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By Suresh Menon
During the third Test against the West Indies in July, Mahendra Singh Dhoni will turn 30. No Indian captain’s job has looked as secure as Dhoni’s. Since he took over from Anil Kumble, Dhoni has combined flair and certainty, and has been secure enough to stand aside while others have led. This is unusual for Indian captains, most of whom are constantly made aware of the temporary nature of their assignment, and reminded by current events if not history that one false move will see them sidelined.
Not surprisingly, it is often seen as the second most difficult job in the country, the uncertainty of tenure alone causing premature balding and graying. Selectors have often contributed to this, keeping captains on edge, playing off one against the other, and forcing them into Mephistophelian compromises.
India had played international cricket for three decades before the first long-serving captain was given the reign. But even Tiger Pataudi, who led at 21, had to face the chairman’s casting vote twice. He survived on the first occasion, and made way for Ajit Wadekar on the second.
Since Dhoni took over, three men have led India. Virender Sehwag, who is three years older, Suresh Raina (he led on the Zimbabwe tour while many seniors were rested), and Gautam Gambhir. Raina, 25 this year, will have to establish himself in the team over this season before his captaincy can be taken seriously. Gambhir is nearly the same age as Dhoni, and although he leads the team to the West Indies for the one-day series, can only be a stop-gap leader as long as Dhoni maintains his form and fitness.
If a natural successor to Dhoni four or five years down the line can be seen now, it is Virat Kohli. He is only 22 and yet to play Test cricket, but he has both an obvious toughness and tactical nous that make him stand out. Also, he seems to enjoy the responsibility of leading a side, which is a trait he shares with Dhoni, and one which is common to many great captains. He has picked up a reputation for enjoying the good things of life, but that is something that can be corrected. India lost a potentially major captain when a similar reputation stuck to Ravi Shastri’s name. Shastri might have been a great captain, but lost out in the West Zone versus North Zone politics which was sustained by his lifestyle often exaggerated in the media.
Kohli will have to learn from history even while realizing that a couple of generations after Shastri, society- and the selector - is probably more forgiving.
All that is many years into the future, although grooming a youngster is never a bad idea. Pataudi was groomed, Shastri was groomed, Dhoni was groomed.
England have decided to split their cricket captaincy three ways, and India, among the pioneers to split the job in two, will watch that experiment with interest. Dhoni is the most overworked of the Indian players, and sometime in the future he might withdraw from the T20 captaincy (even if he continues as player).
Dhoni’s reputation rests on his man-management abilities and his risk-taking temperament. He has well-honed instincts and when he occasionally gets it wrong he feels secure enough to admit it. “We read the wicket wrong,” he confessed after a World Cup game recently.
It will be interesting to see whom Dhoni himself grooms as his successor. This is not part of his job description, and in fact very few captains have even attempted it. But somehow one feels Dhoni is different.