Four years ago Mahendra Singh Dhoni was a mere novelty in Indian domestic cricket, a long-haired young man from Ranchi who liked to hit the ball as hard as humanly possible. Already captain of the Twenty20 and ODI teams, he on Friday, became the first wicketkeeper to lead India in a Test match.
The job presented to Dhoni was not massively challenging on the tactical front. On a rank turner, the script was a straightforward one: attack with all spinners and use fast bowlers in short, sharp bursts.
The challenge for Dhoni came from the pressure the situation brought. Being 0-1 down and without the services of Anil Kumble, missing only his seventh Test from injury, was not an ideal situation in which to take over the reins. This was the first time since 1990 that India played a Test at home without both Sachin Tendulkar and Kumble.
While Kumble's injury meant the three-spinner trick was shelved, Dhoni made good use of his part-timers. There are days when a captain can try various different things and taste little success, but when experiments come off it's the skipper who looks good. Dhoni's move to bring Yuvraj Singh on ahead of Virender Sehwag almost paid instant dividends. Yuvraj had two close lbw shouts against Graeme Smith turned down in his very first over. It's a different matter that he finally got his man, and it turned out to be the most important wicket of the day, with Smith top scoring.
When Dhoni finally turned to Sehwag, it was another stroke that paid off. Ashwell Prince had stood in India's way for close to two hours and when Sehwag nailed him with a quicker ball, it gave India an entry into the tail.
One day is no time to make judgments on a player's ability to lead a team but it can give you a few helpful pointers. When Rahul Dravid stepped down from the ODI captaincy and the selectors decided to give Dhoni the job it was in the full understanding that Kumble, who is already 37, would not be able to do the job in Tests in the long term. For now, though, there’s little doubt that Dhoni's just standing in for Kumble.
Although no formal appointment has been made it is understood that the selectors were not looking for a change at least till the end of the calendar year. However, with Dhoni having already rung in the changes in the ODI team, having dispensed with the services of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly for younger, fresher legs, cricketers on the wrong side of 30 will be watching his every move with keen interest.