India in England 2014 August 18, 2014

Time to liberate MS Dhoni

After 8-0, MS Dhoni could look forward to building a team from scratch; now, there is nothing left for him to contribute. Free him from the Test captaincy and he could yet give back in other ways

Things are not looking up for MS Dhoni as Test captain © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Giridhar on August 24, 2014, 9:50 GMT

    The chain is as strong as its weakest link. Why axe Dhoni, if unfit for the job, Dhoni would have been the first to opt out of the role, knowing the personality he is. Imagine England test series without Dhoni. Indians would have created a new world record for lowest total at last 2 venues

  • Dummy4 on August 22, 2014, 9:46 GMT

    Saha and Ojha are not young. And for Team India's sake, Dinesh Kaarthick is the best available option as back-up keeper. Any thoughts on this man. Experienced, wily and shrewd cricketer. Busybee. Can bat, keep and field.

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2014, 9:00 GMT

    dont give up ........alllllll the experts were once a begineeer

  • Ali on August 21, 2014, 6:54 GMT

    Dhoni should remain as a no. 6 batsman and surely as a captain. He needs to give up the keeping in Tests just as Sangakkara did. Time to bring in and prepare Naman Ojha or Saha as Test keeper. That would mean one of the top 5 batsmen have to make way and I think that should be Dhawan. Pujara and Vijay can open with Kohli at 3, Rahane at 4 and Keeper at 5. If they opt to play only 4 bowlers, an extra batsman can be accommodated in the middle order.

  • Jay on August 21, 2014, 1:32 GMT

    Kalra - Good idea! Dhoni is liberated: Coach Fletcher is virtually gone! Dhoni's adverse situation is like what it was for Cook after the 0-5 Ashes drubbing in Oz & Clarke after the "homework-gate" 0-4 collapse in India. Who got liberated? Cook & Clarke as Coach Flower quit & Arthur got axed. So let's look at Dhoni. He can't carry the team alone. As Gavaskar says: "He has led from the front. He has batted at difficult positions. He has set an example. If his example has not been followed by the rest of the team, I don't think you can blame the captain. I don't think there is any alternative to MS Dhoni in the foreseeable future and I would back him to carry on"! Agreed! Yes, even at age 33, he's "still India's No.1 wicketkeeper-batsman in Test cricket". No, Kalra's "worthy young men" Saha (~30) & N Ojha (31) are not young anymore. Instead, let's groom promising youngster Sanju Samson (19) who's been called up for the Eng ODI tour. It's about the future, not a "happy ending" for MSD!

  • RAJARAMAN on August 20, 2014, 8:13 GMT

    Comparing Sourav and MSD is like comparing apples with oranges ... Sourav was blessed with senior players but MSD was burdened with them ... players like Ashwin, Kohli, Raina, Rohit, Dhawan were nurtured by MSD ... they don't have an enviable record outside India but then so were others groomed by Sourav ... all of these do not miss the main point of liberating MSD from test cricket captaincy ... yes, the time has come ... Sachin/Dravid had MSD in mind for the top job ... when MSD took over from Kumble/Dravid we did not know about him ... similarly, anybody taking over from MSD might emerge well ... let us see if MSD has anybody in mind for this job

  • Mehul on August 20, 2014, 7:55 GMT

    I think a objective analysis is very important. Foremost: MS has been average as batsman in Tests, apart from this series & also keeping below par. His captaincy seems defensive & doesn't seem to 'really' back or motivate when needed unlike Dada as mentioned by abhi_crictwit,which is very vital for team & each player.Reminds of S. Waugh being dropped from ODIs, but continued in Tests. Also there are other keepers to replace him.The dismal performance further blurs captain selection for Tests, but i think Pujara might be a good bet.It would motivate him to learn more, hopefully w/o undue pressure. BCCI would do well to consider batsmen like Tiwary,Badrinath, Jijanjot,etc & also push players for county experience outside Asia. Winning WC/T20 is definitely good,but such successive lows in Tests leaves a big hole for a genuine game lover.

  • Dummy4 on August 20, 2014, 7:09 GMT

    It's high time Dhoni not only resigns from the Test captaincy, but also from Test cricket as well as it's obvious that his playing and captaincy style as well as his temperament are not suited for the longest format. In fact, Dhoni once said that he may retire from one of the formats by 2013, wonder why he still hasn't done so. He can still play and continue as the skipper in the limited-overs formats, where he has an enviable record.

    The Indian Test team needs an aggressive captain who leads from the front and is willing to take risks just like Dada did and IMO the only obvious choice at the moment is Virat Kohli. Also, players like Jadeja, Binny and Rohit, who are good limited-overs players but seem to be complete misfits in Tests, should be kept away from the Test team. Following is my preferred Indian team for Tests:

    1. Vijay 2. Dhawan 3. Pujara 4. Kohli (c) 5. Naman Ojha/Sanju Samson (wk) 6. Rahane 7. Ashwin 8. Bhuvi 9. Ishant 10. Pragyan Ojha/Bhajji 11. Shami/Aaron/Zaheer

  • Balasundaram on August 20, 2014, 6:12 GMT

    This article does not have any merit at all. Send off MSD. Okay. Who takes the whip? All captain materials in our team are so pathetic if not sorry figures. The bowling unit except one or two is utterly faltering. Everyone cried for Aaron. His net run rate is head spinning. Pankaj Singh gave away as many runs as he wished to gift away. Binny the selector's boy wonder is beyond comparison. MSD is being aimed because of a bunch of batters without imagination, plan, gut, and spine and mass run donators. Is this really fair? Okay. Take out MSD and find a better captain and win all the matches. People like will be watching closely.

  • Dummy4 on August 20, 2014, 0:31 GMT

    Give the captaincy to Ashwin.. test captain should be Ashwin. Dhoni can captain in the shorter formats.

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