“To have the good of both worlds, the management, players around him and the fans need to see Dhoni in a different light. Without that, Dhoni seems surplus to India’s World Cup plans, unfortunately”
Right at the onset, I will make it pretty clear that I am not a huge fan of persisting with MS Dhoni in the ODI middle-order given his waning finishing and strike rotation capabilities. But, it is MS Dhoni after all and a generation of Indians have grown up admiring the flamboyant cricketer and looking up to him. Dropping him before the World Cup seems an unlikely, even improbable option.
During the course of this article, I look to prove why Dhoni is indeed required – and not just because of his past exploits – in this Indian middle-order but why there needs to be a slight change in mindset from management, colleagues and fans with respect to Dhoni.
The debate on Dhoni has been raging for some time and it aggravated when the Indian section of the crowd booed him at the Home of Cricket during an ODI against England for batting slow. The crowd was indeed pretty harsh on the former Indian skipper but the tendency to get bogged down at the wicket wasn’t new. Neither was it the last time. In the finals of the Asia Cup, Dhoni harboured strike and scored at a rate of 53.73, putting undue pressure on the batsmen around him.
This has been a constant in recent times. Dhoni’s strike rate has often been in question and rightfully so for he is believed to be the aggressor down the order. However, since the 2015 World Cup, batting at 4, 5, 6 and 7, Dhoni has scored over 30 runs at a rate of over six an over (highlighted in green in the table) just five times in 50 matches at these positions.
It is clear that Dhoni is no longer the force he once was. Add in the booming totals in ODIs and you wonder if India are placing too much faith in their former skipper particularly with a World Cup looming in conditions where 300-plus totals have been the norm.
But let us step back for a moment and look at things objectively, unseeing the Dhoni we have seen over the years.
India have a stupendous top-order that has contributed to over 60% of the runs the whole team has scored since the World Cup. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have been so assured and consistent that it is unfathomable why India do not rack up bigger totals in ODIs.
Since the World Cup, England and South Africa have scored over 320 sixteen and eleven times respectively while India have eight. Now, this is not poor by any stretch of one’s imagination but this Indian line-up is capable of more in modern day one day cricket where such scores are the norm.
A primary reason for this has been a faltering middle-order which has bogged the run-rate down and Dhoni has been one of the prime culprits. But, in the rare occasions when the top three do not click in sync, India need security too down the order. This is where the Dhoni factor gets tricky. It is fair to say Kohli, Dhawan and Rohit to an extent derive confidence from the presence of Dhoni down the order for he is often seen as the sponge, sucking up the pressure and occupying the crease.
India do need that kind of Dhoni but they do not need more of him. Dinesh Karthik, Ajinkya Rahane and Manish Pandey are all decent players but do not fit into this Indian XI if Dhoni is there for the simple fact that they all peg back the run-rate. Dhoni, among these players, is perhaps the most secure. He may not score at rapid pace like he once used to but India and the players batting around him need to get used to that fact and see him accordingly.
They cannot afford to have Rahane or Karthik and Pandey batting around him. When they have unbelievable security at the top of the order in the form of the most consistent top three any team has, they do not need to stack their team up with more players who offer reliability. What they need around Dhoni is explosiveness.
If Dhoni has to work in his current form and pace for India, they need players who bat around him without expecting him to do the bulk of the scoring. The likes of Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer and the Pandya brothers are capable of that and make for solid options at no.4 and no.6 or no.7 (Krunal and Hardik). Dhoni should be the unquestionable no.5 who is there to act as a firefighter when the situation demands.
That said, the management should be flexible about his batting position in the side. You cannot have the current Dhoni walking in at the fall of a wicket in the 40th over when the team is 260/3. He is likely to just hog strike and reduces the impact in the final few overs. If India can get in one of the Pandya brothers or Pant to play a floating role in the side, they can push them above Dhoni on such occasions and use the experience of the wicket-keeper batsman in situations when the top order comes to a cropper.
To have the good of both worlds, the management, players around him and the fans need to see Dhoni in a different light. Without that, Dhoni seems surplus to India’s World Cup plans, unfortunately.