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By Suresh Menon
Two years ago, when he returned beaten from the tours of England and Australia, it had seemed the right time to remove Mahendra Singh Dhoni as captain of the Test team. The selectors missed that chance. Then, after losing the first home series to England in 28 years, another opportunity presented itself. This time, to replace both the captain and the coach Duncan Fletcher. Again, nothing was done.
Just like timing is everything when you induct a player into the team, timing is everything when you remove a player too. And Dhoni, a clear candidate for having at least one of his three captaincy hats taken from him two years ago, has survived long enough to see things through, all caps intact, till the World Cup next year.
Before India get to defend their world title in Australia and New Zealand, they travel to England and Australia for full series. The five Tests India play in England will be the first time since 1959 that they will be playing more than four in a series there. Although there is something to be said for appointing a new captain who carries no baggage and is aggressive to boot – Virat Kohli, in case you are wondering – there is a more powerful argument for experience and a captaincy fuelled by revenge and self-respect.
When things have started to go wrong in the long game, skipper Dhoni – never a startling tactician at the best of times – has exhibited a tendency to let things ride which is the cardinal sin of captaincy. The call is to go out and make things happen. Captains who wait for batsmen to get themselves out seldom earn the respect of the opposition.
There is too the stubbornness with team selection, a tendency to adhere to the tried and tested even if it is not successful, and decisions that seem to be based on astrological calculations rather than on cricketing logic.
Yet, even granting all these weaknesses, now would be the wrong time to push Dhoni out. For one, it would place an undue burden on the side’s best batsman at a time when India need Kohli’s batting more than they need his captaincy. In terms of age and experience, Kohli is ready to take over, and if India win the Asia Cup in Bangladesh, the clamour for his elevation will increase. I have been a great fan of Kohli’s brand of aggression, and even while Dhoni was well ensconced in the job, picked Kohli as his successor. Yet, timing is everything, and it is not yet time to bid Dhoni goodbye. I have the greatest respect for Ian Chappell, but I disagree with him on this score. The time to sack Dhoni has come and gone; now is the time to back him.
If anything, it might be a better idea to sack Fletcher and find a coach Dhoni can communicate with. Foreign coaches seem to be so keen on protecting their salary and privileges that they have displayed a reluctance to take on the Indian captain when he has obviously gone wrong. The last man to argue with the captain, the Australian Greg Chappell, was forced to leave in some confusion.
What Dhoni needs is a strong coach who respects results. Someone who will tell him when his mind starts wandering, someone who will ensure that the right player is in the right slot.
It is true, as Chappell has said, that Indians allow senior players to choose their own future and decide when and where to leave. But this is a recent phenomenon. The Tendulkar generation – Sachin himself, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, V V S Laxman – all chose their time, and chose it well. But Sunil Gavaskar apart, not too many of the earlier generation were given that privilege.
Gundappa Vishwanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Kapil Dev all thought they had more international cricket in them when the blow fell.
Dhoni will certainly have to manage his career if he is not to drop out through sheer exhaustion. Captain and keeping wickets in three formats of the game and in the IPL means a huge amount of work, both physical and mental. But he is still only 32, and India didn’t do too badly under him on the recent tours of South Africa and New Zealand. They were expected to lose four of the four Tests, and actually came close to winning at least one Test in each country. Young batsmen blossomed, only the bowling disappointed. The captain deserves to keep his job.