When M.S.K. Prasad, chairman of selection committee of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), met the media after announcing the national squad for the limited overs series in Sri Lanka, discussions centered more around his words about Mahendra Singh Dhoni, than any other player. His announcement to the effect that Dhoni was not an automatic selection anymore and that selectors would look for an alternative in case he did not deliver set the tongues wagging. Is Dhoni nearing the end of his playing days? Would the selection committee take the extreme step of dropping him from the side in case he failed to live up to their expectations against Sri Lanka? Did this indicate that Dhoni was on trial? Was Dhoni no longer a part of the plans of the team management for the 2019 ICC World Cup? These questions have intrigued lovers of the game in recent days. Statements by cricketers such as Gautam Gambhir, rumored to be not on good terms with the former skipper, that Dhoni would have to perform to stay in contention till 2019 made one wonder whether there was something more to the conspiracy theories doing the rounds about the imminent retirement of this distinguished cricketer.
Dhoni entered international arena as a long haired strapping youngster with a prodigious ability for clearing the ropes with his clean hits. Though his style, both batting and wicketkeeping, was unorthodox, he proved that his methods were more effective than the ones found in coaching manuals. Hailing from Ranchi, a cricketing backwater, he did not possess any godfather or benefactor to promote his case with the BCCI top brass. He worked his way through the system and established himself in the national side based on the strength of his performances alone. In between he also worked as a ticket collector in Indian Railways, before quitting that job, a decision that caused much consternation to his parents, to focus on his cricket. His capacity for big hitting, absolute lack of fear, total disregard for reputations and a unique ability to retain Zen-like calm in any situation, particularly during the end overs when tensions mounted, made him one of the best finishers in limited overs cricket, adding to his value to the side.
He was a surprise choice for leading the side for the inaugural T20 World Cup held in South Africa in 2007. Rahul Dravid had announced his decision to quit as captain after the tour of England, which followed the disastrous ICC World Cup, where India made a shocking exit in the group stage. Dhoni grabbed the opportunity with both hands and led the side with panache, demonstrating an incredible ability to back his instincts at critical junctures in the game. In what has become the stuff of legends, in the final, when it appeared that Pakistan had the trophy in their bag, he brought on little known Joginder Sharma to bowl the crucial last over and the bowler delivered the goods by getting Misbah-ul-Haq to scoop a catch to S. Sreesanth at short fine leg.
The victory in T20 World Cup changed the fortunes of the game within India as the BCCI seized the opportunity to cash in on the popularity of this new format to start the Indian Premier League (IPL), the biggest money-spinning sports event in the history of the game. Dhoni moved up the ladder to lead the nation in One-Day Internationals, where he proved his mettle by winning the tri-nation series in Australia in 2008. When Anil Kumble announced his retirement from the game towards end of 2008 after a brief tenure as captain, Dhoni was perfectly positioned to take over the mantle of Test captaincy as well.
The period from December, 2009, to April, 2011, when India held the top position in world Test rankings and won the ICC World Cup in style would remain written in golden letters in the annals of Indian cricket. It appeared during this pahse that Dhoni could do no wrong as he converted a squad comprising cricketing giants and exceptionally gifted youngsters into a team of world-beaters. His role in achieving this transformation, his cool and calm demeanour and his ability to act as a bridge between the senior members of the side and the newer generation won wide acclaim. The World Cup win was the icing on the cake and the whole nation rejoiced as the captain, who had bravely promoted himself in the batting order, sealed the victory by smashing a six.
The 2011 World Cup win remains, without doubt, the high point of Dhoni’s career, both as captain and as a player. And once one reaches the peak there is no way to go other than downhill and Dhoni too was forced to trudge this furrow in the years immediately following this triumph. The loss of eight Test matches on a trot against England and Australia was followed by defeat in a Test series against England at home. The retirement of a bunch of senior players, who were all champion performers in their own right, left behind a huge void. Dhoni, however stood firm and strove manfully, coming up with some brilliant personal performances including a double century against Australia in the home series that followed. He built a new team which gradually found its feet and results too started showing with victory coming India’s way in the 2013 Champions Trophy.
However, Dhoni dropped a bombshell by quitting from Test cricket during the tour of Australia, on the eve of the ICC World Cup in 2015. India fared reasonably well in the World Cup reaching the last four stage in style, before falling to eventual champions Australia. India won the Asia Cup next year and reached the semifinals of the ICC T20 World Cup held at home in 2016. Dhoni bowed out of captaincy in limited overs format of the game this January, handing over a well-knit side to his successor Virat Kohli.
Meanwhile, as a batsman, Dhoni matured into the best finisher in contemporary cricket. He usually starts his innings in a sedate manner, scoring mostly in singles run at sprinter's pace. He starts accelerating only toward the end overs by which time he would have got his eye in. His ability to keep a cool head, read the match situation perfectly, think with clarity and strike the ball cleanly are assets that he employs during the death overs to throw the opposition into disarray. He also showed a special prowess for taking the game to the very end, before opening out with his big hitting. In other words, his big shots invariably came during the last 2-3 overs and not before. He was able to get away with this on most occasions as he never allowed panic to overtake him and was supremely confident about his ability to clear the ropes at will.
However, of late, Dhoni appears to be slipping slightly in this area. His capacity for big hitting during the last overs has come under serious challenge and the placing of an extra fielder within the circle has cut down the singles that used to keep the score board ticking during the earlier part of his innings. Dhoni has tackled these difficulties manfully, but the fact remains that his ability has come down by a notch. The certainty that one had when he was at the wicket during the end overs has suffered a dent; the opposition knows that they stand a chance these days, previously they had none.
It is this development that has given courage to persons like Prasad to make statements in public hinting that Dhoni can no longer take his place for granted. Incidentally Prasad’s credentials to the post that he currently holds is that he was wicketkeeper of India in six Test matches and 17 ODIs. While no one can grudge the chairman of selection committee his right to form and pass opinion about any player under contention for a place in the national side, one expected more dignity and grace from him while talking about a player of Dhoni’s stature and seniority. During the nearly thirteen years that he has played for the country, there has never been an instance when Dhoni had not performed well. He had performed the most demanding of all duties on a cricket field, the combined one of a wicketkeeper and captain for a major part of his career but never let the physical and mental pressures affect either himself or his game. He still remains one of the top wicketkeepers in the world and is by far the best finisher in limited overs cricket.
As his innings against Sri Lanka at Pallekele in the second ODI of the ongoing series showed, India still needs the experience and wisdom of Dhoni when it comes to tackling difficult situations. One should remember that Dhoni is not playing for his personal glory or records; he has already scaled all the peaks that existed besides some new ones that he created! He continues to play only because he is convinced that India needs his services. Dhoni announced his retirement from the longer version of the game when he felt that his body was not able to take the strain involved any longer. He would inform the cricketing world when he feels that he should call it quits from the shorter versions as well.
India need Dhoni to continue till the 2019 World Cup. It would be a huge travesty of justice if we belittle a player of his stature and standing who has performed yeoman service for Indian cricket. Administrators and selectors should realize this fact before they shoot their mouth off questioning his place in the side.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)