MS Dhoni made his ODI debut on December 23, 2004. Exactly 13 years to the day, the former India captain was more or less ensured that his distinguished 50-over career gets the hallowed final lap with a near-guarantee of a grand climax in yet another World Cup. It came from the chairman of selectors MSK Prasad on Saturday as he revealed that his committee had “fixed their mind” about Dhoni till the 2019 World Cup while announcing a 17-member squad for the six-match ODI series in South Africa.
“More or less we have fixed up our mind till the World Cup and after that at later stages, we will start grooming some of those (other) wicketkeepers in India A tours,” he said. Prasad also emphasized on his committee’s view that Dhoni had no competition for his spot in the team and went on to declare that he had no parallel in the cricket world presently.
“I think he remains as the number one wicketkeeper in the world, and day in and day out we have been seeing, even in the current T20 series the stumpings that he does, the caught-behinds that he takes are phenomenal, there is no comparison. I don’t see any wicketkeeper who is even closer to him in world cricket, forget Indian cricket,” he said.
The chief selectors’ comments cleared the air of uncertainty that has loomed over Dhoni’s future in the Indian team, especially after he gave up the reins of captaincy to Virat Kohli at the start of the year. While those around Dhoni have made it abundantly clear that he wants to carry on at least till the next World Cup, he’s had to contend with incessant criticism from various quarters, mostly to do with what the critics have perceived as his diminishing powers to dominate with the bat in limited-overs cricket.
But it’s incidentally been his most successful year in ODI cricket since 2013, with an average of 60.61 and a strike-rate of 84.73 in 29 matches. That puts him only behind Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in terms of averages in 2017, and he has dug India out of a few tricky situations in this period.
The selectors’ decision to promote young Rishabh Pant to the senior team in the Caribbean post the Champions Trophy had been looked at as a possible passing-of-the-torch move. But Pant has since slipped off the radar, not making it to any subsequent squads. And when asked about there being no clear No.2 wicket-keeper behind Dhoni, despite the presence of Dinesh Karthik in squad, Prasad made it ample clear that those considered to be in the running were still “not up to the level they expect”. In addition to Pant, the other wicket-keepers who have made it to the developmental squads include Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson.
“We are grooming some new wicketkeepers in India A tours. Let me tell you frankly that still those boys are not up to the levels that we have expected. We will still keep giving them chances in the India A tours and see that they are nurtured,” he said.
Speaking of the World Cup-which is likely to be Dhoni’s fourth-India are slated to play between 25-30 ODIs before they reach England in a year-and-a-half’s time. And the South African tour would ideally be the starting point of India’s build-up to the big event. But Prasad revealed that the five-match ODI series in England slated in August-September of next year is the deadline the selection committee is looking for decide upon their “core” team for the World Cup.
“Probably from England series, that’s where we will have a core team,” he said.
Ashwin, Jadeja not ruled out
Two players who at this point look to be struggling to make that core are India’s highly successful Test spin duo of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Neither has played an ODI since the series in the West Indies and they were completely ignored for the glut of 50-over matches against Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka at home thereafter. In that period, wrist spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, in addition to left-arm spinner Axar Patel, have more or less made the spots left vacant by Ashwin and Jadeja their own. But Prasad wasn’t prepared to rule out India’s top two Test bowlers from contention for the World Cup yet and instead lauded India’s burgeoning spin arsenal.
“With every game they (Yadav, Chahal and Patel) have been improving a lot. They should be given an extended run since they are doing very well. It is a unanimous decision. When we picked these three boys, we wanted to increase the bench strength in the spin department. Today, we have five-six quality spinners that are aiming for these slots,” he said. Prasad added that while Ashwin and Jadeja had “enough wickets under their belts” and that there were enough domestic matches in the country for them to challenge the status quo.
The decision to announce the ODI team nearly six weeks before India’s first of six ODIs in Durban, Prasad felt, was to give the 50-over specialists time to prepare for the tour. He also hinted that they might be flying to South Africa in advance to acclimatize. On the topic of specialists, he also admitted that his committee was “moving towards having specialists for different formats of the game” with the target of becoming the No.1 team across all three and that a separate T20 team will be announced later for the three-match series that will follow the ODIs.