The so-near-yet-so-far performances that have dogged India in the limited-overs series in Australia have not just exposed the side’s frailties, but brought tremendous pressure on skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
With the Twenty20 series starting on Tuesday after the resounding 1-4 defeat in the ODIs, the focus will again be on Captain Cool, who is now under the cosh.
Unlike many times in the past, the top-order batsmen, led by Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, consistently came good, but the lower middle-order and late order as well as the bowlers exposed India. The odds are stacked against India managing a grand turnaround in the T20 games, which is vital for Dhoni to regain credibility as a leader in the final stages of his career.
The one tag which has sat lightly on India’s double World Cup-winning skipper is unconventional. However, Dhoni may have miscalculated by quitting as Test skipper first.
Two things have stood out in this series. Dhoni’s role as a finisher has eroded, and spending time away from the India set-up has added to that problem. Although Kohli only took charge of the Test side a year ago, and since being confirmed as skipper in the 2015 Sydney Test has led only in the sub-continent, the team has rapidly bought into his aggressive approach.
That has meant Dhoni has returned for such a demanding series into a side with players who have already warmed up to a different approach. And dropping R Ashwin, the one man who was always in synch with the skipper’s thinking, thus suggests a worrying lack of communication in the dressing room. Ashwin was kept out while the erratic Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav were persisted with.
The selectors naming Dhoni skipper till the World Twenty20 ends in April was to counter the clamour for Kohli as skipper in all formats. It was to let Dhoni chart the final course of his India career.
But Dhoni has found himself in a no-win situation, and he doesn’t seem to like that one bit. ‘It would be a conflict of interest situation’, he retorted when asked by the media to assess his performance after a defeat; it was less tongue-in-cheek and more irritation.
Dhoni hinted after the Sydney ODI that retirement has not crossed his mind when he spoke of reassessing his batting position now that he is not a sure-fire finisher. Though not much for fanfare, as he showed when he walked away from Test cricket at Melbourne last year, there can be inner turmoil if he sees the team has warmed up to a different philosophy.
Michael Clarke didn’t appreciate one bit when the Australia selectors, with the Board’s backing, set him a date to prove fitness ahead of last year’s World Cup after Steve Smith eased into the role, leading with the bat as well, during the series against India. He won the tournament alright, but not the perception battle.
Sourav Ganguly’s ability to spot talent beyond temperament helped Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh blossom. However, five years on, he found he was competing for a batting spot with those he had mentored. Such situations can be particularly tough on captains.
The T20 series will be a huge test for Dhoni in terms of aligning team dynamics to the new reality, especially if he wants to carry on beyond the World T20. Kohli, on the other hand, can consider himself lucky that Dhoni has soaked in all the pressure Down Under, allowing him to learn vital lessons ahead of a more gradual ascent to the helm of Indian cricket.