Dhoni will be tested by 'favourites' tag
Just over two years ago, MS Dhoni led an unheralded and inexperienced side to South Africa for an event the ICC considered a trial run. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan all stayed at home while the rest of the team followed up a full tour of England with participation in the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup.
Few knew what to expect from the event, but a gripping first-round match between India and Pakistan that ended in a tie was followed by six sixes in an over [Yuvraj Singh against England] and a magnificent final where Misbah-ul-Haq and Pakistan fell five runs short. Overnight, the Twenty20 version became the talk of the town, and it could be argued that it was the frenzied interest created by those two India-Pakistan games that paved the way for the Indian Premier League, the Champions League and one-off games like the Stanford Super Series.
It wasn't just the Twenty20 game's stock that went through the roof after that fortnight in South Africa. Dhoni went from being a maverick with an unorthodox array of strokes to the man who could lead Indian cricket past new frontiers. He was the anointed one, the leader who could give Indian cricket a standing on the pitch that was commensurate with its power off it.
After the roughest of baptisms in a seven-match series against Australia at home [they lost 4-2], Dhoni has grown into the job. Tough on his players without being a bully, calm without being comatose and keen on leading by example whenever possible, he and his team have put together two years of solid achievement. It's perhaps no coincidence that Indian cricket's lowest point during that period came in the Test series in Sri Lanka that Dhoni sat out.
Younis Khan, who will walk out to toss with him on Saturday, is certainly an admirer. "He's doing a fantastic job as captain," he said on the eve of the game. "When I first saw him, he was young and energetic and given to the grand gestures. Now he's much calmer, and a real gentleman too. His performances have also improved with time, and he has done really well, for his country and himself."
Progress in the one-day arena has been especially impressive, with series victories in Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and home successes against Pakistan and England. Since January 2008, India have won 30 [and lost 12] of 46 matches, and they go into the game against Pakistan ranked No.1 in the world. Australia have fallen off their perch, hammered home and away by South Africa, while Graeme Smith's side have experienced a blip of their own, thrashed 4-0 in England last year. There isn't one side fit to be compared to the Australians that won three World Cups on the bounce between 1999 and 2007, and the frequent changes in the No.1 ranking reflect that state of flux.
For Dhoni, the current challenge is perhaps the most tricky of all. Back in 2007, he captained a team of rank outsiders. Now, he leads a team considered the best in the world. That brings with it a pressure of its own, and other sides like South Africa have been unable to cope with it in the past.
He's also without three proven match-winners in Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj and Zaheer. Tendulkar and Dravid lend experience and class to the batting order, though it's doubtful whether Dhoni had their names inked in when he was planning for the future. Some of the young tyros that he reposed so much faith in have failed to grab their chances, and at one level, he might find it galling that the old guard could be the difference between success and failure.
The same is true of the bowling as well, with so much resting on Ashish Nehra, who made his debut a decade ago, and Harbhajan Singh. Ishant Sharma and RP Singh continue to veer between the brilliant and the abysmal, and with Yuvraj's left-arm spin also out of the equation, one of Dhoni's biggest tasks will be to cobble together an effective 50-over bowling plan.
Off-field distractions are no help. The run-up to the World Twenty20 in England was full of media reports of a rift within the team, a charge that infuriated Dhoni to such an extent that relations with the reporters on tour reached an all-time low. They have arrived in South Africa with the same siege mentality, but that hasn't stopped global headlines about the alleged dossier that encourages players to walk down the Keith Miller-George Best route of boudoir indulgence.
These should be the best of times for Indian cricket, with the team having a great mix of young talent and proven performers, but with the media in particular going from singing hosannas to showing signs of the Tall-Poppy Syndrome, it's also Dhoni's biggest test.
Ultimately, no one remembers the bilateral series wins, or what you do in various triangular series. Teams will always be judged by their performances on the big stage. Hansie Cronje won 99 of his 138 matches as South African captain, while capturing only one trophy of note. Now, in the country where Cronje was once so adored, Dhoni must avoid a similar fate. Without the trophies that matter, No.1 rankings aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo