Dhoni starts afresh in 50th Test as captain
When he walks out for the toss at the Wanderers on Wednesday, MS Dhoni will have achieved a rare feat: having captained in 50 Tests a team that always plays under the scrutiny and pressure of expectation that the England football team or the All Blacks usually face. Only 32 years old, he often jokes about how he has greyed with the captaincy. There is a reason why no Indian has led in 50 Tests. Rahul Dravid, possibly the best on-field captain India have had, could manage the job for only 25 matches before resigning. Dhoni has obviously done some things right, one of which is that he might not even know that he is going to walk out for a 50th toss in whites.
When Dhoni had the seniors - Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag gave him some of their best innings - he did the job perfectly for the most part. He knew all he needed to do was make sure they were in a good space and the performances would be delivered. He managed the off-field stuff well, which captains will tell you is equally important, if not more - remember Ian Chappell's improvisation of a Bill O'Reilly line that even a collie dog can arrange a batting order and make bowling changes? Towards the end of the seniors' careers, Dhoni perhaps trusted a good thing for too long, but largely he could do his job staying in the shadow and under the radar.
Now, though, begins a new challenge for Dhoni. This is the first time he is captaining a side without any of his big guns. Even Gautam Gambhir is missing. India's six specialist batsmen have a combined experience of 42 Tests, only three of them in South Africa. Dhoni knows he needs to be more proactive without being overbearing.
"It will be quite different," he said on the eve of the match. "When all the seniors were part of the side, you didn't really have to worry much about how preparation is going because once you have played international cricket for a long time you know your game. At the same time you know how to prepare well in different conditions. Many of them had toured the same venues quite a few times, be it England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.
"But with the new set of players, at times you have to guide them as to what needs to be done, and what are the areas where they need to improve," Dhoni said. "At the same time not getting too technical is also very important. Because you can't change your technique in five-six-seven days. What's important is to know your limitation, and at the same time know your strength."
An ideal scenario would have been a gradual phasing out of the seniors, so that some of them were around to take the new batsmen through their paces in away Tests. However, not for nothing is the India captaincy difficult. There are few ideal scenarios. Now all these young batsmen will have to go through this as newcomers. A newcomer, though, will find what Dhoni says reassuring. He is not imposing demands, he is not going to sit and say things would have been better with Tendulkar or Dravid or Laxman around. He is going to guide newcomers on how to prepare, he is going to leave technical matters to Duncan Fletcher, and he will ask that they give their best on match day.
Dhoni is also going to ask his bowlers to pull their weight, a demand sometimes not made because the senior batsmen used to clean up after them. "One of the most crucial things to do is to bowl well, because to win Test matches you have to score runs but at the end of the day we need to take 20 wickets," he said, when asked of the importance of batting well in the first innings. "So I think it will be very important to bowl in the right areas. [You need to] get used to the conditions really well. Try to hit the top of off stump because that's the ideal length irrespective of where you are playing. It's a bit of both, but of course we need to bowl really well. If we start well with that, we will carry off the confidence to other departments."
Dhoni will live with his bowlers not having the pace of Dale Steyn or the bounce of Morne Morkel, but he will want them to hit the top of off with the seam upright more often than not.
It's possible Dhoni doesn't let things such as legacy play on his mind too much. However, after the last two horror away tours put a downer on his good work as captain, his 50th is almost a fresh start for Dhoni when it comes to leading a Test side.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo