One of the features of MS Dhoni’s captaincy post the 2011 World Cup win has been the inability of India to raise their game overseas against major teams. The Champions Trophy win in England last year was a pleasant exception but his resolve to back players who can overcome limitations by pulling their weight has been tested.
That is one area Dhoni will have to address if he is to not just prepare the team for next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand but also ensure the Test team, now that all senior batsmen have moved on, becomes a force to reckon with away from home. The defeat in South Africa, especially the thrashing in the ODIS, has raised questions about the composition.
Ravichandran Ashwin first and then Bhuvneshwar Kumar were two bowlers whom Dhoni backed strongly. But one wicket in three ODIs followed by his failure to take any in the first Test in Johannesburg, where Indian bowlers failed to force victory on the last day and eventually escaped with a draw, meant Ashwin was dropped in the second Test. Bhuvneshwar too was reduced to a spectator after the first ODI in South Africa, his lack of pace leaving him vulnerable to easy pickings by the batsmen.
Suresh Raina made his reputation as a finisher, but on Saturday morning he jumped awkwardly to keep down a short delivery, by Stuart Binny, not even the third-fastest bowler in the India squad. Stamped as someone not capable of handling the rising ball, that will surely erode Dhoni’s confidence in handing him the No 4 spot. Already in South Africa, Ajinkya Rahane showed he has the technique to handle that spot if early wickets fall in the ODIs before establishing his credentials in the Tests.
On Saturday, the eve of the first ODI, Dhoni did not openly acknowledge his predicament but spoke about the challenges faced by his side. The McLean Park, a rugby venue, has laid out a hard pitch that is expected to afford plenty of help to the pacers.
He admitted batting, hitting long shots against the wind that can come up short of the straight boundary, and bowling, where operating against the wind can tire one out, both required lot of intelligence. All India players were well protected against the gusts of cold wind as they batted and bowled at the nets. As they walked off, a player pointed to the forecast of warm weather on Sunday.