India v SA, 1st ODI, Kanpur October 10, 2015

If Dhoni goes up, Rahane goes out

In his new role, at No.4, he wants to shape an innings, rather than finish it. Those intentions cannot be faulted, but the knock on effect is that Ajinkya Rahane is left in the cold

Rust or signs of decline? MS Dhoni has had trouble with his timing in recent matches © AFP

People have looked up to MS Dhoni the finisher for a long time. Commentators marvel at how calm he can be, and fans feel secure of India's chances so long as their captain is in the middle. Since 2004, which amounts to 226 out of 265 matches, they have seen Dhoni walk out at No. 5 or lower, absorb the pressure and deliver the best he could for the team. That's 121 victories, wherein he has three centuries and an average of 63.54

Those figures are admirable considering there are enough times a lower-middle order batsman has to either contend with his team at 50 for 3 and wanting stable ground, or 150 for 3 and wanting lift-off. Two drastically different roles, no letup in responsibility, and you don't even play a part in picking the straw you end up with.

Dhoni has managed quite well in the face of this uncertainty, but doing so has taken a toll. His form has dipped to such an extent that there is fear he might become a liability. His power game has waned. So has his range because he does not play those unorthodox swipes as much anymore. A yorker to Dhoni now has become a dot ball.

The fear that he could launch the next one into orbit remains, but lately the frequency has dipped. Dhoni has only seven sixes in 2015 - his lowest in a year that he has played at least 10 ODIs. Perhaps that is a choice. He has spoken a lot about how India lacking a solid No. 7 has shaped the way he plays recently. It is noticeable that he delays his charge a lot more than usual. But when the time comes, switching gears has been difficult. Then the pressure on him gets a lot sharper. He feels the team will suffer without him at the crease, so he grits his teeth and bats on, striking at 80 rather than 180.

Now Dhoni does not want so much on his plate. He does not want to come in the middle of a floundering innings and pick up the pieces. He wants to bat at No. 4 shape it. Those intentions cannot be faulted but a knock on effect is that Ajinkya Rahane, arguably one of the first players who would make an Indian Test XI, cannot find space because he is not a smasher of the ball.

But with a batting order that has a reasonably optimal spread of power players - Rohit at the top, almost seamlessly Virat Kohli at one drop, then Suresh Raina and Dhoni himself down the order - can't India persist with a player with Rahane's ability at No. 4?

"Even to some extent four is quite low for him," Dhoni said. "I've always felt he is somebody who should bat up the order. Opening is the slot that fits him really well. Also, it's slightly different for us. If you see first-class cricket for example, Rohit [Sharma] bats at No. 4 or No. 3 or No. 5, but over here he opens for us. Also if you see [India's] history, there have been a lot of individuals who have done that. Our openers, more often than not, bat in the middle order in first-class cricket.

"Its slightly difficult for him as of now. Especially if I am looking for somebody to bat at [Nos.] 5, 6 or 7. I don't think he is the person to bat at that number. If given the chance, we will feature him in the top three, but if not it might be difficult to have him feature."

"It's slightly difficult for Rahane as of now. Especially if I am looking for somebody to bat at [Nos.] 5, 6 or 7. I don't think he is the person to bat at that number"
MS Dhoni

Dhoni's game has changed, as it often does towards the end of one's career. He is 35 years old. It is unlikely he will be part of the next 50-over World Cup and, considering his preference to have players well aware of their roles well before an ICC tournament, he must want someone else to take over as the new finisher while he is around to groom them.

Peering two overs into the future and managing the present accordingly. Which of the opposition bowlers are the most threatening? Who has the overs left? And most importantly, who is the weak link? Right now, India believe Rahane needs to build a head of steam before getting into this mode.

"Batting down, especially at [Nos.] 5, 6 and 7, he faces more difficulty," Dhoni said. "We have seen that he is more flamboyant or more free when he bats up the order with a bit of field restrictions. Once he gets a good start he can capitalise in the middle overs."

So the likely choice for this role will be Raina. Oddly enough, Raina was among those talked about as a potential No. 4 too. But with over 200 ODIs' experience, a good range of strokes and the knack for wedging the ball into gaps, he leads the candidate list for the next Indian finisher.

It seems Dhoni is set on this course and if he believes it is the right one, as much as he has had to believe a scoreline of 50 for 3 can be rectified, it'll take a pretty tough curveball to strike him out of it.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Navin on October 13, 2015, 1:31 GMT

    Dhoni and Raina should bat up with all the experience of 200+ games. Enough of this talk about 6 and 7. You can't win if you you don't score and you can't score if you don't get enough balls to face. Didn't Sachin and Saurav form the best opening partnership in ODI, yet batted down the order in a test match. Dhoni and Raina are not genuine batsman like Sachin and Saurav but look at the experience they have to shape the innings, give them more time to bat and they will probably win more matches for India.

  • Android on October 12, 2015, 3:40 GMT

    Don't know why all backing Rahane at no.4?Even he doesn't deserve to be ODI side but deserve in test side as current best batsman.Look at history Dhoni always shined at no.3 or 4 slot.But now for Kohli no.3 slot is perfect and never think of changing opening slot.It tooks so long time for Rohit to become a superstar.Rohit-Dhawan are currently world's best openers.Dhoni is an experienced batsman now give no.4 slot to him.No.5 should be for Rayudu orRahane.6th for Raina. .India can win 1st Odi if Kohli would come at 3 n dhoni at 4.Rahane was playing at 70 SR.Now in modern cricket if you reach 50 your sr must be 80 at least n 100 must must within 105balls unless a low scoring match.If anyone fails to do so he is playing for himself or 100.Don't make slots as hot better concentrate on batting there were many players in past who can bat at multiple slots.

  • dexter on October 11, 2015, 7:21 GMT

    If BCCI refuses to implement a proper future tours program which involves a little less cricket and more rest for their international players and team they will be asking this same question about Kholi in a few months because even he will start under performing soon. The problem is not Dhoni it's BCCI, just imagine the team is going back to Australia again in a few months to play an ODI series when they were in Australia just this year absolutely senseless. Too much cricket and most of it is senseless and pointless the Indian people need to demand that their senior team get at least six months rest after this series.

  • Harry on October 11, 2015, 6:32 GMT

    After long time I feel in sync with dhoni for today's team selection. I think best for 1st ODI from available 15 players. Bhuvi need to find his wicket taking deliveries otherwise he is not doing good for himself. Also he is already off the radar from kohli in test matches

  • Jerald Rex on October 11, 2015, 6:05 GMT

    Rahane is an Ideal opener or a number 3 batsman Kohli can drop to number 4 Had this been done during the world cup India could have even lifted the world cup.It's kohli s self centric attitude which is costing India dearly.Take the world cup semi-final for example with kohli gone for 1 India's middle order found wanting and Rahane not able to rotate the strike got out when Dhoni wanted accelerate the with a meek no 7 it's advisable for kohli to bat at 4 and Rahane at 3 till India finds a stable no 7

  • Rahul on October 11, 2015, 4:25 GMT

    Kohli is getting ready to take over the captaincy and Rahane is the right choice to bat at no 4. I am sure there will be very few who are going to doubt it. So only logical choice left for MSD is to find his inner mojo. Leave the captaincy to Kohli and enjoy his game at no 5 with Raina at no 6. It will solve lot of problems for India and MSD.

  • Ankit on October 11, 2015, 3:06 GMT

    I am a big fan of Rahane and not one of Rohit. But even then I believe that under the present circumstances, we need Rohit to open the innings and Dhoni at 4, and not Rahane as an opener and Rohit at 5 as many people have suggested, even if that means Rahane has to sit out. It's unfortunate for Rahane, but that's the way life goes. Rohit has some very strong numbers and has become a first choice opener in ODI's and T20's. Rahane can be in the squad as a reserve opener. Also, Dhoni at 4 would be a very good news for the team. Meanwhile, we need to groom pinch hitters at 6

  • Neil on October 11, 2015, 3:05 GMT

    Dhawan is not as good as it comes and Dhoni is a known liability to the Indian side since the 2011 WC. Get Naman Ohja in as the ODI instead of Dhoni, get rid or Rayudu and Mohit and replace with better players. NO STUART BUNNY PLEASE!! If India wants to win the ODI against SA (unfortunately we don't have the pace attack like Bangladesh), then let's give players like Mishra, Mayank, Rahane, Naman and others a go. Dhoni, thanks for your services to this great nation but you need to retire now, please????

  • Bhavya on October 11, 2015, 2:57 GMT

    Dhoni in his pre match press conference has made it v clear that it's difficult to fit Rahane In middle order.. so its pretty clear that rahane is sitting on the bench.. so its going to be rohit, dhawan,kohli,Msd,rayudu,Raina,axar,ashwin, mishra and 2 pacers .. the issue is that now rayudu knows that rahane isn't a threat to his middle order position.. so y not have kedar jadhav in the squad as well to keep rayudu on his toes !!

  •   Vinay Kolhatkar on October 11, 2015, 2:57 GMT

    Why the hell should Rohit move down to make way for Rahane? It was also wrong in tests for Rahane to move from his good spot at 5 for Rohit. Raina and Dhoni at 4 and 5 makes sense, Raina the only left-hander in the top 5, at 4. No one hits from the word go consistently, no one. Maybe Mayank Aggarwal can be 6, Rishi Dhawan can be 7. In tests, the top 5 are Vijay, Dhawan, Puajara, Kohli and Rahane. In ODIs they are Dhawan, Rohit, Kohli, Raina & Dhoni.

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