Time and tide wait for none. And like all good things, is it time to pop the inevitable query: Now that Mahendra Singh Dhoni has done good time in Indian cricket, is it time for him to go?
The number of times that the former skipper finished games with a golden flourish of his willow or his swift dives to hold on to a catch… are they soon to be relegated to nothing but a fleeting memory of the greatness that the Jharkhand lad of humble origins had attained around the 22-yard strip in the middle of the greens.
But the question had been asked before. Like in August 2012, when another batting master flick-artist VVS Laxman called it a day.
Laxman’s retirement from international cricket was as unexpected as it was abrupt. This was soon followed by him hosting a pre-Test dinner at home for senior players Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan. It might have passed off as a routine dinner till the newshounds realised that the Dhoni was not among the dinner invitees.
Asked to throw light on the matter, Dhoni revealed that he had not been invited to be at Laxman’s table! Even though it stirred a hornet’s nest there was a realisation that there’s no smoke without a fire!
The grapevine had it that skipper Dhoni did not want slow movers to be part of his team. Consequently, the selectors told Laxman, who was perceived to be a slow and ponderous mover on the field, that he would have to announce his retirement after two Tests of the New Zealand series. A peeved Laxman tried without success to get in touch with the skipper. Slighted and angry he decided to pull out immediately, rather than after two Tests.
Many believed that Dhoni had a hand in some players like Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Sehwag, Gambhir (ODI & T20I) — playing their last international match within months of each other. Even Yuvraj Singh’s Test career ground came to a grinding halt around the same time, but that had more to do with his inability to consistently come up with the goods. But the underlying premise was that Dhoni had hastened the end of a few careers.
And if that was the case, the question being asked is: Why is Dhoni not applying the same yardstick to himself? Surely he is getting on with the years and is hardly the spring chicken that competitive sport demands.
While the question is understandable, especially as Dhoni is all of 37 years, it is not quite justifiable.
To begin with, Dhoni continues to be India’s best wicket-keeper. Neither the 21-year-old Rishab Pant nor the 33-year-old Dinesh Karthik is a patch on veteran Dhoni. His arm action is quicker as indeed is his gathering and stumping skills. He is also a faster runner than most other younger players.
While Dhoni is at an age when most cricketers would be eased out of the national team, the fact is that there is nobody who can keep wickets half as well. Certainly not Pant, Karthik or Parthiv Patel.
On the other hand, just like Dhoni before him, present skipper Virat Kohli too has his own specific vision for Indian cricket and his sights are firmly set on building a team that would compete to win the 2019 World Cup in England. Both Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri are well aware that to have any realistic chance of winning that coveted trophy, they need to put together a crack team, a team that they can bank on in the hardest of battles.
Kohli and Shastri have therefore gone about systematically identifying players for batting and bowling spots and pouring into specifics like identifying the opening batsmen, number four batsman, fast bowlers, spinners, etc.
In this regard, the twin issues that Kohli has repeatedly spoken of in the past year are the number four batting position — which he now believes firmly belongs to Ambati Rayudu, and the all-rounder’s spot. But at the same time, Kohli has never spoken of a replacement wicket-keeper for the World Cup. That position — he firmly believes — belongs to Dhoni. The coach and selectors are believed to be on the same page with Kohli on this.
In fact, Shastri was livid with former cricketers baying for Dhoni’s blood and even said that they “should look back at their career before commenting on Dhoni. He has a lot of cricket left in him and it is the duty of the team to back the legend.”
However, there is no denying that Dhoni’s efficacy in batting has eroded considerably. His last ODI fifty (65 off 87 balls) came nearly a year ago in December 2017 against Sri Lanka in the cool climes of Dharmashala.
But it is not just the lack of runs that is a cause for concern. The way he is getting them is also a worry. Dhoni of the past was a great finisher, one of the best India have ever produced. However, of late, that art seems to have deserted him. It is possible that age has a lot to do with this sluggish approach to batting. And it certainly is not helping the team’s cause.
But Dhoni’s wicket-keeping skills and the comfort he gives the bowlers are far too critical for India’s success. The spinners, in particular, and pace bowlers would give their best, secure in the knowledge that Dhoni is there standing behind the stumps.
Thus, while it is almost certain that Dhoni will be a part of the Indian team at the 2019 World Cup, he may well have to bow out after that. For even Dhoni, the super wicket-keeper that he is, would be too old for the 2020 edition of the ICC World T20. Truly, time and tide wait for none, not even Dhoni.