The ODI series with Pakistan gets going in Chennai on a somewhat piquant note for the Indian camp, with daily calls from a section of ex- cricketers for MS Dhoni to be axed from Test captaincy. Since the suggested replacements, Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli, are key members of Dhoni’s ODI team, there will be more than the battle with Pakistan on everyone’s mind today. Every move by Dhoni will be dissected, and the performances of Gambhir and Kohli scrutinised as the Australia series looms. Hence the ODIs with traditional rivals Pakistan, however mouthwatering, are no more than an appetiser for the main course ahead. That’s because an ODI loss to Pakistan counts for little compared to back-to-back Test series losses at home, which would be a new low for Indian cricket and may also take the sheen off the IPL season to follow.
There can be no argument with the need to replace Dhoni as Test captain. We pointed out during the Mumbai Test with England how he failed to use Yuvraj Singh on a track where left-arm spinners were revelling. Then there was the appalling failure to make any changes for the next Test in Kolkata, which we predicted would be disastrous. And finally, when a leg-spinner was drafted into the squad for the last Test, it was the wrong ‘un (pardon the pun). Piyush Chawla, a Dhoni favourite, was picked even though he has struggled to take wickets in the domestic season, with just nine wickets at an average of over 40, whereas Amit Mishra has been three times more successful with both ball and bat. Dhoni’s defensiveness and wrong bowling options at crucial times, which let the opposition off the hook time and again in Tests since the World Cup, have also been documented. So yes, he has to go — there can be no argument about that.
The problem is that the ideal replacement Virat Kohli is definitely undercooked for now. He is still earning his spurs as a Test player. He had a century in Australia and a terrific couple of Tests at home against the Kiwis, then an awful series against England mitigated only by a face-saving ton in the final Test. It may be premature therefore to put him at the helm when he has to concentrate first on curbing his ODI instincts and becoming a dependable Test bat.
Graeme Smith was a success as a young captain for South Africa, but by then he was well established as a Test batsman. Besides, he was empowered to build his team, whereas the prime focus during the forthcoming Australia series will be on whether Sachin Tendulkar can have a last hurrah. That would make it a far from ideal scenario for young Virat to take over as captain, and sometimes one can never recover from a bad start.
If it is too early in the rising graph of Kohli to be captain, the other promising candidate Gautam Gambhir disqualifies himself by appearing to be over the hill already. He has to worry about turning his own batting fortunes around before he can pay attention to team leadership. And he too will be hamstrung by Tendulkar’s presence, because otherwise he could persuade his friend Virender Sehwag to try out the all-important No 4 position so that Ajinkya Rahane can be tested as an opener — the Rahane-Gambhir combo looked pretty good against Pakistan, even if it was only in the T20 format.
The best option, therefore, may be to grit one’s teeth and carry on with Dhoni until the great man’s retirement allows a team to be chosen on the basis of current form and not past records. Why not go the whole hog meanwhile and make the Australia series all about Tendulkar? Prepare dead wickets like the one in Nagpur where no result — and therefore no embarrassment — is possible, and hope that Tendulkar knocks up a couple of tons and calls it a day. It won’t make for great Test cricket, but will do as a stopgap arrangement. Such are the absurdities of Indian cricket at the moment.