What did Don Bradman's duck in his last Test innings tell us? Exactly what Sachin Tendulkar's middling last year of international cricket did. That in spite of all their herculean successes, both of them were human and as fallible. They might have performed like superheroes for the majority of their careers, but under their capes, they were flesh and bone like the rest of us. The last six months of MS Dhoni's captaincy tell us a similar story.
For the first eight years of his captaincy it seemed Dhoni could hardly get it wrong, especially in his preferred format, ODI cricket, whether it was his hitting abilities to win matches that looked lost or his tactical acumen in getting the best out of his team. His promotion of himself to No. 5 in the 2011 World Cup final would have raised eyebrows if he had failed to see India through. His decision to bowl Ishant Sharma in the closing stages of the 2013 Champions Trophy final turned out to be a masterstroke and not the mistake it might have been.
It's not like he never committed a tactical error on the field but his handling of success and failure, on and off the field, was impeccable. Looking at his on-field demeanour, you could never gauge if the team was losing or winning. He would never go after his own players in the post-match interviews, would own up for losses, and handle difficult questions during the press conference with poise and a smile that was quintessential Dhoni. The media ate out of his hands thanks to his wit and calm.
But that has changed in the last six months or so. When Dhoni stated his desire to bat higher up the order, he also spoke of how Ajinkya Rahane wasn't suited to batting in the middle order in the subcontinent. He said Rahane failed to rotate the strike on slower pitches and so needed to wait for his turn. To want to bat higher is a legitimate wish, for Dhoni has done the hard yards by batting lower down for the longest time. He has batted in the toughest position to bat in in one-dayers more often than anyone, and has won more matches from there than anybody else. So it's fair for him to want to pass that baton to someone else, but criticising Rahane was unbecoming.
"Since there's no Suresh Raina in Australia, should Dhoni go back to six? You can't expect Manish Pandey or Gurkeerat Mann to finish games. But if Dhoni drops himself to six, what happens to his desire to bat higher?"
What Dhoni said might be true, but going public has repercussions. As a player you want your captain to keep his criticism of you private. And it turned out that it took Dhoni only a few games to change his opinion, as Rahane was asked to bat at No. 4 in the very next series.
Against South Africa, Dhoni, for the first time, came across as a deeply confused captain. For starters, Rahane not only found a place in the XI but also batted at the spot traditionally reserved for the best batsman. Perhaps Dhoni was obliged to send him higher because he had stated how Rahane would struggle at four. But then turning around and demoting your best ODI batsman can't be prudent - as Rahane was, to No. 6 in the third game after he had scored two consecutive half-centuries from No. 3. Dhoni scored a match-defining 92 in the second ODI and said after the game that while he wants to bat higher, he couldn't expect youngsters to bat at six or seven. Following which, in the third ODI, he batted at No. 4, dropping Rahane to six, a move that left everyone baffled.
What surprised me more was his response after the Rajkot game, where, for the first time, he shied away from owning up. He spoke about how it was tough to hit the big shots in the end but conveniently ignored the fact that it shouldn't have come to that, for India needed less than a run a ball for a period when Dhoni and Virat Kohli were batting together. It was the speed, or the lack of it, of their partnership that brought India to a stage where big hitting was needed. Not to forget that Dhoni had left Rahane to do the job of hitting big, at No. 6. Not accepting his own mistakes was unlike Dhoni.
Following Rahane's back-to-back half-centuries, Kohli was promoted to his preferred No. 3 spot. In the last game of the five-match series, Kohli was batting at three and Rahane at four. If merely reading this is confusing you, imagine how confusing it must have been for the team. A constantly changing batting order without any apparent reason is a sign of being unsure, and that's what the Indian team looked like in the ODI series.
Was Rahane's promotion a mistake? But he did score two fifties and looked like improving. Also, two games simply can't be enough to judge a player on. Was Kohli's demotion a mistake? A resounding yes to this, so moving him back up must not be criticised. But why was Rahane asked to bat at six in one game and sent back to four in the remaining two games?
Where does Dhoni bat in this ODI team now? Since there's no Suresh Raina in Australia, should he go back to six? You can't expect Manish Pandey or Gurkeerat Singh to finish off games. But if Dhoni drops himself to six, what happens to his desire to bat higher?
And now the big question: is he best suited to batting at six anymore? There's a clear decline in Dhoni's ability to hit the long ball from the beginning, which must be expected and accepted. He will still be able to clear the fence, as he showed in the second ODI against South Africa, but it's evident he needs a bit more time to get set before doing so. Setting the team balance aside, he's best suited to batting at four in the subcontinent, and he can also bat at five outside Asia. But anything lower than that is likely to lead to more heartburn than good results.
In 2015, besides the World Cup, where India finished in the top four, India lost each of their ODI series under Dhoni. Since India aren't next playing an ODI series until after the IPL, the upcoming series against Australia is of huge importance. It will be interesting to see if Dhoni can find the right place to bat without compromising the team's cause. It's not going to be easy.