MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, and Kapil Dev: Iconology in Indian cricket and some facts

Shruti Hariharan | Abhishek Mukherjee

They love their cricket in other parts of the world. Here, in India, we love our cricketers, and that is an understatement. That is probably why you will find fans of Sourav Ganguly and MS Dhoni sparring with one another on social media for no serious reason. It is extremely unlikely that two Australian fans will go to war over which of Ricky Ponting and Steven Smith is the greater captain.

For the same reason we ‘honoured’ Sachin Tendulkar with the moniker of God of Cricket. It is somewhat embarrassing a ‘title’, but it is also a reflection of the reasons why India continues to baffle the world.

In his article in ESPNCricinfo, Sanjay Manjrekar has pointed out how the exits of both Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar were delayed. As is expected of a man of Manjrekar’s stature (although some would say ‘surprisingly for him’), he has backed it with data.

Tendulkar’s exit was not too long back, but Kapil’s last days as a Test cricketer are probably worth a recall to the younger generation. Do not worry. We will return to Tendulkar later.

Did Kapil play past his prime?

About a quarter of a century back, voices were raised when Kapil was apparently “past his prime”. They claimed that he was playing on to go past Richard Hadlee’s world record of 431 Test wickets.

Kapil averaged 27.15 from his last 25 innings (his career average was 29.64). These are fantastic numbers for a man “past his prime”.

However, as the article has pointed out, there is a catch: these last 25 innings fetched him only 26 wickets. Kapil had taken 1.91 wickets an innings over his career; that ratio dropped to a woeful 1.04. Even the strike rate of 63.9 dropped to 73.4.

Yes, the numbers look bad: or do they?

Let us throw other parameters into the mix as well. You can also read Arunabha Sengupta’s analysis on a similar topic.

First, at this phase of his career, Kapil bowled in short bursts. What was more, India deployed a three-spinner strategy that worked wonders, triggering off an unbeaten home run that would end only in 1999-00. As a result Kapil, who bowled 36.3 overs a Test till this point, now bowled only 24.2.

These 25 innings stretched across 13 Tests. Ten of these were played in Asia. Manoj Prabhakar, India’s other new-ball bowler at this point, played all 10 Tests. He got 26 wickets at 22.15 in these matches. Kapil’s 20 wickets came at 25.45. Srinath played twice, for 3 wickets at 26 — perhaps a sample size too small to draw conclusion.

None of the other fast bowlers (the ones who played against India) averaged below 40 in these 10 Tests — and I am using no cut-off here.

Srinath did not play Tests in India. From 7 home Tests (and 14 innings) Kapil had 15 wickets at 23.33 and Prabhakar, 14 at 25.21.

The article adds how it “deprived a young and fiery Javagal Srinath the opportunity to be on the big stage when he was ripe.”

Srinath, by common consensus (more or less common, at least), was deprived of an early start to his Test career. But was that because Kapil played “past his prime”?

Was there sufficient reason to pick Prabhakar and Srinath ahead of Kapil at that stage? Was the three-spinner strategy not responsible for that?

Table 1: Indian pacers from December 26, 1992 to Kapil’s retirement

Player Overall In Asia In India
M W Ave M W Ave M W Ave
Kapil Dev 13 26 27.15 10 20 25.45 7 15 23.33
Manoj Prabhakar 12 28 25.25 10 26 22.15 7 14 25.21
Javagal Srinath 4 14 23.28 2 3 26.00

Srinath was indeed the best of the three, but then, he never bowled on those Indian pitches where the spinners ran through one side after another.

But then, bowling was not the only thing Kapil was in the side for. One must remember that at this stage none of the Indian spinners had established themselves as bowlers who could bat (even Anil Kumble’s highest score was 21*); neither did Srinath.

This meant that India invariably played three tail-enders. How did the Indian batsmen fare during this phase?

Table 2: Indian batsmen from December 26, 1992 to Kapil’s retirement (250 or more runs)

Player M R Ave
Kapil Dev 13 471 42.81
Mohammad Azharuddin 13 797 56.92
Navjot Sidhu 11 895 68.84
Sachin Tendulkar 13 944 72.61
Vinod Kambli 11 965 80.41
Pravin Amre 9 280 35.00

Thirteen Tests, 471 runs at 42.81, 26 wickets at 27.15: did the great man really overstay his visit?I have shown that he had numbers comparable to Prabhakar and Srinath in bowling alone: if one adds batting to that, does it really seem he had dragged himself?

Oh, and while still on the all-rounders topic, let us check how the other great all-rounders of the era fared over their last 13 Tests.

Table 3: All-rounders of the 1980s in their last 13 Tests

Player M R Ave W Ave Diff Ratio
Kapil Dev 13 471 42.81 26 27.15 16 1.6
Ian Botham 13 375 22.05 17 54.05 -32 0.4
Imran Khan 13 807 67.25 21 35.28 32 1.9
Richard Hadlee 13 391 26.06 58 22.12 4 1.2

To cut things short, Botham faded away; Hadlee retained his venom with ball; and Imran graduated into an exceptional batsman who sometimes bowled. As for Kapil, you decide.

Was Tendulkar’s career dragged?

Tendulkar’s numbers are worse. His last 15 Tests (and 24 innings) fetched him only 633 runs at 27.52. The similar stretch witnessed three of India’s all-time greats play their last Tests: Rahul Dravid (whose 116 runs came at 19.33), VVS Laxman (152 at 25.33), and Virender Sehwag (532 at 28).

On September 1, 2013, BCCI had announced that they would host a 2-Test series against West Indies to ensure Tendulkar played his 200th Test at Mumbai. On October 10, Tendulkar announced that he would retire after the series.

Let us look at these series carefully. Tendulkar scored 287 runs at 35.87 on the Australia tour. Only Virat Kohli (300 at 37.50) got more. Nobody else crossed the 200-mark. For some reason, the article does not include the first Test of the series in his calculation. Tendulkar top-scored in each innings with 73 and 32 in that Test.

But let us move on. I think I have established (somewhat) that Tendulkar, at this stage, was among the four middle-order batsmen in the country — which is basically the criterion one should meet. Even if one takes that Test away (though there is no reason for us to do that) Tendulkar still finishes behind only Kohli.

Dravid and Laxman did not play after that tour. It was here that things started to get horribly wrong for Tendulkar. From 10 Tests, all at home, he scored 367 runs at 24.46. Yes, he failed miserably after having an acceptable series in Australia.

He was clearly past his prime — though, to be fair, this lull lasted for 10 Tests, from August 2012 to March 2013. Tendulkar was not the first cricketer to have had 10-Test or 7-month slumps, but then, higher standards have always been expected of him.

Tendulkar had been flirting with the ICC World No. 1 ranking among Test batsmen till 2002. He went through a slump (he dropped outside the first 20) before almost miraculously reclaiming the spot in 2010.

When he failed, he fell to the 26th spot (comparable to his previous ‘valley’). This time there was no coming back. So he quit. Rumours suggested that BCCI had issued an ultimatum, but we will stick to the official verdict. It does not matter, for the point “a discussion about his future in the Indian team” was probably not sacrilege. Either BCCI or he or both knew.

But where was he placed among Indians when he announced his retirement? With a rating of 632, he was placed behind Cheteshwar Pujara (777), MS Dhoni (637), and Kohli (634). While Pujara (ranked 7th) was in the form of his life, the difference between Dhoni (22nd), Kohli (24th), and Tendulkar (26th) was almost negligible.

Did he really, really overstay?

Is Dhoni overstaying?

This was the original topic of the article. It mentions Dhoni’s numbers from the last 25 ODIs (average 56.75, strike rate 81.94) and 10 T20Is (33.80 and 131.01). “He is not the game changer as often as he was in the past” is the claim.

This is slightly confusing, for Dhoni’s career average reads 51.71, though his strike rate is a much higher 88.54. If an average of 56.75 does not guarantee form, what does?

It does not come across as a surprise that Kohli leads the way over this period (82.63, 99.45). Among Indians, Rohit Sharma is the only other one with better numbers (57.09, 93.81). No other Indian averages in excess of 45. Even at global level Dhoni stands 9th in average over this period (among those with 900 runs).

This includes a series in Sri Lanka, where they could not dismiss Dhoni at all. Chasing 231 in the second ODI, India were 131 for 7 before Dhoni and Bhuvneshwar Kumar won the match. In the third, three days later, he walked out at 61 for 4 after India were set 218. No other wicket fell.

A few days later he was there again, batting with Hardik Pandya. India were 87 for 5. Dhoni added 118 with Pandya and another 72 with Bhuvneshwar. India reached 281 for 7.

In fact, he has not failed in his last 2 ODIs either: his 43 runs (once out) have come in 38 balls.

Dhoni seldom dominates partnerships anymore,but he stays there. The phrase ‘game-changer’ is somewhat vague, but if a man can anchor his sides to win efficiently, there is probably some life left in that career.

But this is really about the T20Is, I suppose. The real criticism began once he failed to pull off a chase in the second T20I against New Zealand. Dhoni’s 49 took 37 balls, but a 197-run chase certainly demanded more.

The article points out that “where earlier he could tonk four sixes off six balls at will, now he can hit only one.” How much truth is there in this?

Over this period Dhoni has hit 6 sixes off the 169 balls he has faced. That is 28 balls per six. But hey, his entire career (1,058 balls, 40 sixes) amounts to 26 balls a six. If there is a massive difference, I fail to spot it.

Oh, and as for hitting 4 sixes in an over balls at will, Dhoni has never hit more than 3 sixes in a T20I innings. He has his 3 twice, and they asked for his head after one of them. In the other, he got 48* in 43 balls, at Sydney in 2011-12. India had lost, but you cannot really do a lot if you are chasing 172 and your side reaches 81 for 6 in the 14th over.

But let us put these claims aside. Perhaps these were figures of speech. How good has Dhoni been over this period?

Put a 100-run cut-off, and barring that ubiquitous Kohli (299 runs, average 37.37, strike rate 152.55), only Suresh Raina (104, 34.67, 133.33) has a better average.

There are some who pip him in strike rate, but none of them have gone past 138.04, so Dhoni has not done too poorly either, with 131.

Are there better men than Dhoni sitting in the sidelines? Probably. Probably not. Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, and Dinesh Karthik are all there, as are less-familiar names such as Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer.

But to displace Dhoni, it is not sufficient for a person to be better than Dhoni. It is also essential to find six people better than Dhoni in the lineup. Mind you, Dhoni also keeps wickets, which will make things a bit more difficult for selectors.

In conclusion

Nowhere have I said that Dhoni is a certainty. He probably is. He probably is not. My point was to prove that there is no evidence provided in the article to show that Dhoni is past his prime. I probably sound like Davis (Juror 8) from 12 Angry Men, but so be it.

Mind you, if his IPL numbers are added into the mix, evidence may (or may not show) that Dhoni is not a certainty anymore. But then, the article does not include IPL data. More importantly, no question was raised after the conclusion of this season’s IPL.

Do note that I have based my conclusions mostly based on the choice of time span of the article.

An observation

However, if Dhoni is really to be persisted with, a change of plan is possibly the order of the day. I will give you some food for thought, though Aditya Sahay has already done that here.

At No. 6, his current position, Dhoni averages 34 and has a strike rate of 111.84. At No. 4, a suggested position, the numbers go up to 51.25 and 147.48. He scored a 36-ball 56 the last time he batted at 4, against England at Bengaluru earlier this year.

India have played 39 ODIs since 2016. Their first four partnerships have, on an average, lasted 35 overs. They have also played 31 T20Is over this period. The first two partnerships have lasted 7 overs.

In other words, the No. 6 batsman in ODIs roughly has a role similar to the No. 4 batsman in T20Is. Can we try him up the order, please?