The dilemma at the heart of Indian cricket’s current issues is: Is there life after 37? Almost everyone — from cricket fans to media to selectors — is obsessed with that single poser whenever a certain Mahendra Singh Dhoni is mentioned.
At 37, in the evening of a truly outstanding career, Dhoni is literally under the microscope where his every innings, stroke, and approach is intensely studied with the intention of pronouncing him over the hill. Whether such an assessment is premature or not, only time will tell.
However, the grim reality is that the national selectors and team management have twin targets to focus on. And both run parallel to each other. It is the trajectory to these targets that is the crux of L‘affair Dhoni.
The targets are across two time zones: the ICC World Cup (50 overs) scheduled to be held in England from late May 2019 and the World T20 Championship in Australia from mid-October 2020. The selectors’ responsibility is to use the next few months to ready a pool of probables for these events.
While the general consensus is that Dhoni would be good for the 2019 World Cup, the 2020 World T20 is something else altogether. The event is not only two years away, but there is every chance that Dhoni’s body would not be able to withstand the wear and tear of the game until then.
Thus, rather than banking exclusively on Dhoni, the selectors want to quickly unearth a second lot of wicket-keepers.
Unfortunately, they do not seem to have zeroed in on Rishabh Pant to work as an understudy; instead, they have fallen back on 33-year-old Dinesh Karthik (T20I debut in 2006) as his back-up for the T20Is against Australia.
Whether this is a wise move or not will play out only later. However, it certainly does not say much for the selectors’ confidence in Pant’s wicket-keeping skills. Why else would they want to keep a highly experienced veteran on the bench? Would it not have been simpler to have a young understudy to perform that role, especially if Pant was the automatic choice as wicket-keeper?
It is against this background that the dropping of Dhoni for the T20Is in Australia next month must be seen.
It is nobody’s case that Dhoni needs to play beyond his ‘use-by’ date, which surely must be just a tournament or two away. But the right way would have been to find a youngster good enough to push him out of the team or for Dhoni himself to perform so badly in his primary task that the team had little use for him.
However, neither is the case. Dhoni is still India’s number one wicket-keeper by a long margin. Pant’s wicket-keeping skills are not a patch on Dhoni’s.
Dhoni, in fact, proved in the third ODI against the West Indies that he was a cut above all his competitors. The sprinting, diving catch he took to dismiss Chandrapaul Hemraj was the sort that other wicket-keepers on the tour to Australia, Pant, Karthik or Test squad member, Parthiv Patel, might not even have even attempted, let alone take. Then there was that lighting stumping off Kuldeep Yadav which was an absolute peach.
Thus where his wicket-keeping is concerned Dhoni’s performance belies his 37 years of age. His batting though is a bit different.
Dhoni is no longer the ace finisher he was even two to three years ago. He might not even be the big hitter of the past. But then this is to be expected. Viv Richards, the finest batsman since Don Bradman, moved down the batting order, from number three to number five, during the tail end of his career. He had slowed down and was no longer feared as the master blaster of yore. India’s Sachin Tendulkar too was not as devastating with the bat towards the last phase of his career.
In fact, if the 37-year-old muscles don’t ache after a stint of wicket-keeping, Dhoni could still be the best bet for India at number four in ODIs. He could bat at his pace and add solidity to that spot.
But then, the onus at this point of time is on Dhoni’s career in T20Is. It is here that India must swiftly find the right replacement. Dhoni himself has two editions of IPL (2019 and 2020) to show that there is still some T20 life left in him.
Of course, two years is a long time in cricket. The selectors have taken the first tiny steps towards finding somebody to fill Dhoni’s big shoes. Until they do that or Dhoni himself bows out, the last of this issue has not been heard.