When the familiar doesn't work
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'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