It’s his changing hairstyle that makes those big headlines. If it was his long hair that grabbed attention even in Pakistan years ago, MS Dhoni sported more of a paratrooper’s cut to mark his home game in Ranchi, during the recent one-day series against Australia. Dhoni has arrived with his troops in South Africa, this time in another variant of the Mohawk.
However, it’s his stubble that is a truer indicator of the concerns he carries as skipper. Increasingly salt and pepper, Dhoni’s experience and leadership will be more crucial in a young side touring abroad for the first time after Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement. Although the ODI team had played without Tendulkar for some time, Dhoni begins a fresh chapter with this young team, and he knows he will have to lead from the front.
On Tuesday, the first day of proper nets at the Wanderers, Dhoni batted for almost an hour, trying less adventurous strokes towards the end. He was the only one to bat twice. As he walked down from the practice area to the dressing room, posing for pictures with fans for the second day running, Dhoni seemed to appreciate the extra responsibility on his shoulders.
On Monday, Dhoni had parried questions on the tiff between the two boards, but the real questions lie ahead --- will he be able to match India’s breakthrough days abroad in the last decade or can he go a step further.
Records and stats
He is India’s most successful skipper, and has bucked the trend by becoming the most successful wicketkeeper to lead.
Statistics, however, hide a lot. For example, although as India skipper his win/loss ratio in Tests abroad is 0.55, better than India’s overall of 0.38, out of his five wins abroad, only one is worth mentioning, in South Africa in 2010/11 thanks to a resurgent Tendulkar and some great bowling that had previous experience in South Africa. The rest have come against the weaker New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Compare this with Sourav Ganguly, who had wins in England, Australia and Pakistan.
One thing that marks Dhoni out is homework. Those in the know say he has been preparing for this tour for some time. During the ‘A’ tour to South Africa a couple of months ago, the think-tank headed by Duncan Fletcher made regular opener Shikhar Dhawan sit out of the second ‘Test’ despite a double ton in the first, asking Cheteshwar Pujara to open. They gave Pujara as much exposure to get set to the new ball, in case a third opener is required.
While there is no reserve opener, there is a reserve keeper for the two Tests. Dhoni dropped two catches in the first Test against West Indies in Kolkata.
The BCCI agreeing only for a short tour will also help Dhoni. Many also feel the way he has backed youngsters, even when they go through a lean patch, will fetch him unflinching loyalty. The way he handles the team here will provide a real indicator to the future. In that sense, India’s most successful skipper starts life afresh.