January 10, 2013

Dhoni needs a second wind as captain

He's still the best man for the job, for a number of reasons, but his leadership style could do with tweaking

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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gnaneshwar Raju on May 17, 2016, 13:24 GMT

    David opened up Shady part of Dhoni by mentioning he is an instinctive captain and not with much planning.

  • Ashok on January 12, 2013, 16:56 GMT

    @Natraja:There are certain things you learn as a Cricketer w.r.t.how you conduct yourselves to various needs. As a result you develop a sixth sense as a Captain. MSD does not have it in him. He benches guys irrationally-never thinks what it is to be benched 10 times in a row.He is inflexible, stubborn & not a empathetic team man like Cook. These are all part of cricket culture. E.G., Pujara could have been easily fitted in this ODI by dropping one of the seamers & using Yuvi +Raina(both all rounders) as the 5th bowler. But MSD was so hung up that he will not budge! India has a crop of fine bowlers who are currently available. Sreesanth did well in India A game- why is he not in the squad. S.Nadeem is the best spinner in Ranji but not in the squad. Agarkar, J.Saxena,Shami, all available & better than the bowlers in the XI. Why was Shami dropped by Dhoni in favour of Dinda+ Ishant? Pujara exudes maturity & confidence. He is emphathetic & conducts himself with proven leadership qualities.

  • dinesh on January 12, 2013, 14:57 GMT

    @ Mumbaiguy and Nampally: Fair points even though I do not understand what cricket culture Nampally is talking about which Pujara and Tiwary know and Dhoni doesn't. Now where I disagree with you guys is your putting all blame on Dhoni for the losses. You are ignoring the fact that our current crop of the bowlers are so pathetic that none of them will find a place in second team of 4 top cricketing countries. And to win matches on their strength is next to impossible. So unless we find two good match winning bowlers we will be losing most of the games no matter what. In past to Kumble, Harbhaja and Zaheer were there to help mighty batting but now batting is not ably supported and when ever batsmen fail India will lose big time. And no captain will be able to do anything. So changing Dhoni is not the solution. He is still the best we have.

  • G.JEEVAN on January 12, 2013, 0:33 GMT

    Spot on,what to say.Dravid being a former mate of Dhoni has clearly got us into an insight of Dhoni's captaincy and what he needs to do in the longer-run.Giving up T-20 captaincy might be a good idea to keep him mentally fresh but i doubt he will do it(atleast for CSK).It's a huge challenge and if Dhoni triumphs it will be bigger than the world cup

  • Ashok on January 12, 2013, 0:28 GMT

    @Natraja: I am not being funny when I propose Pujara & Tiwary for future Test Captains. Tiwary captains Bengal & Oujara has capotained so many India A teams successfully. Botha re excellent batsmen & lithe fielders. They have better Cricket culture than Dhoni has. They are both confident guys & full of confidence. I like to see such guys who use their heads rather than favouritism for picking their team. Kohli is too blue in his language & is short tempered to the point of being insulting to everyone. He is not Captaincy material. Believe me both PUjara & Tiwary will make it to Indian team soon as soon as Dhoni moves out of the way or pushed out.

  • jay on January 11, 2013, 17:37 GMT

    @Natraja I never said Dhoni doesn't deserve to be a wicket-keeper in the Indian side. He is probably the best wicket-keeper batsman India has ever had. I am talking more from a captaincy standpoint. Do you think he deserves to stay at the helm even after losing 8 matches away from home? Being a great cricketer doesn't automatically mean you are a good captain. Mike Brearely for example was a very good captain, but look at his stats and you would know. Captaincy is more about man management and making decisions (on and off the field). Time to move on.

  • Dummy4 on January 11, 2013, 15:48 GMT

    aapkay 2 above has beaten me to the draw.He has taken the words out of my mouth.Thanks Rahul for being what you are an d -yes -a very happy birthday to you!

  • Dummy4 on January 11, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    himohan007 Completely agree. I will add kohli to that list. So players of DD in the indian team are real let down. Since Kohli has been mentioned as a Captain his performance has dropped so low that he doesn't deserve to be in team along with Gambhir and Ishant. Its high time Gambhir is replaced with Chand/ Dhawan and kohli with Pujara. Ishant should make way for Shami.

  • Subramani on January 11, 2013, 10:04 GMT

    Having read Vivekananda and having been inspired by the great Swami, I wish the man with the Gravitas of Dravid will change the second half of his name. This is for the man who calls himself Dravid_Gravitas_Statchin_Selfishkar.Cricket writers or even comment makers can hardly be expected to have such operational names.

  • Srinivas on January 11, 2013, 8:16 GMT

    Oh, one more very important thing Dravid anna, Wish You A Very Happy Birthday. Welcome to Club 40! You are the youngest kid in this club! January 11th is a special day for me, and millions like me, as this happens to be your birthday. January 12th is also special for me as it happens to be Swami Vivekananda's birthday. Two cerebral sons of India born on successive days. Blessed to have read Swami Vivekananda's books and blessed to have watched you play and met you once in 2002.