MS Dhoni
MS Dhoni (AFP Photo)

When MS Dhoni’s name went missing from India’s T20I squad for West Indies and Australia series earlier this year, the rumour mill went into overdrive dissecting the massive decision that was deemed unthinkable at one point. The biggest and obvious speculation was – Is Dhoni, the man who engineered India’s win at the inaugural World T20 that kickstarted a revolution of sorts, finally retiring from the shortest format?

Was Dhoni dropped or rested? It was anybody’s guess. But, almost two months later, on Monday, the interpretations were put to rest when Dhoni was named in a 15-member squad for the New Zealand T20Is.

But the ‘recall’ has given rise to questions. Why, in the first place, was Dhoni not part of the last two T20I series? If dropped, what was the basis? If rested, why? And then a return on what grounds?

As per former India batsman and ex-BCCI selector Chandu Borde, who told Cricketcountry in an exclusive interview, the board could have been aiming to find a suitable replacement for the ageing Dhoni. The selection of two specialists wicketkeeper in the squads – Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik – concurred the argument.

So, after just six T20Is, has the Indian team finally settled upon Dhoni’s successor? The answer is a resounding no. The management has turned back to the former captain and recalled him in the squad as the specialist wicketkeeper with Pant and Karthik finding a place each as specialist batsmen.

Clearly, neither Pant nor Karthik have been able to lay a firm claim to be the first-choice ‘keeper-batsman in India’s limited-overs setup. Dhoni’s wicketkeeping skills were never in doubt, the concerns were regarding his capability with the bat and dwindling ability to finish the games. Barring a blazing 28-ball 52 against South Africa in February, Dhoni’s bat was remained quiet including ODIs where he failed to score a half-century throughout 2018.

So, the only way either of the two claimants could have grabbed the all-important spot was by scoring runs and finishing games. Karthik has already proven he can finish games for India, his last-ball six in the final of Nidahas Trophy is still afresh and is already a T20I regular but as a batsman.

But Pant has a distinct advantage over Karthik and Dhoni – age.

So, the spot was for Pant to make his own. However, out of the five innings the 21-year-old played for India in Dhoni’s absence, there was only one knock of any significance – a quickfire 58 off 38 against West Indies in a six wicket win in Chennai. Barring that, his returns in the other four innings read 1, 5, 20 and a duck.

And in India’s first T20I against Australia in Brisbane, Pant and Karthik had the golden opportunity to win a game for India from a position of weakness. In a chase of a revised target of 174, the duo added 51 runs in four overs to reignite India’s hopes. But Pant’s propensity to go for rash strokes resulted in his undoing as he was caught while going for a reverse scoop prompting Sourav Ganguly to advise him to keep his game simple.

But one could argue that Dhoni hasn’t fared any better than Pant. That he chose to not play domestic cricket during his resting period to work on his batting also goes against his inclusion. Even batting legend Sunil Gavaskar was forced to ask why senior players, who are not on national duties, playing domestic cricket to stay in prime form.

The idea behind this could be that the ICC World Cup 2019 is just a few months away and giving Dhoni as much match practice as possible is the way forward. Pant, for all the potential he has shown, isn’t an ODI regular. He has played only three ODIs so far and scored 41 runs across two innings.

It wouldn’t make for a sound argument to punt on raw talent rather than experience given the stage. Pant’s time as the first-choice wicketkeeper-batsman across formats will come soon enough. But for the moment, it seems that Dhoni, the wicketkeeper, isn’t going anywhere, until the ICC World Cup next year.