MS Dhoni. Photo: Satish Bate/HT
MS Dhoni. Photo: Satish Bate/HT

In Australia, MS Dhoni’s trial by fire

The Indian captain had a terrible 2015. Now he has the unenviable task of salvaging his career against the world champions

On the professional front, Mahendra Singh Dhoni would perhaps look back at 2015 and see it conforming with Murphy’s Law—anything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. Indeed, the man who has often been hailed as a captain born with the Midas touch found it extremely tough to get going in 2015. The year started horrendously with Team India failing to make even the final of the Triangular One Day Series also featuring Australia and England. India did make a spectacular turnaround in the ICC World Cup in Australia and New Zealand by winning 7 matches on a trot; however, once they met Australia again, in the semi-final, defeat was a predictable outcome. The diminishing aura of Dhoni, the captain and the batsman, was on display: despite him being the highest scorer for India in that match, his team never looked like winning the contest.

However, it was the shock defeat against an inspired Bangladeshi side immediately after the IPL that brutally exposed the shortcomings in India’s limited overs game. And, when South Africa defeated India for the first time in both the ODI and T20 series at home, just before the 4-match Test series, the dwindling form of Dhoni became the talking point. Of course, Dhoni alone can’t be held responsible for the sluggish results in the shorter formats of the game but the fact that the captain was no longer the most dominant or match-winning batsman in the team now only underlined his vulnerability. India’s tour of Australia (5 ODIs and 3 T20s, starting 12 January) may just be the final test of Dhoni’s capabilities, both as captain and as a batsman.

“This is the first time his captaincy is being dictated by his batting form and because of that he is making some glaring mistakes, says former India opener turned commentator Aakash Chopra. “The Australia tour is perhaps his last opportunity to discover his mojo."

It was indeed surprising that for the first time in Dhoni’s illustrious career, a chief selector had to formally defend him in public, while announcing the team for Australia. “There were a lot of stories going around," Chairman of Selectors Sandip Patil said in a press conference in New Delhi on 19 December. “Selectors wanted to send a very clear cut message to all, to the media and the players—and I am not talking about India team players—but general players, that who is going to be our leader."

This can be interpreted as a vote of confidence if you want. It can be seen from an entirely contrasting perspective, too. For the first time since he became the side’s captain in 2007, Dhoni was given the charge of a national team with a certain deadline.

“I am happy that all selectors were of the same opinion that Dhoni should be the captain till the T20 World Cup. There is only three months’ time. What happens after that we will let you know after the T20 World Cup," concluded Patil.

Speculation and whispers of Dhoni’s retirement after the T20 World Cup, which will be held in India from 8 March to 3 April, is increasing day by day. Yet, the man himself remains unfazed by such talk.

“I am somebody who has always believed in the present," Dhoni said in a press-conference in Mumbai on 5 January before the team left for Australia. “You won’t get answers regarding the future that’s too far ahead. As of now the Australia series is important and after that once we get in T20 groove we need to move in one direction as to what we need to do as a team so as to have the best chance of winning the WC. So those are the primary concerns as of now," said the Indian captain.

“There are a lot of things you need to think about, and I don’t think this is the right time," he added. “All the energy needs to go there. It’s a very important three months and after that we will see what happens."

As you are reading this, the Indian team is in Perth for a short camp ahead of the first ODI. A 5-0 result looks impossible for Team India in the ODI series against the world champions and currently the No 1 ODI side in ICC rankings. However, if Dhoni manages to achieve that, his team (currently No 2) will be just a point behind the No 1 position.

The selectors and fans will be happy with a series win in ODIs but Dhoni’s real challenge will be in the T20s. Right now, India is just ahead of New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the ICC rankings and a series loss will not change their current ranking (No 7). A series win by 2-1 will improve rankings slightly (No 5) but it is the clean sweep (3-0) which will bring them to No 3 in the rankings.

It is no longer a secret that Dhoni has been struggling with his trademark fluency as a batsman. After a 45-day break from international cricket, Dhoni failed to take his state team Jharkhand to the semi-finals in the recently concluded Vijay Hazare trophy. Playing after almost a decade for his home state, Dhoni was not even among the top two batsmen from Jharkhand—he scored 179 runs in 7 matches with just a solitary 50 at an average of 35.80.

It seems that retirement from Test cricket hasn’t work wonders for him.

The fact that Dhoni lost 5 series/tournaments (four ODIs and one T20) last year gets accentuated by Virat Kohli’s triumphs in Sri Lanka (after a gap of 21 years) and against South Africa (first loss for the Africans abroad in 9 years) in Test cricket.

It would have been easier to handle this if his personal form with the bat was not a worry. For the first time in the last five years, his batting average in ODIs last year went below fifty (45.71). From 2011 to 2014 his respective batting averages were 58.76, 65.50, 62.75, 52.25. His extraordinary ability of hitting big shots at will has also suffered markedly. A career strike rate of above 89 came down to 86.83 in 2015.

“If he loses the ODI series (in Australia) then only a title triumph in the T20 World Cup can make him relevant all over and again," says Chopra.

As times are changing in the corridors of Indian cricket, the captain is also not getting the players he prefers most. There is no Suresh Raina, Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Ambati Raydu in the ODI squad; all players who have enjoyed Dhoni’s backing in the past. On the plus side, players like Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammad Shami have returned to the ODI fold for the Australia tour. While Jadeja’s all-round skill will allow for flexibility in match strategy, the return of Shami could change the fortunes of India’s weak pace department.

The famous man-management skills of ‘captain cool’ will also be tested during the second leg of the tour when veterans like Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Ashish Nehra will be part of the T20 team. They all are senior to Dhoni and have not been part of the national team for a prolonged time.

The agony which Dhoni had to suffer in 2015 could prove to be just the learning curve he needed. From adversity, Dhoni has often fought towards success. He needs to do that yet again.

Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.