For Australia, choosing the captain is simple: the job goes to the best performing player. Leading from the front has always been Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s strong point as well.
In recent times, however, the Indian captain’s personal form has been patchy, and it seems to have affected the other aspects of the game as well. Except for the brilliant counter-attacking knock in the Indore ODI against South Africa in the last series, he has not come out and calmed the nerves in the dressing room as he is renowned for.
Dhoni looks leaner and fitter, the result of a fitness regimen he said he has been following. The speed and strength gained didn’t make a big difference to his batting for Jharkhand in the Vijay Hazare one-day tournament as he looked to get into groove for the season.
Hence, in the new series beginning on Tuesday, it will be equally important for the captain to deliver with the bat. In eight innings, including three Twenty20 Internationals he will get on this tour, Dhoni will have to produce at least two solid knocks to settle the debate about his form.
One reason seen for the fluctuation in form is not getting regular matches after giving up Test cricket. Former Australia keeper, Steve Rixon, who has worked closely with Dhoni as assistant coach at Chennai Super Kings, agreed that staying sharp was the challenge. “I have seen that happen to a lot of players (who quit one format and don’t play competitive cricket regularly), and the drop can be very quick. MS has to be very conscious of it. It’s a major concern for any player,” Rixon told HT.
For the others, this is just another one-day series. The motivating factor is proving your mettle against a tough opponent. It’s not as simple for Dhoni. The stakes are high and it’s not just about the pressures of captaincy.
On his last tour to Australia, he had taken the surprise call to hang his boots in the longer version. Since then the talk has only grown, ‘what are his plans in limited-overs cricket?’ Speculation is rife because the World T20 at home is seen as the perfect platform for a final hurrah.
There are mixed feelings over his last sojourn here. He took India to the semifinals of the World Cup, which was widely applauded, but performances have otherwise plateaued. This contest against the kangaroos comes after a defeat at home to South Africa.
There’s no mistaking how any team in the world feels about playing against Australia in their backyard. It’s difficult to recollect the last time Australia did not start as favourites at home. You will have to go back to the all-conquering West Indies team of the 1980s.
Dhoni managed to do the impossible and upset Australia, leading India to an improbable win in this format in the 2008 Tri-series. It was a different setting though. He was beginning his captaincy career, and with nothing to prove, there was no fear of failure.
Here, he knows he has to deliver to extend his limited-overs career. Although the selectors have declared him captain till the World T20, another reversal will make his position vulnerable, and opinion will build that it’s time to take the big call after the season. Virat Kohli’s early promise as Test captain has added to the debate whether the team would be better off with one captain in all formats.
However, Rixon, who has seen him from close quarters for six years, said people need not worry about Dhoni when it came to handling pressure. “MS won’t worry too much about pressure, it doesn’t affect him at all.”
India will be facing Australia in the first ODI of their tour down under on January 12, 2016.