The team should build on its recent T20 performance and carry it forward to the ODIs, but ‘captain cool’ shouldn’t get ruffled by retirement-related enquiries
Forgive me for drawing a football analogy, but there was a bit of Louis van Gaal in MS Dhoni’s response to a retirement-related question. The Wankhede press room was filled with laughter. The Cricket.com.au correspondent Sam Ferris must have felt a tad embarrassed. But given the context, it was a perfectly legitimate question: “You have achieved virtually everything that a cricketer could. Are you keen to continue playing on?” The reporter had asked after India’s defeat to West Indies in the World T20 semi-final. Dhoni’s reaction was surprising. He asked the reporter to come and sit alongside him and “have some fun”. The latter had to oblige and as he took his seat, India’s limited-overs captain put an arm around his shoulder, asking, “You want me to retire?” ‘No’ was the reply. Dhoni seemed to be relishing the moment. “Do you think I am unfit?” The journalist once again responded in the negative.
“Looking at me running”… “Very fast,” the reporter mumbled. “Do you think I can survive till the 2019 World Cup?” Dhoni carried on. “Sure, yes, sure.” “Then you have answered the question,” Dhoni gave Ferris a pat on the back.
On Christmas eve, this was what happened in the press room at Carrington. “Has anybody in this room not a feeling to apologise to me? That’s what I’m wondering. Enjoy the wine and a mince pie. Goodbye,” Van Gaal had said before walking out of his pre-match media briefing. The Manchester United manager was irritated at the questions related to his sacking. About a fortnight later, he called a Sun reporter a ‘fat man’ after a 3-3 draw against Newcastle. The football world is well aware of the Dutchman’s short fuse, but Dhoni is called ‘captain cool’. Over the last three months, however, reporters have managed to get under his skin, asking him about his retirement plans.
Why is he so touchy about the issue? On the wrong side of 30, any player—from Roger Federer to Dhoni—should be ready to face such questions, the repetitive nature notwithstanding. At the same time, Dhoni is still one of the fittest members in the side. His sprint to run out Mustafizur Rahman was almost surreal, his keeping remains sharp and he has regained his attacking mojo. He is still the finest limited-overs captain in the world. Forget a ready replacement, India might not have another one like him in the next 30 years—Dhoni is that invaluable. He can surely last till the 2019 World Cup. Whether he would still be in charge or Virat Kohli takes over across formats is a different matter, but Dhoni has earned the right to quit on his own terms. He is a legend and shouldn’t be ruffled by retirement-related enquiries.
A longish prologue was necessary, for Dhoni has taken some big steps towards building another very promising Indian limited-overs team. India’s loss to West Indies was disappointing, but not heartbreaking. They had been fantastic in the shortest format over the past three months; winning 3-0 in Australia, beating Sri Lanka 2-1 at home, taking the Asia Cup title in a canter and reaching the semi-finals of the World T20. At Wankhede, dew was a major factor, as the ball became like a soap cake. It took R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja out of the equation. Also, two no-balls turned out to be game-changing. But that’s cricket. This game hardly follows a script.
The Indian limited-overs team can stare at a bright future. Jasprit Bumrah’s emergence is the biggest positive. Kohli has reached a completely different level as a batsman. Hardik Pandya has the potential to become a very utility all-rounder even in 50-over cricket. Mohammed Shami’s return to full match fitness will add muscles to the seam attack. And with exciting young talents like Manish Pandey and Shreyas Iyer waiting in the wings, the team has most bases covered.
A couple of weak areas need to be addressed though. Shikhar Dhawan is too inconsistent to inspire confidence and maybe India would be better off with a Rohit Sharma-Ajinkya Rahane partnership upfront. Over the past 12-odd months, Rahane has played limited-overs cricket looking over his shoulder. It shouldn’t be the case for someone of his class. Rahane is the man for all conditions. He could be equally effective in the shorter formats as his IPL record will attest. And time has come to remove Suresh Raina from the set-up. That he offers a utility package with his part-time off-spin sounds nonsensical. He is a specialist batsman, but even after 11 years in international cricket, he has failed to come to terms with the short ball. He has failed to grow as a batsman despite being given huge leeway. Pandey appears a far better option, although he can’t do pie-chucking a la the Uttar Pradesh left-hander.
Hopefully, the team will build on this T20 performance and carry it forward to the ODIs, as preparations for the 2017 Champions Trophy and 2019 World Cup (both in England) will now begin in earnest.
Finally, a few words on West Indies. Arriving here on the heels of a bitter contract row and a couple of high-profile pullouts—Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine—it was exhilarating to see them reach the final. Adversity and indifference have brought the best out of the group, as they proved that there was a lot more to West Indies cricket than just Chris Gayle. It’s heartening. But will there be a revival? West Indies are in terminal decline and the ICC has done very little to stop the rot. The 2012 World T20 title didn’t change anything. This time, there’s another opportunity to make amends.