Do not ambush Captain Cool; if & when are for him to choose

At a promotional event in Mumbai on Wednesday, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, dodged questions about his cricketing future by replying enigmatically, “Ask me this in January.”  

The former captain hasn’t played a single match since the ill-fated World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in July but has unfailingly dominated discussions in cricket circles and hit the headlines every now and then. Never one to reveal his cards before hand, this has only fuelled further suspense about where Dhoni is headed from here. The question however has acquired even more relevance now with the T20 World Cup scheduled late next year in Australia.

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Is Dhoni available for the big tournament? Does he want to continue playing or has he had enough of cricket? And if so, what stops him from announcing his retirement? But before I attempt to answer these questions, it’s pertinent to examine the backdrop to the Dhoni dilemma.

It may be recalled that before the tour of the West Indies soon after the World Cup, chief selector M S K Prasad was emphatic that 21-year-old Rishabh Pant was now the team’s number 1 wicket-keeper in all formats. Dhoni was unavailable then because of a niggle and Pant, who had been flown in as replacement for injured Shikhar Dhawan, primarily as batsman, seemed to have won the favour of the selectors as wicket-keeper too.

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Back home from the West Indies, the Indian team dived headlong into the series against South Africa. After announcing the squads for the Tests and limited overs matches, chief selector Prasad made the point that Indian cricket had “moved on” when questioned about Dhoni. This seemed to suggest that Dhoni was no longer on the horizon, at least where the selectors were concerned. Pant was the default option, and if there was need to look beyond him, there were other youngsters in the pipeline.

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As it transpired, Prasad’s projection about Pant proved illusory. When the home Test series against South Africa began the young wicket-keeper - after poor showing in the five-day format matches in the Caribbean - lost his place to Wriddhiman Saha. Pant did play the limited overs matches in West Indies, but his wicket-keeping was laden with blunders, which in turn told on his batting, too. This compelled the selectors to include Sanju Samson in the limited overs squad when Dhawan reported injured. Samson was back-up for Dhawan as batsman, but also as wicket-keeper for Pant if necessary. As it happened, Pant retained his place in all limited overs matches, but with his form shallow, it was clear that pressure was building on him, and he was not the automatic choice imagined at the start of the home season.

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It would be puerile to fault Pant beyond a point. He is barely past 20 and while his precocity is beyond doubt, he is still short on experience. This matters particularly in standing behind the stumps. As the history of the game shows, wicket-keepers usually take a while to mature.

What’s true for Pant is also true for other young wicket-keeping hopefuls like Samson, Ishan Kishan, B R Sharath to name a few. With the T20 World Cup now less than a year away, this was one area where India looked vulnerable and gave the debate over Dhoni fresh fillip.

From lay fan to Sourav Ganguly (president of the BCCI now), chief coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli have, at various times in recent weeks either been drawn into the debate or volunteered opinion on where and how Dhoni’s career would take him from here. If I have to collate the opinions of these worthies and put it in a nutshell, it would read: “Dhoni is an outstanding cricket and a legend, he can’t be summarily written off, let him take the call on when to call off his career”.

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One can argue that Dhoni is not taking that call and adding to the anxiety. The way I see it, though, is that to keep harping on Dhoni to make his decision known pronto is puerile. He is 38, so it obviously can’t be too far away. But to push him into a corner is not only unfair but could be counter-productive. My surmise is that Dhoni is taking time to convince himself about playing in next year’s T20 World Cup by seeing how his body, mind and form plays out over the next few months, particularly in the IPL. If his feet move well, the glove-work’s largely error-free and runs are flowing freely from the bat, he might signal his availability for the big tournament.

This is not being self-centred. Dhoni’s not made any demands for keeping a place in the team reserved for him. By not playing domestic tournaments and being unavailable for international matches, he has opened up the field, as it were, for the next generation. If they come good, he runs the risk of being overlooked.

What this means is that if and when Dhoni wants to return to the side, he is prepared to be assessed on form and fitness, and compete with whoever else is in the running.

That’s fair dinkum.

The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.