Don’t give up at half time. Concentrate on winning the second half.
-Paul “Bear” Bryant
I wonder what is going on in the mind of the usually inscrutable MS Dhoni these days. The last 12 months have been disastrous for the Indian skipper – whitewashed on the England and Australia tours, losing ODI series to both those teams abroad, failing to qualify for the Asia Cup final, and even domestically, a loss in the final of the recently concluded IPL. As someone pointed out on Twitter recently, the last year has seen Dhoni conceding the number 1 ranking in Tests and failing to retain the CB series, Asia Cup, IPL and the Champions League trophy. In an age where memory spans are getting shorter, it is easy to forget that this was the same man who led India to their first ODI World Cup win in 28 years with a majestic innings in Mumbai, not too long ago.
For a while now, there has been scattered talk of replacing Dhoni as skipper with someone else; but in the absence of a viable alternative, those arguments quickly died down. Suddenly, with the triumph of Gautam Gambhir’s KKR against the Dhoni-led CSK in the IPL-5 final, the momentum to replace Dhoni has gathered steam again. Former skipper Saurav Ganguly has been one of the more prominent voices who has called for Gambhir to be appointed Test skipper, with Gambhir himself proclaiming that he is ready for the responsibility. To make it interesting, Dhoni has publicly stated that his choice for skipper would still be himself. This is hardly the ideal run-up to some important series which are coming up, including the T20 World Cup.
There is an element of frustration mixed with impatience, which is leading to the murmurs of dissent against Dhoni. After all, he started his captaincy stint with a bang. His first assignment as T20 skipper brought home the World T20 Cup, vanquishing Pakistan in the final. Alongside Gary Kirsten, he led the team through an upswing in fortunes as the trophies started piling up. India’s ODI performances became consistently better and soon the Test team became number 1 as well. Dhoni himself became one of the best batsmen in ODI cricket and alongside a bunch of legends in Tests and a team of talented youngsters in the shorter form, he took the team to a level where their cricketing prowess became worthy of their board’s clout in the affairs of international cricket. It all culminated in a fairy tale finish at Mumbai on an April evening last year as Dhoni became the first skipper to win the World Cup on home soil. Since then, nothing has gone right for the team or him.
The clamor for his removal from captaincy is mostly suggested by people who believe that his past successes are due to luck and that he has been able to position himself in the right place at the right time. Many of them feel vindicated by the twin failures in England and Australia, where all the ‘luck’ disappeared and his defensive tactics didn’t seem to help in any way. Well, I disagree.
While it true that Dhoni inherited a team of talented players in the ODIs and legends in Tests, there is nothing lucky about the way he carved out his own identity and molded the team into a single unit. When you lead a team consisting of some players who had made their debut at least a decade earlier, you need to be special enough to earn their respect. As for the younger players, you need to prove that you are worthy of the top spot, so that your authority cannot be questioned lightly. Dhoni succeeded in both these tasks. It is one of the main reasons why his leadership hasn’t been questioned all these years, until now.
When a team starts losing, the shortcomings are amplified for all to see and analyze. Dhoni’s tactics and decisions of late have mostly backfired, but he didn’t do too much different when the team was winning as well. To blame his captaincy for all of India’s recent travails, only serves to ignore the bigger picture.
A captain is only good as his team. Never is it more truer than in India’s case. The team’s free fall correlates with the sharp decline in form of their main batsmen and resurfacing of inconsistency among the bowlers. The skipper can only do so much with what he has at his disposal. It has been a collective failure and I don’t see how Dhoni’s captaincy could have done more to change that. Sure, some of his field placings have been negative to say the least; but it is not like he has a fearsome bowling attack to dictate the game more aggressively.
Think of it this way. 2007 to 2012 can be considered just the first half of the game where Dhoni had the luxury of captaining proven performers in both forms of the game and which ultimately brought India more glory than scorn. Now, Indian cricket is heading into the second half where the old timers are moving on and a fresh batch of youngsters are staking their place. It would only be fair for Dhoni to be given the chance to fashion a strong team from here on and see if he can succeed. Then we can think about replacing him with Gambhir or anybody else for that matter.
The only question that remain is, ‘Does Dhoni still have the fire in the belly to take charge of the team and force a change in fortunes?’
Knowing Dhoni, he would simply say with a smile, “Well, Of course!”