Up Up until April this year, everything MS Dhoni touched turned to gold. For his first captaincy trick, he led India to a World T20 triumph. Then, he guided India to number one in Test rankings, followed by the World Cup triumph. At that point, everything in Dhoni's world glittered.
Suddenly, where he once had gold dust sifting through his fingers, he now only has dirt under his nails. Under his leadership, a deflated India was thrashed in all three forms of the game by England. Now, his beloved Chennai Super Kings have been dumped from the Champions League prior to the knockout stage. It's been a disastrous six months for Dhoni and tongues have started wagging.
STILL CAPTAIN COOL
Has Dhoni lost his magic touch or has he reached his use-by date as captain? None of the telltale signs that occur when a captain reaches his use-by-date have appeared in Dhoni's case. Generally, when a captain's time is nearing its end, the team stops reacting positively to his leadership, the skipper becomes short-tempered or starts acting differently in an attempt to show he hasn't lost the team's respect.
There might be some argument for saying that the team didn't react positively to his leadership in England. But, I put it down to an injury-plagued, ageing side that ran out of steam. Outside of that, Dhoni is still his cool, calm self.
What Dhoni needs most now is some worthwhile rest from cricket to recharge his batteries. If a captain is mentally fatigued, he becomes increasingly conservative and Dhoni's success as a captain has been based on aggressively pursuing victory.
The other thing he needs is injection of youth in Test side. It would do wonders for his captaincy if the selectors could unearth a couple of attacking bowlers. Successful cricket teams are built around a strong and versatile attack and the more penetrative the bowling, the more aggressive the captain.
NO OBVIOUS SUCCESSOR
There are two other valid reasons why now is not the right time to start thinking about dumping him as captain. Firstly, there is no obvious successor to Dhoni and secondly a demanding tour of Australia is not the time to blood a captain. Of the potential future captains, Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina stand out. Currently, both have serious issues that need to be addressed before anyone begins to think of either as a potential Test captain.
A captain has to be tough --- he has to stay on the field under the most-dire circumstances and Gambhir failed that test in England. If Gambhir is looking for an example of what a captain should be like, he need not look beyond Dhoni. People can say what they like about Dhoni's leadership, but no one can accuse him of being a malingerer or dodging the hard going. A good part of captaincy is leading by example; it's not a matter of 'do-as-I-say' but more like 'follow-what-I-do'. Dhoni has been exemplary in this respect.
Lately though, it's been a different case. He was unable to inspire his team-mates in the Test series against England despite a return to batting form late in the contest. More recently in the Champions League, when his team needed him the most, he was well short of his best.
An innings of 7 runs from 22 balls in a T20 match would always be a cause for concern. However, when it comes in a game where the Chennai Super Kings had to win against Trinidad and Tobago to progress in the tournament, it is particularly worrying.
Was that innings a cry for help? Was it a sign that he's finally so mentally fatigued that he didn't have it in him to rise to the occasion? There are times when while the flesh is still willing, the spirit just can't raise the intensity.
Dhoni's big challenge will come in Australia. Another disaster like the tour of England would not only heighten calls for his head, but would also have him wondering if he'd taken this team as far as he could.
The selectors need to pick players who will not just give India a chance to win the series, but also inject youthful enthusiasm. This is not an easy job, but the selectors only have themselves to blame. Not only have they not thought ahead in choosing players so there was a smooth transition from ageing stars to talented newcomers, they've also neglected to address the issue of leadership grooming. The worst-case scenario would be a disastrous tour of Australia, followed by Dhoni deciding to relinquish leadership.
THE WAY OUT
One way out of the mess for Dhoni could be to reduce the number of forms of the game he plays. Ideally, he would stay on as the Test skipper because in that form of the game there is no obvious replacement.
So, right now, the priorities for Indian cricket are to find a way to give Dhoni a breather that will help rejuvenate him for the Australian tour. Then, they have to unearth some bowlers who will allow him to return to his aggressive mode. At the same time, they have to start planning for another AD age --- After Dhoni.
If these plans aren't enacted, there's the possibility that the Australian tour will be another disaster. If that happens, Dhoni will have reached his use-by date.