India has probably taken only two bold decisions with regards to their playing XI during a World Cup.
In India’s successful 1983 campaign, senior pro Sunil Gavaskar was dropped from the side for two games. Then in the 1992 edition, current head coach and then vice-captain Ravi Shastri was dropped after two laborious innings in the first two games of that tournament.
Now, some 27 years later, history is repeating itself with yet another senior player struggling to get going in a World Cup. But only this time, there won’t be any appetite from the team management to take a drastic call.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is far more valuable to this Indian team than what Shastri was in 1992 despite being the vice-captain of the squad then.
Dhoni is the de facto fielding captain, who is setting fields, suggesting, rather instructing bowlers like Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kedar Jadhav on their deliveries. Their bowling is a result of Dhoni’s ‘friendly advice’.
When he changes his wicket-keeping gear and comes out to bat, that’s when the problem with him starts to emerge. It has been an issue that stayed with Dhoni and the Indian ODI squad for the last couple of years, since the time he decided to quit captaincy.
He struggles to get the scoring rate going and that puts additional pressure on the rest of the line-up.
You think back to a year ago at Lord’s when India lost an ODI series in England and the fans began booing Dhoni. That was a remarkable day for fans of Indian cricket, to see Dhoni being booed on his way off the field, as he struggled to score 37 off 58 balls even as India chased England’s 322 for seven.
Dhoni gave the biggest indication that day of slowing down as a batsman in the ODI format. For someone who was a crowd favourite for such a long time, the reaction that day at Lord’s surprised one and all.
Support From Teammates
Over the course of the last year, Dhoni has had more critics stepping forward and questioning his approach in ODI cricket.
Dhoni likes to take all the battles till the final over, but that does not always pay off as we have seen in recent times.
In 2012 when then senior pro Gautam Gambhir publicly disagreed with his approach during a game in a tri-series in Australia, there was a sense of unease in the squad. Gambhir’s ODI career was over within the next 12 months.
Now there is no such fear because the current squad seems to be in awe of Dhoni’s ability. So much so that Indian skipper Kohli dismissed all suggestions about Dhoni’s batting after the massive win over West Indies.
“Dhoni knows exactly what he wants to do in the middle. When he has an off day here and there, everyone starts talking. But we always back him. He has won us so many games. The best thing about having someone like him is that when you need those 15-20 runs, he knows exactly how to get them.”
There are others in the squad too who concur with the skipper. "Sometimes it feels like he is batting slow but he takes his time. In that wicket, it was important to take time. He did it and took us till the end. 268 was a good score on that wicket. Thanks to him we reached there," Jasprit Bumrah told Chahal on a BCCI.tv video.
"His experience helps us in such situations. He absorbs the pressure and takes the game to the deep. Young players learn from him. It was a top rated innings according to me," added Bumrah.
Muddle in The Middle
Against West Indies, Dhoni ended with a flourish finally, but it was the previous game against Afghanistan which caused much concern amongst the followers. Dhoni added 57 runs for the fifth wicket with Jadhav but they used up 84 deliveries in the process. He made 24 off 36 deliveries, while Jadhav scored 31 off 48 balls which slowed down India completely. The pressure finally told on Dhoni and he was out stumped for the first time in an ODI since 2011.
If Lord’s in 2018 was a turning point in public reaction, Southampton in 2019 was a game changer in the way ex-players looked at Dhoni. And it doesn’t get bigger than the reaction of Sachin Tendulkar.
"I felt slightly disappointed, it could have been much better. I was also not happy with the partnership between Kedar and Dhoni, it was very slow. We batted 34 overs of spin bowling and scored 119 runs. This was one area where we didn't look comfortable at all. There was no positive intent.
"Kedar Jadhav was under pressure, he had not had an outing up until now. He needed someone to take charge of the situation early on but that did not happen. Both Kedar and Dhoni were not able to play at the required strike rate that they would have wanted. Those in-between overs could have been better and that is why Kedar was under a bit of pressure," Sachin Tendulkar told India Today.
All this muddle with Dhoni’s batting approach and India’s middle-order is all down to the lack of a settled line-up. When Dhoni quit as captain two years ago, he should have been given the number four slot in ODIs which would have allowed him enough time to build the innings. But this current approach leaves Dhoni and the team with very little room for manoeuvre.
Dhoni’s role as a finisher has now been taken over by Hardik Pandya, whereas the former skipper is now more the innings builder, at least till the end of this World Cup. India needs to recalibrate their approach and move Dhoni up a slot. This should have been mulled over by the team’s think tank long back, but they have been stubborn and not flexible unlike when Shastri himself was a player.
With India almost certain to be in the semi-final, they cannot afford to have a major player being stuck in the middle unable to get going. The time to change the approach is now, or else it will be too late, because the only two games that matter from hereon for India are the semi-final and final!
(Chandresh Narayanan is a former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and the Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.)
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