It started with the tri-series defeat in Australia earlier this year where India couldn’t even reach the final. They came back well to win eight matches on the bounce in the World Cup but the end result was a failure; bowing out in the semi-final. The ODI series loss against minnows Bangladesh was the most humiliating of them all. And they went down to South Africa in the three-match T20 international series on home ground with one game to spare.
Does the losing sequence put a question mark over Dhoni’s future as the limited-overs captain? Of course, for India can’t afford to go into the World T20 that they would be hosting early next year, with someone at the helm who has lost his winning mojo. The ODI series against the Proteas is going to be a big test for India’s most successful skipper.
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A look back at the couple of T20 internationals that the two sides played and India have problems top-down. The team is no longer revelling in Dhoni’s defensive style of leadership, it’s still unsure about the batting order – who will bat at No. 6, the pace bowling combination is not settled yet and India don’t have a second spinner after Ravi Ashwin.
India’s spectacular Test series win in Sri Lanka was down to Virat Kohli’s aggressive captaincy. He didn’t beat a retreat after losing the first Test. Kohli, in fact, increased the level of aggression.
It was heartening to see the Test captain backing his fast bowlers and giving confidence to his spinners. He didn’t mind conceding a few boundaries as long as his quicks – Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav – were imposing themselves. Kohli also had a big role to play in leg-spinner Amit Mishra’s revival.
As Dhoni returned to take charge for the T20s against South Africa, we saw India embrace a regressive attitude again under the pretext of playing according to the conditions. Dibbly-dobbly medium pace replaced 90 mph bowlers, Ajinkya Rahane’s quality once again had been sacrificed to accommodate Ambati Rayudu’s bits and pieces utility and left-arm Axar Patel was brought in at the expense of in-form Mishra.
Why Patel? Dhoni wanted his “second spinner” to be a capable hitter at the backend of the innings. It begs the question: why did he want an extra batting option at No. 7 or 8 in a 20-overs contest? Was he unsure of his own form?
Recent figures will attest to Dhoni’s slide as a game-changer at the death. Maybe it is a reason why he dropped Rahane and moved himself up to No. 4 in the ODIs in Bangladesh. In the first T20 at Dharamsala, he came in at No. 5 but went a place down the order in the second match at Cuttack.
“One of the reasons why I want to bat up the order is that somebody else takes the responsibility of batting lower down the order, say No 6. No 6 is a very crucial position. Unless they’re exposed, you cannot tell who is good at it. We’ve played a lot of cricket and (a) lot of guys haven’t been successful at No 6. We’ve seen them perform well at the top of the order but have struggled lower down. Someone has to take the responsibility of batting down. If I start batting at No 5, at least someone else will take up that responsibility. You need to have it in your back-up plan,” the captain reasoned.
Dhoni is still not sure about the right combination, six months before the World T20. Maybe it would help if he takes a cue from South Africa’s approach who stuck to their strength – fast bowling – despite not having Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel for the T20 leg of the series. The backup line, led by the excellent Kagiso Rabada, managed to get under the skin of the Indian batters in Cuttack.
There’s still no replacement for Dhoni in this limited-overs Indian team as far as his batting is concerned. As for captaincy, his replacement is ready. And Kohli has a very clear idea about what he wants. There would be a clamour to give him the job across formats if India lose the ODI series. The selectors would be under pressure. At the end of the day, the buck stops there.