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MS Dhoni: The undeserving but irreplaceable Indian captain

Monday, 18 August 2014 - 9:26pm IST Updated: Monday, 18 August 2014 - 9:27pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna webdesk

On Sunday, England concluded a massive humiliation of India, beating the tourists by an innings and 244 runs in the 5th and final Test at The Oval. The defeat meant India lost the series 1-3. India also suffered the ignominy of losing two consecutive tests in under three days.

While India's new generation of batsmen - Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli in particular - are being reviled for their abysmal performance in this series, the ultimate blame lies at the captain's - MS Dhoni's - door.

MS Dhoni has now lost 11 away tests as captain, including six innings defeats to England and Australia. In press conferences, Dhoni comes across as reticent. He does not yield to emotion - rather he smiles, blames either the batsmen or the bowlers (or both) and hopes to do well next time. He does not give anything away. Then it all goes away when India beat a middling side at home, and we are back to square one.

Even that did not happen when England beat India in India 2-1 in 2012, but it was soon forgotten in the cacophony of Sachin Tendulkar's impending retirement, among other things. An impromptu 2-Test series against West Indies was announced and one Test match in South Africa was sacrificed. India beat the hapless Windies comfortably, Tendulkar retired with grace and all was forgiven.

The results of India's Test series after the 2011 World Cup show an interesting trend. England first thrashed India 4-0 in England. India beat the West Indies 2-0 at home and 1-0 away. They also beat Australia 4-0 at home, a result many considered 'revenge' for the 0-4 drubbing in Australia in 2011-12. India defeated West Indies again at home, 2-0, in Tendulkar's retirement series. Incredibly, they lost 1-2 to England at home in what will go down as one of the most shocking series defeats for an Indian side in decades. Then followed 0-1 losses in South Africa and New Zealand. Fighters away from home? Not at all. Tigers at home? Not quite.

Excuses aplenty

There was always a reason for the losses away from home under Dhoni. In England in 2011, India's batting greats were aging, with the exception of Rahul Dravid. Sachin Tendulkar was supposedly preoccupied with scoring his 100th international century. 

In Australia, even Dravid was ageing, and Sachin Tendulkar was still occupied with that elusive 100th ton. India's bowling attack was inexperienced and Zaheer Khan too, was past his prime. Harbhajan Singh was a dud who was nevertheless a 'nemesis' for the Australians.

Against England at home, India had no excuses for the 1-2 loss, but that was quickly brushed under the carpet as the annual cash cow, IPL, came along. The focus all year had been on inconsequential ODI series, Tendulkar's 100th century, and on other things not cricket. In South Africa and in New Zealand this year, India's batting side was inexperienced, and Zaheer was no longer even part of the team. It was inevitable then, that we would lose.

The IPL distraction

Every time India faced shocking defeat, a distraction arrived to take away from the gravity of the moment. The most obvious one is the Indian Premier League, which runs for well over six weeks, and features 74 matches.

It occupies all of India's summer season. Secondly, it demands skills which find little value in Test cricket, such as the appetite for big shots and bowling focused on saving runs. Thirdly, it leads to mental and physical fatigue, which means the team struggles to be ready for the tours that follow. Lastly, it puts Test cricketers the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara into unfamiliar territory and demands performance. The resulting failures are obviously the result of muddled priorities.

Dhoni's misplaced priorities

But MS Dhoni says and does nothing. Indeed, he smiles when the Board smiles, he plays his heart out in the IPL and revels in captaining the Chennai Super Kings - the best team in the IPL which is almost entirely made up of bits-and-pieces Indian players. Unlike Australian captain Michael Clarke, who sat out from the IPL to preserve his health and encouraged other Australian players to do so, MS Dhoni is at the forefront of everything IPL. The incredible camaraderie between him and N Srinivasan is well known.

The surfeit of Twenty20 cricket is followed by a surfeit of ODI cricket. MS Dhoni's claim to fame mostly lies in his credentials in the shorter forms of the game - winning the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup, the 2011 ODI World Cup, the Champions Trophy, 2 seasons of the IPL, and the Champions League. Incidentally, he also took India to the status of No 1 ranked Test nation. However, that rise to No 1 was a result of beating several teams at home.

While Dhoni's trophy cabinet is full, his failures have been arguably more spectacular and impactful. For 10 years prior to 2011, India had never conceded a Test series abroad without a fight. In 2011, India were whitewashed by both Australia and England. The loss to England at home the following year was India's first series defeat at home in eight years. Then followed expected away losses to South Africa and New Zealand, and finally England.

Unimaginative captaincy

But mere poor results can be put down to a poor or underperforming side. What has compounded the problem is Dhoni's own unimaginative Test captaincy. Despite having Ajinkya Rahane and Virat Kohli in the side in Australia, Dhoni refused to tinker with the failing batting order. Kohli was finally called into the playing XI when it was too late - in the third test against Australia with India 0-2 down. In England this year, Dhoni played R Ashwin on seaming wickets. He did not call Gambhir into action until the fourth Test, which meant the veteran got too few chances in the face of a desperate, dispirited Indian side.

Dhoni has also been consistently defensive as captain, refusing to place attacking fields for long periods of time, lacking innovation with bowling changes, and playing for a draw when a win was possible.

Credit where credit is NOT due   

Yet Dhoni gets credit for his 'ingenuity' whenever India manage a pathbreaking victory. The most recent example of this is Dhoni asking Ishant Sharma to bowl short at the England batsmen during the second innings of the Lord's Test. The strategy succeeded not because Ishant was bowling unplayable bouncers, but because a lot of the English batsmen are compulsive hookers of the cricket ball who eventually cracked in the face of sustained short bowling, even if it was wayward at times. Ishant ended up receiving far more reward than he deserved, and the credit went to Dhoni. It was a strategy that could have backfired spectacularly against a less callous batting line up. The relative ineptitude of Ishant the bowler and Dhoni the captain in the Tests that followed adds substance to this theory.

MS Dhoni is a successful limited overs captain, but his mindset has remained constricted to those formats.

No worthy successor

The last aspect of the problem involves choosing a worthy successor to Dhoni, should the BCCI decide to sack him. While Virat Kohli was until last year being touted as the best contender, his awful performance in England exposed not only technical faults but also a general lack of confidence. Thus, it would be foolish to turn over the captaincy to Kohli now.

Unfortunately, there are no other players who can make a strong enough claim to the captaincy. Pujara is too inexperienced and is also going through a bad patch. Gambhir is no longer permanent in the side, R Ashwin is not good enough abroad to even merit a place in every match, and Ishant Sharma, despite playing 58 Tests, is still the worst bowling 'spearhead' in recent times. Moreover, it has to be beyond coincidence that nearly every vice-captain India has tried during Dhoni's reign - Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli - has ended up in poor form. Sehwag seems to have lost his place forever and Gambhir has not covered himself in glory after his return.

India therefore may have no choice but to retain Dhoni as captain for now. The matter has been discussed by cricket experts and in the media since 2011, and yet we have no worthy alternative. This very fact may also point to India's inability to move beyond Dhoni and groom captains for the future, a matter that needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency.

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