The master of ODIs: Virat Kohli (left) with MS Dhoni (Image courtesy: Getty)
The master of ODIs: Virat Kohli (left) with MS Dhoni (Image courtesy: Getty)

Yes. At least Ravi Shastri has given his verdict, if that matters. It should. He is the head coach of the side and a key decision-maker when it comes to preparing the players. Even otherwise, the answer should be an obvious ‘yes’. MS Dhoni is regarded amongst the greatest to have graced ODIs.

In the recently concluded ODI series against Sri Lanka, Dhoni scored 162 runs from 4 unbeaten innings.The Sri Lankans didn’t manage to get him out in ODIs; the script then remained unchanged in the only T20I. Battling criticism and silencing critics isn’t easy, especially if you are 36. He went on to register the most number of not-outs in ODIs and also became the first wicketkeeper to register 100 stumpings in the format.

The looming of the axe was further evident ahead of the series when MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors, hinted that Dhoni might be dropped if performances begin to wither.

Dhoni is scoring runs, and there isn’t a better candidate to step into his shoes behind the stumps. Skipper Virat Kohli, without a shadow of doubt, is benefitting from the stalwart’s inputs, especially with the DRS.

Why the criticism in first place?

Dhoni hasn’t successfully finished games in recent times. The murmurs became cries when Dhoni crawled to a slow fifty in the fourth ODI against a low-rung West Indies at North Sound. He stayed till late but couldn’t win it for India. Sourav Ganguly backed him saying when you play so many games in such situations, there are bound to be the odd failures.

There’s an influx of cricket we are being fed with. Dhoni has not consistently done well in the IPL. But should T20 cricket be the judging parameter when you select a team for ODIs? The selectors can perhaps try the young dynamo such as Rishabh Pant in T20Is and give a blueprint to Dhoni, thus reducing his workload till 2019 World Cup.

Has Dhoni been out of touch?

Let us look at the performances of wicketkeeper-batsmen for their respective sides post 2015 World Cup.

Wk-batters I NO Runs Ave HS SR 100s 50s
MS Dhoni (Ind) 31 8 1,159 50.39 134 84.5 1 7
Quinton de Kock (SA) 41 2 1,888 48.41 178 99.9 6 9
Jos Buttler (Eng) 34 8 1,180 45.38 129 126.2 3 7
Mushfiqur Rahim (Ban) 27 5 947 43.04 107 91.2 2 5
Niroshan Dickwella (SL) 22 0 887 40.31 116 93.1 2 5
Matthew Wade (Aus) 33 7 834 32.07 100* 99.8 1 5
Sarfraz Ahmed (Pak) 29 6 1,011 43.95 105 90.8 1 6

Again, why the criticism?

From his debut in the winter of 2004 till the end of the 2015 World Cup, Dhoni averaged 52.46 and his strike rate read 88.63. Unfortunately, the greats are compared to their peak and, when we compare the numbers now, they seem to have marginally gone down.

The other factor here is look at the numbers of his contemporaries. While the not outs have boosted Dhoni’s batting average to over 50, his strike rate is lowest amongst his contemporaries.

ODIs have changed. 300s aren’t the safe totals, and 400s have become more common than ever.

It took 35 years for the first score in excess of 400 (and once upon a time there were 60-over ODIs) to be scored in ODIs. The second 400-plus score was registered hours later, when South Africa chased down 434. In the next 11 years, the mark was breached 16 times, out of which, 12 400-plus scores were recorded in the last 8 years.

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Sri Lanka were dismal to say the least. If Dhoni’s numbers against Sri Lanka are not considered, his average would have come down to 43.

Most of his contemporaries are younger and are getting better. Is it the same case with Dhoni? It’s only safe to say that he is peerless when it comes to keeping against spin bowlers. And those street smart and lightening-fast run-outs give India the extra edge.

MS Dhoni's wicketkeeping against spin remains unparalleled (Image courtesy: Getty)
MS Dhoni’s wicketkeeping against spin remains unparalleled (Image courtesy: Getty)

Dhoni’s 40-plus ODI innings in 2017

134 (122) vs England at Cuttack: A brilliant knock that advanced India’s total to 381. Eoin Morgan almost won it for England, as they merely fell short of 15 runs. However, the thunder in this game was stolen by Yuvraj Singh’s 127-ball 150.

63 (52) vs Sri Lanka at The Oval: Shikhar Dhawan scored a fine century, and Dhoni played a good supporting hand. However, India failed to up the tempo towards the end. In modern cricket, Dhoni should have accelerated better. A 13-ball 25 not out from Kedar Jadhav helped India’s score to 321. It was not enough to defend. Sri Lanka cruised to a comfortable 7-wicket win.

78 (79)* vs West Indies at North Sound: Dhoni’s knock guided India to a safe score. However, India breached the 250-mark courtesy Jadhav’s 26-ball 40 not out. It wasn’t the easiest of surfaces to bat on.

54 (114) vs West Indies at North Sound: Dhoni left it for late, and eventually got out. India failed to chase down 190. He was pilloried for the same, and it is Dhoni’s slowest fifty in ODIs.

45 (68)* vs Sri Lanka at Kandy: This was a fine knock, averting an Indian defeat. We will come back to this. However, the limelight for this 3-wicket escape fell on Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who partnered Dhoni in the 100-run unbeaten stand for the eighth wicket and finished with 53 not out.

67 (86)* vs Sri Lanka at Kandy: In what was an easy win for India, Dhoni supported Rohit Sharma in an unbeaten 157-run stand. Rohit finished with 124 not out.

49 (42)* vs Sri Lanka at Colombo: When Kohli fell, India were 225 in the 30th over. Traditionally, you double your 30-over score. On a day when India looked set to breach England’s 444, they managed to get to 375. Dhoni and Manish Pandey did decent jobs but the other sides would have eyed at least 400 after that start.

The desire

He is trying. He is not yet ready to give up. He is compared to his prime, which may never be the case, but the desire is there. Dhoni, at this stage of his career, has given up Morrant pads, the iconic ones which were used by the likes of Tendulkars and Gangulys. Why the switch? Morrants have two straps; which makes them lighter than conventional ones. If you are growing older, why switch from the lighter stuff? But this proves that there is hardly any issue of him with fitness.

ESPNCricinfo mentions Aakash Chopra’s analysis. The Siddharth Monga article states, “… Chopra feels the likeliest reason for the switch could be to allow him to bend his front knee properly. If there is a minor drawback in Morrants, it is that they don’t allow free flexion of the front knee. Because there are just two straps, the higher strap is almost right behind the knee.”

The difference was apparent in the second ODI while he stood up to Akila Dananjaya, who had his tails up, with a 6-for. His footwork was worth noting. Unlike other batters, Dhoni was getting his front foot to move and cover the spin. He has worked on the trigger movement.

MS Dhoni batting with Morrant pads (Image courtesy: Getty)
MS Dhoni batting with Morrant pads (Image courtesy: Getty)

The article further states, “…Chopra says batsmen are taught to incorporate some trigger movement when they find the bowling to be extra quick. Tendulkar initially didn’t have a trigger movement, but introduced a forward press later on in his career. ‘This helps your body to get in motion,’ Chopra says. ‘Once you have got some movement going before the ball is bowled, you get your body set to react’.”

When it comes to technical nuisances of the game, my colleague Kaustubh Mayekar always comes up with valuable inputs. He has played the game at MCA under-16 level (closest I have come is making the probable list for state under-13).

“He leans forward against spinners. The back-lift has drastically reduced. He tries to cut now as well as play it finer. He stands taller, and doesn’t look to punch much. So basically, he is going less on power and trying to take the ball on the full.

“The unorthodox Dhoni, who once drove the ball like he is sweeping dust with a broom, looks technically composed if not stylish,” observes Kaustubh.

The desire to improve on your game, even at the twilight, has set apart goods from the greats. Here is Dhoni’s fight against time, in order to continue serving Indian cricket.

The way ahead…

Wriddhiman Saha is currently regarded as the best wicketkeeper in the world. He has an envious List A record. Parthiv Patel continues scoring and Dinesh Karthik is getting better. Rishabh Pant is trying to break open the doors, and in the queue stand the likes of Sanju Samson and Ishan Kishan.

Should India have a 38-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman for the 2019 World Cup, or someone with the consistency of de Kock or the explosiveness of Buttler?

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Back in 2007-08, ahead of tri-series in Australia, Dhoni argued with the selectors that if Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag were assets or liabilities.

Legends of Indian cricket, tagged rightly, they had backed Dhoni too. They were scoring in bulk, but were they getting better? Were their fitness levels up there? Most importantly, were they going to serve Indian cricket till 2011 World Cup?

Gautam Gambhir was ready to take over Ganguly. Youngsters like Manoj Tiwary, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and even Kohli were pressing their case.

A decision was taken. Ganguly never played ODIs again; Dravid made sporadic appearances. They could have been given rightful farewells but in hindsight, a right and harsh decision was taken.

Practical decisions pave path for future. Michael Clarke had to drop Ricky Ponting, keeping 2015 World Cup in mind. Team India seem to have moved on from Yuvraj Singh.

Dhoni is the best judge here. He had taken a decision then. He has to take a decision now. Or Kohli will have to. The Australia series will be an acid test for the stumper.

Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood may be missing from the line-up, but it’s Australia at the end of the day. India will be tested way more than how they were against West Indies or Sri Lanka.

When I read Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha and try to visualise the character of Shiva, it’s Dhoni for some reason that crosses my mind. That’s maybe because of the way he topples the odds, and take unpredictable decisions beyond sane logic but, in hindsight, they are masked with rational thoughts.

He is probably the best thing to happen in Indian cricket after the turn of the century. At the same time, all great things come to an end. Let us cross our fingers as the warrior steps out for another battle against time.