India in Australia 2011-12 January 12, 2012

When the familiar doesn't work

It is difficult to pinpoint whether it is the bowlers that MS Dhoni doesn't trust, whether he is out of his depth tactically, whether he is not fresh enough on tours, or whether his strength is his biggest weakness

On the second day of the SCG Test last week, Michael Clarke, the Australia captain, scored a double-century, and Ricky Ponting, the former captain, scored a century. They both sat next to each other in the press conference. Ponting was asked what he made of Clarke's use of the bowlers, field placements, bowling changes etc. Ponting said he was impressed, but was quick to add that all of that was the easier part of captaining a Test side.

Bill O'Reilly used to write that a well-trained collie dog could captain a cricket team. Ian Chappell, with all due respect to O'Reilly, wrote that it was his disregard for batsmen - often also the captains, and at some time or other the opponents of O'Reilly the bowler - might have had something to do with his views. Chappell, a highly regarded captain himself, went on to concede, "Certainly a collie dog could arrange a batting order, manipulate the bowling changes and direct fieldsmen. However, they are only a minor part of the tasks confronting a captain."

If managing other players, dealing with success and failure, creating a conducive environment for all to perform well, is the difficult part of captaincy, then MS Dhoni has that sorted. It's the easy part - field placements, bowling changes - that is under scrutiny. To get more precise, Dhoni has got the easier part in ODIs and in Tests in India sorted. It's the easy part of captaincy in overseas Tests that is under scrutiny.

The off-field stuff Dhoni does well. And the off-field stuff is more difficult to manage for an India captain than any other. He treats the two impostors, so to speak, almost just the same. His colleagues say that if they haven't seen the game it is impossible to tell from Dhoni's face if India have won or lost. He hardly bothers much about selection issues. He respects his team-mates, which greatly reduces ego issues. He is not into powerpoint presentations, and he doesn't interfere with how the coaches work. It's the coach's team until the toss; Dhoni takes over then.

When Dhoni takes over in ODIs, he does really well - he is a solid ODI batsman and has led the side to wins in the World Cup, Asia Cup and CB series. When he takes over in Tests at home, where he can control things better, where reverse-swing and spin - better allies of his than normal swing and bounce - hold sway, he does well. As captain, he has won 12 Tests at home and lost just one. Another possible big factor here is that he performs as a batsman in ODIs, and also in home Tests where mostly his role has been to provide quick runs to set up declarations.

When Dhoni travels away for Tests, though, both his captaincy and his batting seem out of place. His batting he says he can't do much about. That's the technique he has, and he can play the odd fighting knock here or there, or a counterattack that might involve some fortune. In the field, as a captain, he can look lost. As captain he has now lost eight away Tests out of 18, six of them on the trot.

A lot of Dhoni's captaincy has been about staying pragmatic, not getting swept away, waiting for a moment of weakness from the opposition, and pouncing on it with a degree of finality. In away Tests he tends to wait for too long. All modern captains tend to take a backward step with opposition tails, but with Dhoni it has become rote. It's as if he is not recognising the moments now, a natural gift great captains have.

Dhoni is still the best Test wicketkeeper - home or away - India have. The same can be said of captaincy when seen as a whole package. Dhoni will know that can't be reason enough to continue. India will need him to play a big part if they are to arrest the freefall. To use one of his jokes, he will have to be the parachute

Dhoni's tendency to let those moments pass has been well documented here, here, and here among other places. Added to these were instances in England. During the Lord's Test, when a pre-lunch burst on the fourth day from Ishant Sharma had given India an outside chance, Dhoni began the post-lunch session with Suresh Raina, which was surprising despite the absence of Zaheer Khan. In the next Test, he withdrew the attacking fields for Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, and paid the price.

It is difficult to exactly pinpoint whether it is the bowlers that Dhoni doesn't trust, whether he is out of his depth as a tactician, whether he is not fresh enough on tours because of the amount of cricket he plays, or whether - most plausibly - his strength is his biggest weakness. The said strength is that Dhoni plays the game on his terms. Unlike with his batting, he doesn't venture into the unknown as captain. He keeps it simple there. Even in South Africa, a depleted side led by him won two ODIs through his use of part-time spinners, a trusted trick.

Dhoni tries to take what he knows to wherever he is playing. When out of his comfort zone, though, it hasn't worked. The batsmen covered up for it in Sri Lanka and in South Africa, but in England and Australia the side, and aspects of Dhoni's captaincy, have been ruthlessly exposed.

Going into Perth, 8-0 is a distinct possibility. The more difficult part of captaining India still seems to be in his grasp. Amid rumours that the team is disintegrating, amid criticism that the side resembled a picnic party, amid losses, Dhoni has not lost humour. It depends on your taste if you find his humour funny or not, but the humour is there. He is not treating the impostors too differently. Asked if a whitewash in Australia would hurt him more than the one in England, he said, "You die, you die. You don't see which is the better way to die."

If India do die, though, the humour will cease being funny. Dhoni is still the best Test wicketkeeper - home or away - India have. The same can be said of captaincy when seen as a whole package. Dhoni will know that can't be reason enough to continue. India will need him to play a big part if they are to arrest the freefall. To use one of his jokes, he will have to be the parachute.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2012, 18:35 GMT

    just have to reply to choksaka sth. Sir, just cuz sub-continent teams, Pak, Lanka & India dont perform well on bowler friendly wickets... Doesnt mean there is anything wrong with them, i think u would rather have a snooze fest, or a muddy wickets the sort are prepared in India for 5th day spin.. then a lively pitch. Cricket is ashamed...

  • Phillip on January 13, 2012, 11:34 GMT

    @chokkashokka-minefields eh.....................Aus-150/0 on the very same pitch,SA scored 300+ in 50 overs.It mysteriously gets activated to minefield status only when asian sides play there.

  • Kuldeep on January 13, 2012, 7:25 GMT

    He should not be in the side. He lacks vision in test matches and his batting lacks depth required at number 7 batsman in the side.

  • Ashok on January 13, 2012, 7:22 GMT

    OK, wise guys, so who do you suggest as Dhoni's replacement as captain, and why? Enlighten us.

  • Thank You on January 13, 2012, 6:20 GMT

    it is nor Dhoni's captaincy that is at fault - it is these minfields that are getting served up in austrlia, england and SA. Cricket is going to get polarized like it has never been ever in the history of cricket. Another Worls Cup finalist bowled out for under 50 runs in 20 overs over there in another minefield calle SA. What do you think India and SL are going to serve up to the grass grazers when they arrive in the sub continent. They will truly be devored by square turners that will await. Here what makes preparation of such rubbish wickets an ominous sign for test cricket - (i) Indian audiences will stop watching their beloved team on foreign tours (ii) advertisers will reserve their money for domestic tours (iii) players will stop going on foreign tours - whats to gain? (iv) foreign boards will go bankrupt without India (look at Pak) and curators of these wonderful grazing fields will have take up sheep herding or mow lawns for a living. What rich rewards - bounced. Publish that.

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2012, 5:23 GMT

    I am not sure if Dhoni is to be blamed to the extent that he is being now. Of course the captain has to take it on the chin when things go wrong and there is no doubt that things have gone horribly wrong both in England and in Australia. The real problem has been that our batsmen, Dhoni included are brilliant at home and that is it. The ones who generally score heavily abroad like Sehawag, Dravid and Lakshman have all failed. I think Flethcher is an overrated coach and his influence on the team has been minimal and clearly he has not shared his knowledge of Australia and its conditions with the Indian bowlers. And Dhoni has been let down by his bowlers too . It is difficult to consistently win test matches with one bowler Zaheer Khan. Dhoni"s captaincy abroad is indicative of how the Indian cricket team he leads. We are poor travelers and will continue to perform poorly with or without Dhoni unless our batsmen forget the IPL and go play in the English cricket league or in Australia

  • Andy on January 13, 2012, 4:29 GMT

    wow! Kohli retained his place, every one knew Laxman wouldn't be dropped poor Rohit, if he gets a chance next match and fails in it, he would be rested for ages now.

  • Khawaja on January 13, 2012, 4:27 GMT

    India unfortunately donot rely on teh captain...lately they have had only zaheer khan...if he bowls properly than they do well in tests...they now have other bowlers too..when an indian spinner fails like ashwin than something is wrong...probably a captain more involved than standing behind teh wicket...i dont think dhoni can become emotional from behind teh stumps or talk to teh bowler about what is going wrong...when things are on automatic as they are in teh indian team than u just depend on teh individual doing well rather than tactics or studying opposiion batsmen...many suggest most of their tactics is based on we wont let u play in india...the way dhoni has'nt changed the batting lineup after several failures shows that he is either not too keen to change or adapt teh team to teh situation

  • Chakravarthy on January 13, 2012, 3:24 GMT

    India has the largest number of cricket enthusiasts since we are the largest cricket playing nation on Earth. It is unfair if the same set of 11 people represent this burgeoning set of people time and time again. Also, this current set of seniors have achieved everything they wanted in terms of wealth, fame, records and victories. There are many youngsters who will show a lot more pluck and fight if given a chance. The problem with the cricket administrators in India is that they live in a cozy bubble and fail to notice this disconnect. The fans don't mind India losing under Dhoni but they do mind the lack of a fight in the last 6 test matches. We seem to be promoting good will and cricket at the expense of a good fight. We need brand new faces who may lose due to inexperience, but will at least take it down the wire.

  • Kall on January 13, 2012, 3:17 GMT

    @Skooby: Well said! I think India has to rethink the way the team is made. Have horses for courses rather than thinking about the stature of a player. You should have the guts to drop someone like VVS or Ishant if they are not delivering over a period of time.

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