Dhoni needs a second wind as captain
In the last six months, MS Dhoni has been under enormous pressure as captain and batsman. Leading India is a tough job and it is going to get even tougher because of the situation the team finds itself in.
I believe, though, that not only is Dhoni the only man to lead India in Test cricket, he is still capable of doing the job well. What it will require from him is a change in the way he captains, a recognition that he can't do everything all the time, and the willingness to ask for and accept help. He has had a good run, and will be recognised as India's most successful captain, and he now has a chance to extend it.
Other than his leadership qualities, there is the fact that there are no alternatives to Dhoni at this stage.
At one point we felt Gautam Gambhir could take over the job. In 2008-09, Gautam showed he could definitely play at the international level and in all formats. His captaincy of Kolkata Knight Riders in the last IPL was excellent. Yet what goes against him today is the fact that he has not scored too many Test runs in the last three years, and he averages under 32. Also, unlike Dhoni, Gautam does not have a second skill to back up his batting, even if that skill is being an excellent slip fielder. It is not a good precedent to have R Ashwin stand in slips (or Cheteshwar Pujara shuttling between short leg and slips with pads on) when there are frontline batsmen in the side who should be in catching positions, be they slips or short leg.
Still, Gautam's batsmanship and experience remain very important for the team, and giving him the captaincy at a time like this would be a burden on him. Before anything else, he has to get his Test batting back on track. If he does, he still has age on his side.
Virat Kohli is the only other alternative leader, and he ticks the box of being an automatic selection in all three formats. Yet I believe it's a little early for him. At the moment, he is a growing, developing cricketer. I would love for him to get the job after India has played another 15 or so Tests, which means after the England tour, in September 2014. If he can keep his form and develop till then, it will be a good time for him to take over. He is a long-term prospect as batsman and captain, but giving him the Test captaincy at this stage might be risky.
It is important for Dhoni now, even though he has no serious challengers, to make sure that he has the energy and the drive to still captain. Because if he doesn't, he should call it quits: the lack of energy and drive will show, and that will not go do his legacy or Indian cricket any good.
Everyone speaks about the tour of South Africa this December as being a crucial one, but there is more after South Africa: India go to New Zealand, and in the northern summer of 2014 they play five Tests in England. Between the home series against Australia next month and the end of that England tour, there are 15 Test matches. At the end of those 15 Tests, if Dhoni can have turned things around for Indian cricket, have had a couple of good overseas tours, and can then hand over the captaincy to the next man, that would rank among his greatest achievements. He would have taken the responsibility of leading a team in transition and left it in a better state.
What I like about Dhoni is that he is a leader by example. We saw this in the Nagpur Test match - and not merely from his second-innings 99. In Nagpur, because the wicket was slow, Dhoni came up to the stumps to Ishant Sharma, who was bowling at 140kph. To do that was gutsy, because it had "break your finger" written all over it. Dhoni was willing to take that chance, and to me, in some ways, that shows leadership. Sometimes he promotes himself up the batting order at critical times - the World Cup final was a good example. He is willing to play through niggles and injuries. That provides an example for others in the team to follow. When he bats with the tail, he plays his shots, can improvise, and shows he is not there to protect his own runs or his wicket.
There's a lot of talk of split captaincy these days. It won't be a bad model for India to adopt, if only to keep Dhoni fresh as Test captain. Dhoni has got to recognise that he can't continue to captain and play all the time, because it is making him stale. The pressure of international cricket is huge - it lends itself to a lot of fatigue - and Dhoni has been in the job a long time now. Once the early charm and excitement of captaining a team wear off, you need to pace yourself.
To start with, Dhoni could easily give up the India T20 and Chennai Super Kings captaincies. He has already achieved whatever there is to achieve in those roles. He needs to take breaks between captaining and keeping and playing. He should certainly play ODIs and T20s for India, because he is invaluable to the side. Giving up a couple of captaincy roles might give him more time in the main India job and the freshness to keep doing it. It would also give India an opportunity to perhaps give someone like Kohli a chance to be T20 captain, break him into the job and see how he goes.
There is another option for Dhoni as well, which he has resorted to in the past: to miss the odd one-day series and prepare himself for the big competitions like the Champions Trophy, the World Cup and the T20 World Cup. It would mean talking it through with the selectors and telling them that he will do the job but he's going to need his breaks and breathing space. In the past, he missed a Test series in Sri Lanka when he wasn't even captain, and an ODI series against Zimbabwe. It is time to revisit that strategy.
Dhoni must also recognise that he needs to change a very successful leadership style - almost change direction - because the team is changing.
India will always be competitive in limited-overs cricket; it is in Test cricket that the real transition is taking place. The departures of Sachin and Zaheer, and now Veeru, mean there's a bit of a shake-up in ODIs, but it is more stark in Test cricket. Over the last five years as captain, for the most part Dhoni led a team that had a lot of experienced players. He led on instinct and gut feel, and it worked brilliantly for him. His team-mates included Sachin, myself, Laxman, Sehwag, Zaheer and Harbhajan, and we didn't need instructions about what to do to perform. Now Dhoni is captaining a team with young guys, who need more communication and guidance. They are learning about international cricket and dealing with their own stresses and challenges; they need someone to help them, to explain what is happening - for example, when people are dropped.
One of the criticisms directed at Dhoni has been that there is very little communication about plans and roles either. He is not one for bowling plans and bowlers' meetings. When you have senior bowlers like Zaheer, Kumble and Harbhajan, the captain need not worry about all that because the bowlers know what to do. On the other hand, the younger bowlers coming in now, like Ashwin and Ojha, need to know what the plan is, and need to make sure that they are on the same page. They need to discuss strategy and planning well before they go onto the field. Without that, younger guys in a team can get a bit disoriented.
Bowling attacks make good captains and successful teams. Dhoni needs to identify the next generation of bowlers who can do the job for him, because without a good bowling attack, India are going to struggle; they might have the odd success, but I can't see how they're going to be competitive and stay that way.
If Dhoni needs help, he needs to be clear about what kind of help, and he needs to ask for it. He should take advice and assistance from people around him: guys like Duncan Fletcher and the support staff have knowledge to provide. Dhoni has got to start tapping those resources a bit more in terms of tactics and strategy. Maybe he needs to listen to what other people say, rather than always relying on his instinct - especially with respect to the bowlers.
I don't think anybody expects him to have great success in the immediate future. People recognise that this is a period of transition and that there are going to be tough days. What they need to know, though, is that the way forward has been clearly mapped. Dhoni has got to have a vision of where he wants this team to be at the end of that England tour next year. And he needs to identify a set of players to take India through the next five years.
This is a critical phase for Indian cricket. If Dhoni wants to lead India, the job is going to demand a lot more energy and involvement from him. He is the man for it at the moment, if he can find that second wind.
Rahul Dravid scored over 24,000 international runs for India between 1996 and 2012