By Madan Mohan
On a post-match television debate last Friday, Atul Wassan expressed outrage at questions over Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s performance as Test captain. He said Dhoni was like the Neil Armstrong of Indian cricket and had taken the team to unthinkable heights, including winning the ODI and T20 World Cups.
Well, Dhoni is sort of becoming a Neil Armstrong of Indian Test cricket…in a dubious light! With the innings rout at Perth, Dhoni has now lost seven overseas matches on the trot. You have to go back to the late 50s and 60s to find a parallel to that. India lost 17 overseas matches on the trot, starting with the tour of England in 1959 and ending with the 1967-68 tour of Australia. Captaincy then changed hands from Datta Gaekwad to Nari Contractor to Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. It was Pataudi who bore the brunt of the losing streak. To put things in perspective, Pataudi eventually led India to its first overseas series triumph against New Zealand in 1968.
At any other point since then, even when India lost series badly, they would usually fight out a draw or gain a consolation win to save face.
Dhoni’s brigade seemingly to have fallen off a cliff since a rather modest series win in West Indies. It is hard to relate this debacle to a team ranked No.1 in Test cricket not so long ago. And at a time when the cricket-watching public has looked to Dhoni for answers and reasons as to where things have gone so wrong, his trademark captain cool demeanour has been desperately unconvincing.
To be fair, it is not Dhoni alone who has precipitated this Perthquake, as a leading newspaper dubbed it. The selectors have been myopic and not shown much inclination to plan the transition smoothly. There is a view that people only began to feel the need for a transition when India were routed in England. Not so. Even I had urged the need to get youngsters into the fold and expose them to tough conditions in my article dated May 3, 2011, “India should groom youngsters for WI tour to avoid Australia-like-situation.”
What I wrote about then would have been anticipated and written or spoken about by professionals much before. Frankly, I have been hearing talk about the succession since the 2008 edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, when it was clear multiple retirements had left Australia depleted and beleaguered. But the establishment either didn’t care or had its own agenda. And players with proud records have now presided over a debacle of monumental proportions the likes of which nobody who has watched cricket since only the 80s or 90s have witnessed.
Dhoni’s tactics have not helped matters
But to get back to Dhoni, his tactics as captain have certainly not helped. At decisive moments, he did not ring in the right bowling changes or took off bowlers in the midst of a good spell. Ishant Sharma was roaring in the 2nd innings of the Lord’s Test in England and ran through the middle and lower order. Only for Dhoni to change the combination after tea and let Matt Prior settle down. At Melbourne, he took off Zaheer Khan too early. At Perth, he introduced Vinay Kumar too early who got a rude welcome to Test cricket courtesy David Warner.
Actually, playing four pace bowlers in Perth was in itself a strange choice. He has set strangely defensive fields, especially to lower order batsmen or tailenders. It is widely believed this cost India the Melbourne Test, irrespective of batting failures.
In post-match conferences, he has been repeatedly pressed for answers and, inexplicably, he has merely stated the obvious. That India needed to bowl and bat better. And…that’s all? What did the team need to do to plug the gaps? Where had the resilience of previous tours gone? I could understand caginess to reveal strategy or any weaknesses if there was evidence of remedial action. But India have only touched a new low with each massive defeat.
On Sunday, Dhoni said India had struggled to adapt to conditions on the tours of England and Australia. But that does not explain with which defeat they fell further away from the opposition instead of catching up with them. Aside from his tactics, if he is doing a better job as a motivator, it is not reflected in the morale of the team.
The architect of three of India’s most memorable triumphs in overs-limit cricket - don’t forget the CB Trophy in 2008 - has sadly also ushered in depths of mediocrity and spinelessness that the team was thought to have banished. If Neil Armstrong has more surprises up his sleeve for us, they better be pleasant ones.
(Madan Mohan is a 26 year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)