February 23, 2014

Time for Dhoni to go

The team needs a more proactive leader who challenges his bowlers to get him wickets

Lately there has been much discussion about the merit of some Test captains and no one has ignited more strident debate over his credentials than MS Dhoni.

Dhoni is a brilliant captain in the shorter versions of the game, and a master at timing his run to the finishing line as a middle-order batsman. However, as a Test captain he's too reactive and has a tendency to let the game meander along, like an absent-minded professor strolling in the park. His conservatism allows the better players among opposition batsmen too much freedom and too many easy runs. Consequently, big partnerships, like the match-saving one by Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling, build too often.

Dhoni really should have been replaced as Test captain following India's disastrous tours of England and Australia in 2011-12, when his teams displayed little fight in losing eight matches on the trot. When a captain starts to hinder his team, he needs to be replaced. During that horror patch, Dhoni was unable to inspire his team and looked like a skipper just going through the motions. There's no doubt that a captain - even the best of them - can stay on too long, to the point where he loses his team.

Dhoni did bounce back when he orchestrated a convincing whitewash of Australia at home. There's no question he's a better captain under familiar conditions. He's at his best with spinners operating regularly, whereas when conditions are more in tune with seamers he struggles.

In fairness to the selectors, not replacing Dhoni following the disaster in Australia was understandable, as a number of senior players retired and the alternatives were few.

A suitable alternative is now available in Virat Kohli. He has leadership experience as captain of Indian youth teams and, more importantly, he's now the right age and has matured into a top-class batsman. Even more importantly, he has shown his mettle overseas by scoring runs in difficult arenas like the WACA and the Bullring.

This is the sort of inspiration India need to boost their overseas record. However, what they need even more is a proactive captain who can get the best out of his bowlers when playing in unfamiliar conditions.

Good captains evaluate their assets, then go out and utilise them wisely. Michael Clarke is a perfect example. It's an over-simplification to say he's lucky to have Mitchell Johnson as a spearhead; the bowler is also fortunate to have a captain who enhances his chances of snaring victims. Johnson wouldn't be as successful under the conservative leadership styles of Dhoni, Graeme Smith or Alastair Cook.

Kohli is an aggressive batsman but that doesn't automatically mean he'll captain in the same manner. Ricky Ponting was an aggressive strokemaker nicknamed "Punter", but as captain he didn't take his gambling instincts on to the field.

Kohli needs to be brave as an India captain. Instead of placing defensive fields for Ishant Sharma's wayward deliveries he has to challenge him by deploying men designed to aid the bowler, as long as he maintains line and length. If Ishant can't oblige him, he has to find another bowler who can.

This is where Clarke excels. He expects his bowlers to seek wickets rather than concentrate on saving runs. Eventually this becomes second nature and once bowlers are "expecting" wickets, they tend to be more successful because they are bowling aggressively rather than defensively.

While Dhoni's tendency to rely on batsmen making mistakes and getting themselves out works brilliantly in the shorter forms of the game, the ploy is often exposed as flawed when gritty opponents like McCullum mount a counterattack in Test matches.

Dhoni's latest injury may be fortuitous. It gives the selectors a chance to evaluate Kohli's leadership credentials in the one-day arena, and if he's successful, they should appoint him Test captain.

Indian selectors rarely take the aggressive option. They prefer to allow senior players to decide their own future. Now is a good time to adopt a proactive approach and hope it rubs off on a new captain.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist