Immediately after India returned from New Zealand late January, MS Dhoni took a break to rest from the side strain he had picked up on the tour.
Dhoni’s break coincided with the Asia Cup, where India made an early exit. That debacle came close on the heels of the disappointing tour of New Zealand where his side had failed to win even a single match during the five-match ODI series and the two Tests that followed.
|Last 12 months
That after India had arrived in New Zealand having lost the Test series in South Africa.
Dhoni had retreated for a couple of weeks into the warm embrace of his family but he would’ve felt a drift of whispers that kept growing stronger and louder asking for his, and coach Duncan Fletcher’s, exit.
The media joined the critics imploring Dhoni to own up and take responsibility. A change of captain and coach would indirectly change India’s fortunes – that was the bottom line the critics, which included at least one former India captain, drew.
But the same people were jumping the gun once again when they say Virat Kohli, who they feel should replace Dhoni as India’s captain can cure India’s troubles straight away. Memory is short when it comes to critics at most times.
On a sunny Cardiff afternoon in 2013, even before Rohit Sharma had faced the first ball of the Champions Trophy, doubters had already fired their slingshots, arguing that India stood no chance given the cold and swinging conditions.
A few weeks later, Dhoni and his men kept their nerve to get the better of England in the final.
The victory established an new order of sorts for Indian cricket considering the 2011 World Cup included senior players and stalwarts like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh and Gautam Gambhir. Instead, a young brigade comprising Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma had played a significant part in India’s triumph.
|India's on-field thnik-tank at work [GALLO/GETTY]
These young men lent the team their free spirit, added dynamism to their fielding and added the never-say-die attitude. They played intense cricket and expressed themselves in the process.
Change of fortunes
Less than 12 months later, most of these players are going through an inconsistent phase prompting a fresh set of questions. Does Rohit take too much time to settle in his role as an opener? Isn’t Rahane a better option? Has Ashwin become too defensive and predictable? Why can’t the fast-bowling pack of Ishant, Kumar, Mohammad Shami, Varun Aaron be more consistent, more accurate and exercise more control?
These questions are valid but not of grave concern. India’s biggest challenge is the inconsistent bowling pack which does not have an able leader. Zaheer’s return has been limited to Test cricket by the selectors and rightly so because in the modern limited-overs game, a player needs to tick at least two out of the three disciplines if he is to earn a team ticket.
Crack a whip
It is best Dhoni takes a more aggressive stand and challenges his bowlers more. Motivation alone is not enough at times. Dhoni has given a long rope to Ishant, it is time he cracks the whip and gives an ultimatum. Also it is important to identify the pool of five fast-bowlers who the team management trusts completely and can do the job leading into next year’s World Cup. Give them the responsibility, integrate them into the team’s plans so in case whenever one is required he is not struggling to play catch-up.
|Kohli is in no hurry to assume the leadership but has never been shy about walking up to Dhoni to share his ideas or give suggestions.
In Kohli, Dhoni has a solid, performing and ambitious deputy. Kohli is in no hurry to assume the leadership but has never been shy about walking up to Dhoni to share his ideas or give suggestions. You need to see him in the Indian training sessions where Kohli is intense, glued in and always keeping a close watch on teammates. Those observations matter.
The Dhoni-Kohli relationship is important for many reasons. Part of the under-30 brigade, Kohli can drive the message from captain and coach with much more ease. Most of these players are also part of the Test set-up and a like-minded approach can only prove to be fruitful. Most of them would play in the World Cup. It is imperative that every man is aware of his responsibility then.
The World Twenty20 could not have come at a better time. Barring their triumph in 2007 India have never passed the semi-finals in the three editions that followed. Dhoni and Fletcher’s jobs won’t be on the line in case India fail to lift the trophy, the BCCI has already assured that.
But the duo would need to wear masks to avoid getting suffocated by the smoke generated by the critics.