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Captain cold

He was India's coolest skipper, now he's just stone cold. It's time India and BCCI look beyond MS Dhoni, at least as Test skipper. N Ananthanarayanan writes.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2012 02:18 IST
N Ananthanarayanan
N Ananthanarayanan
Hindustan Times

Sport is a lot about channeling emotion to get the right dose of aggression, needed to back one's skill. But off the playing field, it is about proper planning, even while the going is good. As one looks back at the turbulent year that was for the cricket team and wonders what to expect in 2013, it does appear that too much was left to chance.

Sheen Off
It saw the retirements of batting greats Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, and Sachin Tendulkar bid adieu to one-day cricket, leaving everyone wondering whether he would walk away from Test cricket in the near future.

While the Board's handling of these retirements smacked of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, there is one area where the BCCI bosses and selectors have refused to bite the bullet. And that is in openly addressing the demand that Mahendra Singh Dhoni should be removed as India captain. He has increasingly looked jaded as a leader, particularly in Tests.

The man who carried India to a surprise triumph in the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007 was also 'Captain Cool' when the co-hosts sealed the deal in the one-day World Cup last year. But the sheen has worn off since then. Dhoni will complete five years at the helm of the Test team in April but experts are concerned India would have also suffered a reverse against Australia at home by then.

The Test captaincy of the 31-year-old wicketkeeper was on auto-pilot in the first two years as the formidable lineup of batsmen and the bowling led by Zaheer Khan took care of things. But it has been downhill, starting with a lacklustre 1-0 series win in the West Indies last year --- Dhoni refused to chase a challenging target on the last day of the drawn final Test in Dominica.

The 1-2 defeat against England after taking the Test series lead, after the routs in England and Australia, has only reinforced the need for fresh ideas and leadership.

The Slide
Dhoni's eroding focus in Tests is apparent and split captaincy will be an ideal way to go. In Australia, he refused to drop an out-of-sorts Laxman and let the young Rohit Sharma languish in the dressing room, even after India had gone down 0-3. Australia went on to complete the rout.

Against England at home, picking three spinners - Harbhajan Singh in the second Test in Mumbai and Ravindra Jadeja in Nagpur - had little effect. Few would have survived after losing two major series abroad, leave aside the setback against England at home.

If there is any scope for wait-and-watch, it is only because of the situation the national team is in right now. Normally, captains are groomed in the T20 and ODI formats before being blooded in Tests. But there is agreement that Dhoni is still the best bet for limited-overs cricket. While Virender Sehwag and fellow opener Gautam Gambhir have experience, their batting has been inconsistent for far too long and has eroded the faith of the selectors.

Experts feel Virat Kohli, the victorious U-19 skipper, and briefly vice-captain of the limited-overs team, who has shed his early attitude problem and cemented his spot in all formats, should be tried out. The 24-year-old has demonstrated his cricketing acumen and is articulate too. But the argument against Virat is that he is raw and could struggle to handle a team in transition, and if he is sacked for failure it could damage his confidence.

Galvanising Team
On the other hand, with younger players coming into the Test team, it will be galvanised by a young captain. Alastair Cook, 27, began his Test captaincy with a bang despite coming to India with his hands full -

Kevin Pietersen had to be eased back into the team and England, who had not won in 28 years, had to do that on turning pitches. He achieved all this in style.

If the Board and selectors want to be pro-active, they need not look beyond the example of Graeme Smith, who was just 22 when he was handed the job after South Africa's 2003 World Cup debacle at home. Articulate when the team won but withdrawn after defeat, he has emerged as perhaps the finest Test captain at the moment.

For a country that did well by blooding a 16-year-old batsman 23 years ago, handing the reins to a confident, young man may be the best way to bounce back from the current slump and set the team on the path of success.