When Mahendra Singh Dhoni leads his team out today at Ranchi’s new stadium for the third ODI against England, he might wonder how he has survived the onslaught of doubters and critics to still be captain.
Things could have been different had the selectors not revisited (several times) all arguments – pros and cons – for a change at the top and retained Dhoni despite the Test series defeat against England because they couldn’t agree on a strong and viable alternative.
Fact is, the Indian captaincy has been like a game of snakes and ladders for the past year or so, with dangers and opponents lurking for Dhoni at every twist and turn as rivals emerged, either directly or through support from stalwarts, a couple of them even former selectors.
Indeed, only a few weeks back after resolute and resourceful England had turned the tables on India despite turning tracks and their poor past record here, Dhoni appeared to have been bitten by the deadliest snake on the board, as it were, and almost tumbled out of the game.
Remember, his leadership had been under severe scrutiny this season. After the disastrous tours to England and Australia, redemption was promised on the friendlier home pitches.
But after the 2- 0 drubbing of a New Zealand side in disarray (as it emerged later), Indian cricket’s stock plummeted further when England turned the tables on the home team in the Tests.
By that time the clamour for Dhoni’s head had reached a crescendo and it is unlikely that Sandeep Patil and Co, who had assumed charge as selectors only a while earlier, were not frenetically discussing the matter amongst themselves.
It seemed the tidal wave of negative sentiment would take them along too, but Dhoni survived.
Just about. Perhaps it helped his case that the new selection committee was still to find its bearings and was therefore risk-averse.
But risk could only be justified if the other contenders were doing well. To Dhoni’s good fortune, none was. For instance, front- runner Virender Sehwag, after a dazzling century in the first Test in Ahmedabad, faded away losing batting form as well as becoming hugely suspect in the field.
Gautam Gambhir was consistent, though he lacked big innings to seal his case. More than that perhaps frequent involvement in run-outs, sluggish fielding and a generally gloomy demeanour worked to Gambhir’s detriment.
Sehwag and Gambir were the two strongest claimants to Dhoni’s position at the start of the season, and not without good reason.
They have rich experience and been outstanding contributors: except that when runs mattered, their bats kind of ran dry.
Mohinder Amarnath, who left the selection panel after the tour of Australia and blew a fuse about Dhoni’s captaincy in the middle of the Test series against England, was a strident votary for either Sehwag or Gambhir as replacement.
But his arguments lacked sustenance for when he made his case in Australia, both these batsmen were faring poorly.
When he reiterated them this season, the situation hadn’t become any better.
Krish Srikkanth, former chairman of the selection committee, was another who launched a diatribe against Dhoni but could never adequately explain why he chose him as captain for the Test series against New Zealand. The credibility of his objections was lost in this flip-flop.
In the circumstances, Virat Kohli, who found support from the hard-boiled Sunil Gavaskar, emerged as the most likely successor.
But the team’s best performing batsman over the previous 12 months also hit a trough. The selectors settled for status quo.
This gave Dhoni breathing space. With the focus shifting to limited overs cricket, this also gave him the opportunity to come into his own as a batsman. His form in both T20s and ODIs has been outstanding and a major factor why India are in the hunt for a series win over England, having lost 2-1 to Pakistan.
In the interim, he found support in another former India captain Rahul Dravid who believes he is still the best man for the job – in Tests and ODIs – though he would like the T20 captaincy to be given to somebody else.
I would subscribe to that view because it reduces the workload on Dhoni and would allow him greater bandwidth for the other formats, especially with the BCCI now looking aggressively to build a side for the 2015 World Cup.
Of course, the equation can change if India lose the series badly, say 1-4. All things considered, captains are judged by the winsdefeats equation and an adverse result would revive most of the arguments against Dhoni’s captaincy: as also start a fresh round of the snakes-and-ladders game.
(The writer is a seasoned journalist)
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