August 27 to September 2 — seven days. Cardiff to Nottingham to Birmingham — 350 kilometres. Speed is equal to distance upon time. However, if we are looking to quantify the pace at which perception about Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s captaincy has changed during the course of the ODI series, with one thumping win after another, then that old formula will not do justice. We will have to use the clichéd expression — ‘lightning fast’.
The same critics — including this writer — who had written him off as skipper after the Test series and who were calling for his head, are now forced to write odes to his leadership skill — especially after he surpassed Mohammad Azharuddin as India’s most successful 50-over captain (judged by the number of ODI victories).
But here’s the thing: Dhoni, the Test captain, doesn’t stand vindicated by what Dhoni, the ODI captain, achieves. In guiding India to their first bilateral ODI series win in England in 24 years, particularly on the back of a humiliating 3-1 loss in the Tests, he in a way proves his critics right. That he is not the same guy when he leads the team in whites vis-à-vis when he is in charge in coloured clothing. And, therefore, while he is still India’s best man to lead the team into the World Cup in Australia-New Zealand early next year, he is not your guy if you want to win the Test series Down Under before that.
It’s a kind of Dr M.S. and Mr Dhoni scenario — which is baffling, but which is also hardly unique. Just take a look at Alastair Cook on the other side of the fence.
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Nothing highlights this contrast better than Dhoni’s field placement, especially his penchant for a leg slip or leg gully. It came in for criticism during the Test matches. But it paid dividends at Edgbaston on Tuesday when Eoin Morgan, who was fashioning an England recovery with Joe Root, pinged a Ravindra Jadeja delivery straight to Suresh Raina at leg gully.
Dhoni smiled the smile of vindication when asked about it at the press conference. “I do what I do. I honestly think about stuff. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it’s okay. I just keep it. I like that position. It’s not always that you will get a wicket, but it does a lot of things. I don’t really want to say here what all it does, but maybe the commentators can find out what it does,” he said.
What it does is tell us — and Dhoni and the board as well, if they choose to listen — is that what works in ODIs doesn’t necessarily work in Test matches. And it’s not just true for fielding positions. The same goes for the players and the captain.
Before the start of the limited-overs leg, Dhoni had given a glimpse into the players’ mindset in the way they treated Tests and ODIs. It was instructive.
“The psyche also changes with the format. You are under pressure to survive in Test cricket. If you get out playing a shot, there is uproar as to how Test cricket is different and how can you get out playing a shot. That creates pressure. This format (50 overs) pushes you to be expressive on the field, and pushes you to back yourself to play your shots,” he said.
This mindset is evident, too, in his defensive captaincy in the longer format. In Tests, especially away Tests, he captains to survive. In ODIs, he leads to win.
There’s a very good chance that every Indian shortcoming in five-day cricket will be forgotten once Dhoni lifts the one-day trophy in Leeds. And come November, he will be on the plane to Australia as leader of the side for the four-Test series.
That will be a regressive step, one huge unintended consequence India will have carried from their triumphant England series win. In the long run, it will tarnish Dhoni’s legacy as well. Like Mohammad Azharuddin, he will also be remembered as a captain who, for all his ODI exploits, struggled to win you Tests away from home.