January 17, 2013

Can India afford a captain who isn't committed to Test cricket?

Dhoni's leadership in the format has been overly defensive, and he hasn't shown he particularly cares much about the five-day game either

The reasons passionately cited for retaining Mahendra Singh Dhoni as India captain in all formats are several.

This is not, we are reminded sternly, the time for emotional sackings. Dhoni the captain has given much to Indian cricket - two world titles, remember. He is a pillar of calmness in Indian cricket's noisy chaos. His confident strut and dark glasses never reveal whether India are winning or losing. Did we not hanker for such body language? It is under this equanimity that India rose to become the world's No. 1 Test team. (Actually, India became Test No. 1 because of its results from August 2006 to December 2009, so credit also to Dhoni's predecessors. Besides, captains are only as good as their teams.) And finally, hold the hissy fits, there is no alternative.

Rahul Dravid has made a strong argument for Dhoni as captain. If Dhoni changes his approach, stands down from his T20 captaincy duties, and does the job for another 15 Tests, Dravid says his legacy will be enriched. This period will also help his currently floundering successors find their feet. For Gautam Gambhir, that translates to consistent Test form, for Virat Kohli, a valuable batting apprenticeship in South Africa, New Zealand and England.

What has not been addressed is a central question: Does Test cricket matter to Dhoni? Not his own Test career, but Test cricket as a whole and where it stands, with reference to India?

We don't know, because he has given no proof that the format matters more than others to him. In Australia in 2012, Dhoni did say, "Test cricket is the real cricket... Every form of cricket has its own challenges. You have the Test format, the longer version. You have ODI cricket, where you can see glimpses of Test cricket, and T20s."

Dravid's is a valuable view from (till recently) inside the dressing room. On the outside, all we have are awful Test results and a string of curious statements from Dhoni about Test cricket.

Starting with England 2011, Dhoni has lost nine of 16 Tests. The five wins include two each against West Indies and New Zealand at home. During those many defeats, his much-hyped "cool" repeatedly overtook clear-eyed decision-making at key points of games. More than one of Dhoni's instinctive decisions in Tests has been a wild gamble with fortune rather than a daring piece of cricketing logic.

For instance, opening the post-lunch session bowling on day four at Lord's with Suresh Raina (yes, Zaheer Khan was injured, but still) after Ishant Sharma had shaken England to 62 for 5. Reducing England to 124 for 8 in Nottingham and then retreating when Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann held India off. When under attack in Test cricket, Dhoni is quick to send fieldsmen to deep point and deep square leg. Opening with spinners has worked against weaker batting line-ups at home but against quality batsmen, Dhoni finds it hard to give extended spells to spinners. When wickets don't fall, like against England, the spinners are scrambled around.

Dhoni is an over-defensive captain, particularly away: in Colombo in 2010, and in Durban the year after. In Dominica with 86 to get, 15 overs left and seven wickets in hand, India pulled out of the chase and the Test. His batsmen have since denied that the pitch was far from impossible to chase on. Dominica's first Test, a full house, and India walked away.

In Nagpur against England there came more evidence that Dhoni's Test captaincy had run out of gas. At the start of day four, India trailed England by 33 on a slow wicket and needed to force play. Instead, only 29 runs were scored in 62 minutes, India folded their tents, and England batted out the game.

After the 1-2 series defeat to England, Dhoni said it had been tough "but there are not many things that will come close to when we lost the 2007 50-over World Cup. This is not even close to that".

The talk about "too early" for Virat Kohli or "too late" for Virender Sehwag is mere dithering. We won't know about either option until we try him. Sehwag has always said he thinks of himself as a middle-order option, so give him that, appoint him captain against Australia and see how it goes

Two bad days at a World Cup were compared to dozens of days of shabby Test cricket against England and Australia. The rattling awfulness of a Test series loss at home was, in Dhoni's eyes, less than that of defeat in the 2007 World Cup. In which he wasn't even captain.

There's more. When India went down 0-3 in Edgbaston, Dhoni talked about the three straight Test losses thus: "Maybe 80% we will play in India, maybe 70%. The away series are there to improve you as a cricketer. So it is very important to not get very critical about the technical aspect, [but] to go out there and enjoy cricket."

Improved performances overseas since 2000 have been India's biggest stride in Test cricket. They have won a grand total of 37 away Tests in their history, the same number of away Tests Ricky Ponting won in his career. Of India's 37 wins, there were 13 in the 25 years between 1968 and 1993, 19 from 2000 to 2009, and five from the start of 2010 till the last overseas win, in Jamaica.

Dhoni's remarks following the defeats in Edgbaston and Kolkata relegated with insouciant indifference India's biggest achievements in Test cricket. Which are far greater than the No. 1 Test ranking that is often hailed with repeated fanfare as a Dhoni achievement.

Early in his career Dhoni sat out a three-match Test series against Sri Lanka in July-August 2008. At the time, he led the ODI team; Anil Kumble was Test captain. Following a successful CB Series victory early in the year, Dhoni had led India in two ODI tournaments, the Asia Cup in Pakistan and the Kitply Cup, before pulling out of the Sri Lanka Tests. The reason cited was "fatigue". Between November 2007 and April 13, 2008, Dhoni had played 25 matches for India. From April 18 to June 1, he played 16 matches in the inaugural IPL. At the end of the IPL, he decided to exercise his choice.

To give the Kitply Cup (which ran from June 8 to 14) a miss, take a two-week break, play the Asia Cup and the Tests versus Sri Lanka. Or to captain the team in the three Kitply ODIs, the Asia Cup and skip the Tests. He chose the latter. An email was sent to his manager and him asking about the withdrawal from the Tests. Was it merely timing - a sudden flare-up of an injury - or was it preference? There was no answer.

What bets he's going to give up the T20 or IPL captaincy, as Dravid advises, then? When Dhoni was emerging through domestic and A-team cricket in the first half of the 2000s, he told more than one peer about how "boring" he found "days cricket". The phrase "days cricket" is used in India to refer to long-form cricket lasting three days or more. Dhoni said he loved the shorter formats, they suited his temperament, he found them exciting. This is not a grievous character flaw, merely an instinctive leaning. As a young, carefree, hard-hitting fellow with orange hair, Dhoni was happy to talk about it.

But at the end of ten defeats in 12 Tests against England and Australia, for India's Test captain to say that losing at home is not as bad as losing in the 2007 World Cup, is another matter. It marks a not-so-subtle shift in the significance accorded the game's formats by the man who captains India in all three. What must his younger team-mates think? That a series defeat at home is not a big deal?

Along with the depletion of the core strength of his Test team, Dhoni's importance in it has also eroded. Less than a year ago, when the Australia Test series ended 0-4, Dhoni defined captaincy as "just a position I hold… It's not something I want to hold on to or stick on to. If there's a better replacement, it's a very open thing."

At this stage any replacement will do, because he couldn't possibly produce results worse than those in Dhoni's last 18 months in charge of the Test team. The job of captaining India is a stressful one, but its handover need not involve nail-biting perplexity. India's cricket captain does not hold the country's nuclear secrets, nor is he the man in charge of handling the millions who visit Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela over the next two months.

The talk, then, about "too early" for Virat Kohli or "too late" for Virender Sehwag is mere dithering. We won't know about either option until we try him. Graeme Smith played eight Tests before he was made captain, Kohli has played 15. South Africa is not India, but cricket is cricket. For those sweating at the idea of the tattooed, smouldering Kohli as India captain, think lateral. Sehwag has always said he thinks of himself as a middle-order option, so give him that, appoint him captain against Australia and see how it goes. Even an ostrich will know that coming up for air sometimes is better than forever swallowing sand.

When India went 1-2 in Kolkata against England, Dhoni wouldn't resign the captaincy because it would amount to running away from responsibility. "Leading a side is all about when the team is not doing well. To try to gel the team together. To back the youngsters, back the seniors. Try to move in the right direction."

Whatever that direction may be, Dhoni has failed to give any sign that he is the man to pilot India's Test team. Instead, he says repeated Test defeats under his captaincy do not hurt him as much as a World Cup defeat does. India has shifted blame for its results from unconquerable overseas wickets, a rash of injuries and bad luck, to batty groundsmen and sloppy umpires. Everything but leadership.

In Australia last January, as India trailed 0-2 and got ready for the third Test, Dhoni said that if he was to play in the 2015 World Cup, he would have to give up one format. A day before the Perth Test, Dhoni talked of the 2015 World Cup. His deadline for quitting a format, he said, was the end of 2013. What's wrong with now?

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo