Sport is a great leveler, and time and again it has been established irrespective of the stature of an athlete or nature of the sport. For somebody who was a certainty a few years ago, is now being pushed for a place the side.
Numbers don’t lie. Averages of 27.80 in 2016 and 25.00 in 2018 in ODIs testify the growing scrutiny about a certain MS Dhoni’s place in the limited overs team. The magnum opus for this version of the sport is hardly 3 months away, and a string of match-winning efforts have been required to downplay the growing demand for Dhoni’s position in white-ball cricket.
At 4/99, Dhoni was joined by Kedar Jadhav on an uncertain pitch at Hyderabad during the first ODI of the India vs Australia series, and the target of 237 seemed far off. 24.5 overs later Virat Kohli went out to the post-match presentation as the winning skipper and Jadhav was adjudicated as the player of the match.
Quietly at the other end, India’s trusted lieutenant to finish games ended the match with an unbeaten knock of 59* at a strike rate of 81.94 in a match having run-rates of 4.72 and 4.96. It was chancy, it was streaky in parts, it was dogged but it was a controlled knock against a disciplined bowling unit and alongside a batting partner eager to counter-attack from the beginning.
Age brings tons of experience but it weakens a sportsperson's physical stamina and strength. All the greats in the physical sport have demonstrated this observation and Dhoni is no different. Unlike good or average players, great players find a way to overcome this natural de-escalation of physical abilities with modified pathways to remain effective and relevant in the highly competitive environment.
Dhoni’s ball striking ability has undergone significant dilution and bowlers have marked his arc as a no-go zone. The boundaries have become hard to come by and the sixes have reduced. Yet Dhoni has found a way to maintain a strike rate of 80+ in the last few years, with the exception of 2018. Apart from using his ageless Boltesque sprints to greater effect, he has adjusted his striking zones to find the boundary ropes in regions of the ground which couldn’t be accessed when the bottom hand dictated the batting all these years.
In the team set-up, Dhoni’s limitations at the age of 37 have necessitated the team management to find alternatives for somebody who can strike it big down the order. But does that automatically disqualify from a position in this side? Dinesh Karthik has worked hard on his batting to make a case, and with rookie talent in Rishabh Pant, Dhoni has been kept on the toes as a lower order batsman.
"Dhoni gets out the best out of every player," is what the Man of the Match from the ODI at Hyderabad had to say. For a player who captained 200 ODIs for India and with an experience of 339 matches, surely MS has more to offer. Chahal and Kuldeep have openly acknowledged Dhoni’s role in their rapid progress as successful limited-overs spinners. Kohli often feels secure with Dhoni around about not worrying for the fielding angles and for instances where DRS calls have to be made.
Despite not being as threatening as before, the team has a sense of calmness if Dhoni is batting in a run-chase.
Amidst this entire debate of where Dhoni should be batting or how he should, we often forget that he is primarily in the side as a wicket-keeper. And calling him the best in the country for limited-overs formats would be an understatement. Safe pair of hands, sharp delivery collections, superfast stumping, and smart run-outs is what Dhoni the keeper offers, which is probably taken for granted in the perception of his role in the team.
Even ardent Dhoni fans would be aware that he might not play another World Cup or may not play for long, but to compare the present tense with the past is a futile exercise. Sachin Tendulkar, who debuted in 1989, had an exceptional 2010, Rahul Dravid, debuting in 1996, had a fabulous 2011, Roger Federer continues to showcase why age is just a number; there is no reason for us to believe that Dhoni might not have that late spike of his playing career.
The thing that has always worked for Dhoni is his calmness and monk-like ability to soak up the pressure. It is time we let the champion player enjoy the final few laps of his playing career. Only two Indian skippers have won World Cups and each of them had senior, experienced players in the team to unnerve the demands of a long pressure tournament.
In the current set-up, the next most experienced player is the current skipper, which further emphasizes the need to have a calm mind in the dressing room. Knowing Dhoni and Kohli, let us trust the management to find the best role for the former and just let him be himself.