MS Dhoni vs the World

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!”

A Game of Thrones in Mumbai

The Mumbai Indians’ quest for IPL glory has led to the latest development in their camp: Sachin Tendulkar taking a ‘break’ from captaincy and Harbhajan Singh taking over the reins.

First of, there won’t be too many arguments in favor of Sachin continuing as skipper. Throughout his career, the Mumbai maestro has never mastered the art of captaincy, be it for India or the Mumbai Indians. Highlights of his captaincy includes more mis-steps than master-strokes; for instance, keeping Pollard for too late during the final of IPL-3. There is no doubt that he is a good mentor for the younger players in the squad and a good sounding board for fellow veterans; but captaining a team is something he is better off without. In that sense, relinquishing the captaincy makes sense, though I don’t understand the term ‘taking a break’. Does that mean, he will want the reins back, when he feels sufficiently rejuvenated and motivated? In that case, this move doesn’t make sense.

In contrast, Harbhajan Singh seems to be the natural successor to Tendulkar. While he may have been discarded from the Indian team for the past few months, there is no doubt that when he dons the role of captain, he brings a certain element of flair and luck to the team. In the time he has been away from the national side, he has led Mumbai Indians to a Champions League title, India Green to a shared Challenger Trophy and Punjab to the final of the domestic T20 trophy. He has put in decent performances in these games, showing that captaincy doesn’t affect his natural game (for better or worse!). He reminds me of Saurav Ganguly, a fighter who liked to lead by example and was unafraid to be expressive on the field. Perhaps, the Mumbai Indians need that extra jolt of passion from their skipper to cross the final hurdle and win the IPL for the first time.

Singh is lucky that he has a bevy of talented performers in the side, both international and domestic. While he may receive a lot of support from Tendulkar, it will be ultimately up to him to make the decisions at crunch time and keep the team unified in pursuit of a single goal. This could be the latest challenge for a person known to have a volatile temperament and it will be interesting to track his progress.

Which brings us back to the matter of Tendulkar taking a ‘break’ from captaincy; if Singh fails, does it mean Tendulkar will be back in command next time? If Harbhajan leads the team to the title, will Tendulkar accept that his days of captaincy are over? Or will Mukesh bhai and Nita bhabi have the final word in this game of thrones?

Future Indian Captain – Raina or Kohli?

Gautam Gambhir follows close friend and Delhi team-mate Virender Sehwag, with injury concerns of his own, which may just make him sit out of the West Indies tour and deprive him of the opportunity to further state his captaincy credentials in Indian colors. This would most likely pave way for Suresh Raina to get a second shot at captaincy after a poor first stint in Zimbabwe a couple of years ago, highlighted by two defeats to Zimbabwe and failure to qualify for the tri-series final. My question is: should it be that straight forward?

It is no secret that Virat Kohli has been earmarked for captaincy for quite a while now. He has prior experience, having led the India U-19 team to World Cup glory, and has stepped in admirably for Vettori as RCB skipper in this year’s IPL. He has grown into a mature and well rounded cricketer in the last couple of years, with high praises from the people who matter. You will be hard pressed to find anybody who disagrees that he should be groomed as the future Indian captain.

Yet, by a quirk of fate, Suresh Raina is one step ahead of him. Having made his debut for India much before Kohli, he also has the advantage of having played Test matches. So, the selectors have used logic in placing Raina in proper hierarchy, ahead of Kohli in the captaincy stakes.

Personally, I wish the selectors were bold enough to make Kohli the skipper if Gambhir is ruled out of the series. Yes, that would be unfair to Raina, as he has not done anything to make his case weak; on the other hand, he has an impressive resume, himself. Paralysed by doubt and insecurity during the Chappell era, he made his way back into the Indian team through sheer determination and is one of the few batsmen to have scored centuries in all three formats of the game, and was crucial in India’s victories in the quarters and semis of the recent World Cup. When a wicket falls, he is the first fielder to rush either the bowler or fielder (whoever is closer!) with a fierce hug. He is never short of ideas in the field, involving himself in decisions of bowling changes or field placements. I suppose if Kohli was not around, he would be the unanimous choice for the much sought after position in Indian cricket.

My only grouse is that Raina is not established in either Tests or ODIs right now. After a thrilling start to his Test career, he has tapered off, losing his position to Pujara in the process. In the ODIs, he was not even in the first choice playing XI during the league stages of the World Cup, playing his first game of the tournament in the quarterfinal against Australia. (It reminds me of the way Dhoni got his shot at captaincy. With Sehwag and Yuvraj having fitness/form issues, Dhoni grabbed the opportunity to establish himself as the long term option; and India have not looked back since then.) Raina should be spending the major part of the coming season, in developing himself as a quality Test player and making himself as a permanent fixture in the ODI team as well. While Kohli may not have made his Test debut yet, no one doubts that it is just a matter of time now. This is the perfect time to assess Kohli the captain, in a ODI series against the West Indies.

In the short run, it might not matter as Dhoni isn’t going anywhere and Gambhir will take over when he is unavailable; but it will be nice to have a clearer idea of who the FIC (Future Indian Captain) might be. Suresh Raina or Virat Kohli…..what’s your choice?

Jonathan Trott – FEC, anyone?

The Trott-master

Ian Jonathan Leonard Trott is one the most obdurate, annoying and clinically efficient batsmen in international cricket today. He might be of South African origin, but his batting is as English as they come. In Tests, he can stonewall for hours at an end, and still have loads of runs to show for his effort, as an average of 61.53 after 30 innings indicate. Now, as he showed at Adelaide yesterday, he can transfer that form to the ODIs as well. In 15 innings, he has scored 6 fifties and 2 centuries at an average of 54.38, and that is not too bad for a person, whom many considered initially as a misfit in the shorter formats. He also has the pesky habit of making the fielding team wait before each delivery as he marks his guard painstakingly slow, and despite all the protestations from the oppositions and the umpires, he remains unfazed and follows his ritual religiously. He has some street cred after his altercation with Wahab Riaz last summer and as far as sledging is concerned, he can give as good as he gets.

I’m just mentioning all these things, as I believe Trott has got what is needed to be the next FEC (Future England Captain), once Strauss steps down in a couple of years. Sure, there is Alastair Cook and fellow Warwickshire team-mate Ian Bell who can be considered ahead of him; but Cooky and Belly (BTW, why is the English team so non-creative that they cannot come up with nicknames that does not end in ‘-y’?), for all their improved form do not inspire much confidence when it comes to the shorter formats. Cook is not an automatic selection in either the ODIs or T20s, while Bell who is probably the best timer of the ball in the team is still prone to making attractive 30s and 40s without going on to make a bigger one. Neither of them will be able to command the respect of the team in the manner Trott would be able to if he is appointed skipper. He reminds me of Steve Waugh and that is good enough for me! At the moment, Trott is still relatively new on the international scene with 18 Tests and 15 ODIs, but I feel he has done enough to be considered seriously in a couple of years, when it would be time for a change of captaincy.

Of course, a lot could change in that time. Cook might transform himself into a champion ODI batsman and Bell could become one of the most prolific and consistent scorers in the world. Trott might hit a prolonged rough patch – but these are all ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’……It might be a bit premature, considering that Strauss won’t be going anywhere soon, but in case of injury or reasons of rest, I believe Trott would be the best of the available options as a stand-in skipper. He might not have much of captaincy experience compared to Cook or Bell, but he has excelled in everything he has done so far (including bowling) and there is no reason why he cannot bring that same bloody mindedness and heart to the captaincy as well. What do you think?

King Daniel steps down from his throne – New Zealand Cricket

'This ship is all yours, mate!'

So, Daniel Vettori will not be the Kiwi skipper after the World Cup. I don’t really think it matters either way. Be it Ross Taylor or Brendon McCullum who take over, they will always rely on Vettori for advice. So, his influence is not really going to wane much.

Vettori has captained the side during some trying times, with a mostly mediocre team with few world-beaters. He came within 2 wickets of securing a historic Test series victory in India, but it was not meant to be. Instead, his tenure will mostly be remembered for the end, as New Zealand hurtled to embarrassing ODI series whitewashes against Bangladesh and India. Perhaps, it is better after all if he is relieved of major responsibilities and allowed to focus on his own game so that he can win more matches single-handedly!

Now, he has one last chance to lead his team to glory in February-March. Given the team’s recent form though, don’t hold your breath.