Should Dhoni focus on one-day cricket?
One Test to go in this madcap 42-day pantomime. I have not known a series quite like it. Does that indicate that Test cricket has delivered again, a fluctuating compelling contest?
Fluctuating from the second Test to the third, maybe, but not much during the Tests themselves. Compelling maybe off the field, but it has been such a strange mixture on it, of the sort never seen before. England have done a modern-day Lazarus, but in most cases the most bizarre moves have come from Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
On a poor piece of groundsmanship, the series began. On day two, an even uglier piece of gamesmanship resulted. Days three to five hardly stirred a soul. Yet behind the scenes Dhoni orchestrated a different kind of brinkmanship. He went beyond the game itself, to play another one.
On the other side, Captain Cook was drowning in the game he previously knew so well. Yet in hindsight he was simply using up the rest of the bad air in his tanks, soon to be replaced by newer, fuller, fresher ones. Yes, he must have sensed this was as bad as it gets, but maybe he also sensed that his opposite was swimming in more dangerous depths. He took one large last gasp to play on. Two captains, two complexes.
On day 19, the first in Southampton, the crowd roused a nervous Cook. He jerked at Pankaj Singh, a raw late starter, and Ravindra Jadeja dropped a goober. It was such a poignant moment that it will be remembered for many years to come. Cook went on to stamp his leadership and command. Pankaj went wicketless for what seemed an eternity. Jadeja came and went, his series, possibly his Test career, at a nothing end. India had rushed from the penthouse to the outhouse in record time. England breathed and resurfaced again. A script you could not write.
In between days 24 and 29, Dhoni lost to Gordon Lewis and the ICC. Series over, on and off the field. Despite a punchy 71 by him on day 30, Dhoni and his young millionaires threw in the Test match towel. Late on day 32, after the match was handed to England in a shameful manner, Dhoni talked in the after-match presentation like he didn't care deeply enough.
Mind you, he has said before that Test cricket doesn't really do it for him. It explains, one could suppose, why he is a resolute and effective limited-overs captain and player. That's what stirs him. Whether it be the bucks associated, or the pace of the game or both, he is suited to white-ball, coloured-clothes, short-form cricket, and thrives on it. In Tests it's not the same. And now after a long run, 87 Tests to be precise, the question strengthens about how long he can continue like this as a Test player. Will he hang on for the coveted ton, just as Sachin Tendulkar did for the double-ton? Probably.
If he did back down from Test cricket, India wouldn't miss his strange, often weird, tactics. His selections are illogical when finding the appropriate balance in picking enough specialist players to out-skill the opposition over long periods. His manoeuvrings on the field as keeper and strategist are too often at odds with what the game situation demands - Ishant Sharma bowling short at Lord's the exception.
Instead, Dhoni could focus on his defence of the World Cup he brilliantly coordinated and won, back in 2011. With his limited-overs triumphs he shows a completely different energy, proactive and attacking; those are formats where he has to use the bits-and-pieces players he likes so much. He will need all his gumption and pull to do so again, away from home, with a lesser equipped team. It would be a worthy defence if he pulled it off. Improbable as it may sound, is it time to start planning it away from the Test team?
India need to find a champion who will lead them to uphold the Test match message for future generations to come. From these last 18 days of Test cricket, young aspiring Indian cricketers will seriously wonder what the fuss is about the longer format, based on the lack of care for it by their leaders. The focus will turn to the attractive short forms, the short-term fix.
Cook deserves a bow and a bouquet. He seriously had most of us fooled. He looked shot. He hung in. He needed luck. He got a reprieve and then his team, his senior mates, rallied. It was good to watch after a month - make it 12 months - of burnout and disarray. They took their cue and nailed it on day 19, through to day 32, missing not one beat. They were the ones who deserved a day or two off, not India.
One thing is for sure: Cook is a champion of Test cricket. It's his game. He is the specialist. There is a strong case for him playing only Test cricket from here on. That is not a bad thing, and for England to function effectively Down Under in February next year, they may need a more daring opener and tactician. But in Cook - even if Michael Clarke will not lose sleep knowing Cook is his opposite next year - England at least have someone who will fight a good fight for the great cause of proper, hard-fought, respectful, thoughtful five-day cricket.
Not that the last stanza at The Oval will last the five days scheduled. The curtain in this crazy play may fall early. And what individuals will it fall on?
Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand