How swiftly the critics and experts have fallen silent! All right, let’s not just point fingers at others. I may have also written a bit about relieving Mahendra Singh Dhoni of the captaincy of the Indian team, at least the Test team. Well, the last three weeks have certainly changed matters a lot.
No one in their right minds can today imagine any Indian team without Dhoni as captain.
The popular suggestions from ex-cricketers were to hand over the Test captaincy to Gautam Gambhir, and the one-day captaincy to Virat Kohli. They have all been silenced now. What do you say about a man who, match after match, comes in at a bad time, when the top order has collapsed, and plays wonderfully under pressure? He is currently the best Indian batsman by a mile, and the irritation and anger are actually turning the other way. It’s like: All the pressure is on Dhoni, AGAIN! That’s just unfair on the guy! And the man has delivered, every time.
His 113 not out against Pakistan (though India lost) must surely be one of the greatest one-day innings ever played: an epic that began with steady caution, escalated to controlled aggression, and finally a flurry of shots that is every bowler’s nightmare. What is now clear is that currently Dhoni is one of the most difficult batsmen to develop a bowling strategy against. He is exceptionally strong on the on-side, so at Kochi, the English bowlers bowled to him exclusively outside his off-stump. But Dhoni would just take a step forward and across and swing the ball back over mid-wicket. And he didn’t go easy on the off-side either in his wonderful 72 (OK, he got the benefit of the doubt on a caught behind when was 6, but that’s cricket, and as someone from some pre-cricketing century commented, fortune favours the brave). So where do you bowl to the man? Many of his most effective shots are anyway stolen from badminton, tennis and golf, and have no mention in the cricket textbooks.
Meanwhile, Gambhir keeps looking so psyched out that he should be offered a role in the next Nightmare on Elm Street. And Kohli has reverted to swearing his head off every time he misses or mistimes a ball—the anger that had been his hallmark when he first burst on the scene is back, and this time it’s destructive, directed against himself. If Quentin Tarantino saw him, he would immediately cast Kohli as one of his foul-mouthed incompetent gangsters. These men can hardly be trusted with leading a team.
This team suddenly seems built around just one great performer. A Suresh Raina regularly plays loyal second fiddle, but his music lacks vigour (Oh, when will that man convert his 30s, 40s and the rare 50 to 80s and 100s?). Has Ravindra Jadeja finally arrived? Well, it’s high time he did, and we’ve certainly waited long enough. Has Dhoni finally realized that that the Clark Kent called Rohit Sharma is not wearing a red cape under his jersey? One hopes he has.
Among the bowlers, Bhubaneswar Kumar and Shami Ahmed definitely look promising, and R. Ashwin can be a much better bowler, as Sanjay Manjrekar said, if he just started thinking a little less and focused on being a good off-spinner.
Is there the making of a great future team here—maybe two years down the line? Could be. India needs to find a steady and dependable opening pair, and replacing the Sehwag-Gambhir combo will not be easy. And Kohli has to get back into form. One big score, and his anger will become a positive force again. But suddenly, after the Kochi match against England, things don’t look so bad. We may lose the series against England, but that won’t be either surprising or unfair. The brutally rational way England has approached this tour should be a case study. The point is to learn from the experience of the annus horribilis of 2012 and draw up the right plans. India sorely needs a brains trust behind its cricket team, and the composition of that body should also be obvious: Ganguly, Dravid and Kumble. They are just three phone calls away from the Board.