There was a period after Mahendra Singh Dhoni became India captain when everything he touched turned into gold. In all forms of the game, his leadership record was stunning, which climaxed when India became the No. 1 Test team.
For a brief while, his team climbed to the top of the ODI rankings and MSD continued to be the No. ODI batsman. For a man with not the most sophisticated batting technique, it was a tremendous achievement. His leadership came as a surprise as well, because this aspect of his character was unknown till he became captain.
A combination of all these made him hot property in the IPL auctions too.
Having seen the best of it, Dhoni is suddenly getting a taste of the other side of life. Though it’s not reflected on the rankings yet (the ODI team is still ranked second), it’s been a rough ride for him and his team since India’s early exit from the T20 World Cup last June. There have been wins — against the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — but the defeats including the ODIs against Australia are looking more glaring. His unbeaten record as Test captain had to go some day.
That way, the Nagpur setback isn’t a milestone by any yardstick. But the manner and significance of that defeat makes Dhoni’s immediate test beginning on Sunday more important. Not that the daggers will be out if India don’t win here.
Fingers can’t be pointed at his performance as batsman either. Questions, however, will begin to surface about the legitimacy of India’s status as the best Test team because, apart from home wins against Australia, England and Sri Lanka, Dhoni’s India have played and won away Test series only in New Zealand and Bangladesh.
Dhoni admitted these are testing times. “Challenges make life interesting. That way, this is the main side of life,” he said on Saturday. “When you play international cricket, you try to do better in each game but it doesn’t always happen that way. These are times that makes life more challenging and we must come back as a team.”
There are concerns on the individual front too. That the selectors have started keeping an extra wicketkeeper in the squad lends credence to murmurs that all’s not well with Dhoni’s back, which has been overworked, as he continues to keep in every form of the game.
Dhoni probably knows that if India lose to South Africa, it won’t be long before that memory is swept away by IPL III starting on March 12.
A smart man, he should also know that once the dust settles, new pair of scissors will dissect each defeat suffered by the Indian team hereon.
The Test will not only determine who goes where in the ICC Test rankings. It might provide food for future thoughts, if things don’t go well for India.