If Dhoni goes up, Rahane goes out
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."
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