Dhoni weighed down by India's familiar shortcomings
Virat Kohli's Test side has reached No. 1. MS Dhoni's ODI side has lost its third straight series after the 2015 World Cup. The pre-match shows are - almost a year too late - beginning to discuss the impact of split captaincy. Former cricketers are talking about how MS Dhoni had to restrain himself in the Tests when he was just the ODI captain. If you watched the third ODI without knowing who India's captain was, you would have thought Kohli was leading India going by the sheer amount of time the camera spent on him.
It happens with everybody. Once you start relinquishing control, the world is quick to move on to the next winner. If you just see the comments under a Dhoni press-conference story, you would think he is the worst captain to have led India. His quotes suggest he clearly doesn't have the same say in selection matters as he once used to. It is true he is not the same player anymore, but in the third ODI Dhoni showed some of the wizardry that made him the legend he is.
For the first time in a long time, he played with the fear of not much to lose, and played big shots to almost every ball he played. His not diving in front of slip when standing back will keep coming up for criticism, but he also showed there is no equal when it comes to stumpings. George Bailey was left shocked he was stumped in such little time: Dhoni's gloves didn't go back as he collected the ball from Ravindra Jadeja; it seemed they were always coming forward towards the stumps, and just happened to collect the ball on the way. Another Dhoni special came when he stood nonchalantly by the stumps, giving Mitchell Marsh no indication the throw was coming at his end, and then whipped the bails off in a jiffy.
On a day that Dhoni showed some of his wizardry, he had to, like all captains who lead a side to three successive series defeats, field questions about his future. The clamour has been growing anyway. Dhoni showed he had not lost his humour - and a bit of righteous anger - when he said he would be in a conflict of interest if he decided on his own fate. It would need a PIL (public-interest litigation), he joked, pointing perhaps to the PIL against him for a photo of his used by a magazine in a manner allegedly hurting the Hindu sentiment.
Jokes aside, though, Dhoni said it was more important to see where the team stood and not where the leader stood. He spoke of how bowling is still an issue after all these years. The absence of a good allrounder came up. He spoke about the need of grooming players, but most importantly he said what he has been repeating since 2011-12, when India began to first lose big under him: "It's not about the leader. I'm there [now], somebody else will come later. What is more important is to see the areas we are lacking in, the departments which have to improve when it comes to shorter formats."
Dhoni spoke of the culture that needs to be maintained within the team. "If you're getting a chance to play for your country, irrespective of what the situation is, it can't be unfair," he said responding to whether it was unfair on Manish Pandey to de dropped without really getting a go. "That's what you have to communicate with them. A lot of times, because of the media scrutiny, people who tend to bat at No. 5 or 6, the thinking becomes, 'I've gone in now after the 43rd-44th over, let's look to play as if I'm hitting, don't get out and go back saying you are not out and everyone is happy.' That's the kind of culture you don't want in the team.
"I feel when it comes to these youngsters, even Manish Pandey in the last game, you know there was no question of hesitation of playing a big shot. That is something you have to encourage, and at the end of the day, the captain, the selectors are there to look at specifically that, because it tells you a lot about the character of the individual. You want brave people in the side. Winning and losing keep on happening. You want good characters in the side."
An example of how leaders become immaterial on the field was shown during India's brief fightback in the Melbourne ODI. India had come back through Jadeja and Dhoni, there was pressure building and there were fields set to cut out easy runs, but Umesh Yadav offered two freebies down the leg side to provide Australia eight runs that eased the pressure. Dhoni let his frustration at such instances show.
"If you take the deep fine leg slightly wider and that's one area where you don't want to get hit for a boundary," Dhoni said, "And that's where off the two next balls, back-to-back boundaries are hit. It's a bit disappointing because the bowlers have played a lot of games, and you want to avoid that kind of a boundary. At times it feels like I can only try to bring in more pressure by making field changes, but it's all about execution."
Dhoni also seemed weighed down by the misfields. "Today, I felt on and off the bowling was decent," Dhoni said. "We did let ourselves down with our fielding. The best fielders in our group actually left quite a few deliveries. You accumulate those 15 runs or maybe more, then the turnaround could have happened. I felt in this game, it was the fielding that let us down."
As with all Dhoni press conferences, though, you weren't any wiser about his future plans or if he feels the pressure from the selectors' side. Just like he almost ruled out giving Rishi Dhawan a chance before playing him in Melbourne. Just like he answered in a "no" when asked if he deliberately bluffed Marsh in that run-out. The thing is, if Dhoni told you when he was bluffing, it would stop being a bluff.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo