Over the last decade, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been of paramount importance to India’s limited overs’ plans. Yes, the numbers suggest that Virat Kohli dominated this phase and broke every possible record, earning the status of a modern-day legend in the process. However, it is important to understand that while Kohli bats in the top-order where he has ample time to build an innings and get a big score, Dhoni usually walks in when the team is struggling with half of the side already in the pavilion.
To say that the former Indian skipper owned this art would be an understatement. He excelled in tough situations on numerous occasions with absolute poise even as a nervous dressing room watched with anxiety.
Last week, the MSK Prasad-headed national selection committee left Dhoni out from India’s T20I side, saying they want to give the second keeper an opportunity. “Dhoni is not going to play the six T20s because we are looking at second wicket-keeper. So it will be between Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik and they will get a chance,” explained chief selector MSK Prasad.
Since then, various reports have suggested that the former Indian skipper was not rested but ‘dropped’. Captain Virat Kohli and limited overs’ vice-captain Rohit Sharma were kept in the loop. It won’t be harsh to say that every individual involved in this decision has made a blunder, one that may come back to haunt Indian cricket.
MS Dhoni’s form in ODIs vs T20Is
While Dhoni’s performance at the highest level has certainly deteriorated in the last few years, if there is one thing that has improved during this period is his T20 record. Dhoni played his first T20 International in 2006 and failed to score a half-century in the first 10 years – a period in which he dominated the 50-over format – winning the ODI World Cup and Champions Trophy for India.
He never averaged more than 40 in T20Is in two consecutive years during this period and the strike-rate went over 135 only twice – in 2010 and 2016. However, since hanging his boots in the longer format of the game, Dhoni turned his focus to focussed more on shorter formats and it reflected in his numbers.
The Chennai Super Kings skipper averaged 42 and 41 in 2017 and 2018, respectively and scored at a strike rate of 138.46 and 155.70. He scored his first T20I half-century in 2017 and followed it up with another one in 2018.
Now, the selectors argued that he may not be there till the 2020 T20I World Cup. But Dhoni’s fitness levels have certainly improved in the last couple of years, his reflexes haven’t slowed down and the 37-year-old can still beat any youngster at running between the wickets. This reflected in this year’s Indian Premier League where Dhoni scored 455 runs in 16 matches at an average of 75.83 and strike rate of over 150. This was the second time, and first since 2013, that he garnered three or more fifty plus scores in the tournament. Clearly, the hunger for runs is there for all to see.
But, why is it that Dhoni has seen criticism more than praise in the last two years? A closer look at his ODI record may reveal the mystery.
Between 2008 and 2014, Dhoni’s average in ODIs went below 50 only once – in 2010. But, since 2015, he has averaged over 50 just once, aggregating runs at 27.80 and 25 in 2016 and 2018, respectively. To make matters worse, the scoring rate has gone down drastically with runs coming at just 71.43 in 2018 – a stat that is unacceptable in modern times. To put things into context, Prithvi Shaw’s strike rate in Tests after two games against Windies stands at over 94.
Dhoni has managed just one century since 2014 and is yet to cross the 50-run mark this year after playing 19 matches and 13 innings.
Importance in lower middle-order and leadership skills
As much as these numbers present a strong case for dropping Dhoni from the 50-over side as well, they also highlight how blessed the Indian cricket team has been to have somebody like him in the lower middle-order.
Dhoni batted at number 5, 6 or 7 during most of his ODI career and managed an unbelievable average of 50.70, 46.33 and 46.84 at these positions, respectively. There has never been a player calmer than Dhoni in the death overs and it might take another generation to find a player like him.
Dhoni brings his unbelievable leadership skills to the table as well. Often in crucial times, it is Dhoni who is setting the field or giving instructions to bowlers and not Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma. There is a reason why DRS is referred to as ‘Dhoni Review System’.
Where selectors erred
All these skills should come handy in the 2019 ODI World Cup. And this is the reason why MSK Prasad has made it very clear that Dhoni remains to be the number one choice for the tournament. However, his services can make a huge difference even in 2020 T20I World Cup if used. “Virat needs (Dhoni). There’s no doubt about it. In 50 overs where there is that much more time, that’s when MSD comes into play. You know he makes those small field adjustments, talking to the bowlers in Hindi, telling them where to bowl and what to bowl. It’s a huge plus for Virat,” explains Sunil Gavaskar.
Even as the selectors don’t believe that Dhoni could make it to the T20 World Cup, they should have at least given him as many games as possible before the 50-over version of the tournament. After the last ODI against Windies, India will not play any ODIs in the next two months and with the Vijay Hazare Trophy over, Dhoni can’t even play at the domestic level.
The biggest favour one could ever do to a struggling player is to give him as much game time as possible. Says former Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly: “I have one issue here….I feel if the selectors are going to stick with Dhoni till 2019 World Cup, then I think he should be given enough matches.”
The bizarre decision, however, leaves the former Indian skipper with just 13 ODIs, an IPL season and ‘hope’ to prepare for the World Cup.