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MS Dhoni: A shadow of himself

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on August 14, 2014

Dhoni has stopped innovating, his attack instincts have been shelved.

Dhoni was the captain who could do no wrong. But his selection decisions and the results overseas leave much to be desired

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s survival instincts, of late, have been repeatedly challenged, even as the Mr Cool of Indian cricket attempts to reinvent his image. The leader of men is lost for direction and words as he enters his career’s most crucial phase in the run up to defend the World Cup that he so gloriously won in 2011. Times have changed for him, and his team has failed to live up to expectations. “The best man to lead the team,” declared the national selectors when Dhoni was handed the job for the first time at Bangalore in 2007, in the truncated One Day International against Australia. The same year India won the inaugural T20 World Cup under his captaincy. Indian cricket had discovered an aggressive captain who was willing to move away from the traditional safety-first attitude and the pattern of defensive field placements and bowling changes. Here was a man who dared to experiment.

Dhoni has, for some time now, stopped innovating; his attack instincts have been shelved as he looks to shepherd his team of newcomers. “Too defensive,” notes former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi, known for his honest comments. Dhoni’s first Test as captain, against South Africa at Kanpur in 2008, was a success. But he is a mere shadow of that cool and calm skipper, who so ably slipped into the role and commanded the respect of seniors like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag.

Former India skipper Sourav Ganguly finds Dhoni’s captaincy stagnant. “He’s become very repetitive. There is a predictable method to his captaincy, which is easy to read for opponents. I would want him to take the initiative and not wait for things to happen.” But Ganguly is a lone voice of dissent because many, including Sunil Gavaskar, who is fairly critical of Dhoni, support his captaincy until the World Cup in Australia next year.

Dhoni is not a perfect captain and he would be the first to admit that. He can be self-critical, is known to stand by his players and this helps him keep his job.

Dhoni’s attention to detail is his forte. “He can read the game superbly and is ahead of others. The ease with which he settled down in international cricket was an early indication of his calibre,” says former national selector Kiran More. Dhoni had hardly played six months of international cricket when coach and former Australian master Greg Chappell, in a selection meeting, proclaimed him as India’s “future captain.” It was an astute observation by one of the finest students of the game.

Dhoni learnt the tricks of the trade on his own, “He observed seniors like Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Ganguly, Laxman in the dressing room and grew as a person. Look at how he handles the media,” says More. Having excelled in all forms of the game, Dhoni recognised the potential of the younger players and whipped them into a winning unit, especially at home.

India’s repeated failure to win a Test series overseas is often unfairly linked to Dhoni’s captaincy. He is yet to win a series in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The recent debacles in South Africa and New Zealand, where India failed to win even a match has dented his image of a successful captain.

Former England captain Mike Brearley, in the Art of Captaincy, writes a captain must have “some ability as a player. He must have common sense. He needs to know the game, and have ‘leadership qualities’, whatever they are. He must be willing from time to time to take an unpopular line.” Dhoni symbolises that, even though, of late, he has come under intense scrutiny for some of his tactics.

At 32, he has been criticised for backing a set of players, a “coterie” as a former cricketer bemoaned. His preference for Ravindra Jadeja ahead of Pragyan Ojha as a left-arm spinner in Tests and shunning leg-spinner Amit Mishra to the bench have been glaring oversights. “He is making the most of what is available. He has a poor bowling attack at his command and you can’t win overseas with this kind of attack. He picks a fair XI,” says More. But critics highlight Dhoni’s indifference towards talent like Ishwar Pandey and Mishra, his inexplicable fondness for a struggling Suresh Raina, and his role in keeping out Gautam Gambhir and Harbhajan Singh.

Some fine captains, like Sunil Gavaskar, Bedi, Steve Waugh, Clive Lloyd, Ian Chappell, at different stages, notably Chappell, have had their brushes with the administration but Dhoni has had unstinted support from the Board. It has helped and harmed him, made him authoritative and oblivious to criticism. He knows nothing can shake him from the exalted seat of captaincy, not until the World Cup in Australia early next year.

(The writer is deputy editor (sports) The Hindu)

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Published on March 07, 2014
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