Time to liberate MS Dhoni
MS Dhoni has a phlegmatic, unruffled air about him. That he is rarely given to another disposition suggests it is how the man is constructed. There is no mask, no pretense at being "cool". In the delirium that followed India's World Cup victory in 2011, he said it was "good to win". No grandiose romanticism about how a boy from Ranchi could never have imagined holding up cricket's most treasured prize, no claims of this being a "gift to the nation".
So, in defeat too, Dhoni doesn't do manufactured gloom. "Will you resign as Test captain now?" he was asked after India plummeted to their fifth-straight overseas-series defeat. "Didn't you ask me the same question in 2011?" he retorted with a smile.
Leading cricket teams wears the best of them down. Graeme Smith recently walked away from the game, knowing well that at 33 he was possibly forsaking a few years of heavy run scoring. In 2007 Rahul Dravid led India to a first series win in England in 21 years and called time on his captaincy, saying he simply had stopped "enjoying" the task. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara grew weary of the politics of their board and so chose to hand hold a younger man rather than continue in the job themselves.
When India suffered embarrassing whitewashes in 2011 in England and then Australia, Dhoni had faced calls for his head. He dug his heels in at the time, and perhaps rightly so. At 30, Dhoni was aware that once India's aging batting giants made way, he would be allowed to put together a team of his choice. As India began a sequence of three series on the road earlier this season, the signs were positive. In South Africa and New Zealand, they were beaten but not disgraced. The formula Dhoni invested in was reaping reward and on an incredible afternoon at Lord's, it delivered a magic moment.
The three staggering defeats that have followed have not just punctured the afterglow of that success but give Dhoni little reason to stay invested in the job. The young batsmen he hoped would form the engine room of a brave new outfit have floundered and offered clues to future foes on how to neutralise them. Returning to solid performers from the past has ended in spectacular failure.
Worse still, there isn't a stream of young batsmen in the country demanding to be promoted to national duty. What does Dhoni attempt to rebuild now? Who does he build with?
The consistently comical slip catching and large tracts of impotent bowling mean India have inadequate tools to mount a credible challenge on tours.
Dhoni avoids hyperbole, terming overseas success "important", and isn't given to concerns about legacy, but surely the will to soldier on is dwindling? Yes, he could add to his impressive captaincy record by beating West Indies at home later in the year, but it would be little more than a statistical milestone.
In the brutal treadmill that is the modern game, it is a minor miracle that Dhoni's reign has lasted this long. But being captain first and all else later has impeded his progress as a Test cricketer.
An old cliché suggests cricket teams must be made up of the best playing eleven possible and the captain must be found from within that group. However, no wicketkeeper in the country, no matter how assured his glove-work or how sound his batting, has even an outside chance of challenging for Dhoni's spot.
In the absence of the competition from rivals that often forces sportsmen to strive to improve, Dhoni's wicketkeeping has visibly declined. He displayed remarkable gumption with the bat in making four half-centuries in the England series but his overall record outside the subcontinent remains pedestrian. He is perhaps still India's No. 1 wicketkeeper batsman in Test cricket, but worthy young men such as Wriddhiman Saha and Naman Ojha are emerging as strong challengers.
At 33, there can yet be a memorable home stretch to this outstanding international career. What he needs, in Test cricket, is to be liberated. From tosses and press conferences, from team building and man-management. He has his beloved one-day team to lead into a World Cup defense in less than a year but his time is up as Test captain. There is nothing left to accomplish, nothing left to contribute. Free him so he can focus on his battles as a player, free him so his wisdom is available to a successor. Then, it could yet be a happy ending for Dhoni.
Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75