns in a year he has played more than three ODIs (In 2004, he played only three ODIs and averaged 9.50).
One of only five Indians to score 10,000 ODI runs, Dhoni has struggled with the bat and was even left out of the T20I series against West Indies and Australia as the selection committee began its search for a second wicketkeeper.
Dhoni is certain to board the flight for England next year while Rishabh Pant, who is seen as Dhoni’s successor in Team India, is likely to be be picked as the second wicket-keeper.
There is little doubt Dhoni is a selfless cricketer. The team, to him, has always come first. He has led from the front and ingrained in his men the need to play for their 10 other mates on the field. Even after stepping down as captain of India’s limited-overs captain, Dhoni continued to guide the young spinners and was a source of ideas and tactics on the field for Virat Kohli: having Dhoni in the middle is like getting access to a superb coach during a live game.
Besides, Dhoni’s wicketkeeping skills are beyond comparison – his reflexes are as sharp as ever and his ability to read the game is second to none. No player in the Indian team can claim greater game awareness than the shrewd MS Dhoni.
But it is Dhoni’s lean patch with the bat that has been cause for concern. And there is an alternative in Rishabh Pant, who has shown the same exuberance a young Dhoni had displayed. There is power in his shots, there is intent and there is no fear. Pant is nowhere as accomplished a wicketkeeper as Dhoni but it must be tempting to see how he does as a wicketkeeper-batsman – hence the decision to drop Dhoni from the T20I series against the West Indies and Australia.
Pant is literally breathing down Dhoni’s neck and while it is too premature to say the latter’s days as an international cricketer are over, he would not want to see himself in a situation where the captain is forced to take a hard call – even during the World Cup. Therefore, MS Dhoni, the greatest finisher in ODIs, has to return to his old ways.
Dhoni plays only limited-overs cricket but with his axe from T20s, he now has only 9 ODIs and maybe three T20s, if picked in the side, in New Zealand next year to prove his doubters wrong.
For the T20s, India are grooming Pant and the more the southpaw impresses, the pressure on Dhoni is bound to mount.
Dhoni, who has scored 10173 runs from 331 ODIs at an average of 50.11, stepped down as India’s limited-overs captain in January 2017. However, he let it be known that he wanted to play the 2019 World Cup in England. And Dhoni left no doubt he was still the man for the job when he hammered his 10th hundred against England a fortnight later.
For a while after relinquishing captaincy, Dhoni looked like he could return to his old ways with the bat. He finished 2017 with 788 runs from 29 matches at an average of 60.61.
In July, Dhoni was booed at Lord’s when he failed to accelerate during a steep chase for India. In the Asia Cup, he did not fare any better, managing a best of 36. In the ODI series against the Windies, Dhoni has scores of 20, 7 and 23 so far.
Dhoni might want to take a leaf out of tennis great Roger Federer’s book on returning to the top of his game. Federer had ended his barren run of winning Grand Slams when he lifted the Australia Open in 2017 for his first major in 5 years. He won 7 titles including Grand Slams last year before clinching his 20th in Australia again in January this year.
Even at the age of 37, Federer is regarded as one of the toughest players on the tour to beat.
Dhoni will always be remembered for his exploits on the field, his cricketing brain and ice cool temperament after his retirement. But for now he is needed to give captain Virat Kohli some sort of surety before the World Cup core group is decided.