It is perplexing to see many of the responses to Dhoni’s retirement from Tests. Some suggest this is a time of celebration and some kind of deliverance is around the corner for Indian cricket.

We try and examine that a bit more closely.

“Dhoni was a mediocre Test batsman.”

When they say that, who are they comparing him with – Tendulkar or Dravid? Are they forgetting he was a full-time wicketkeeper?

In the history of Test cricket, amongst full-time wicketkeepers or those who kept for the majority of their careers (so, that excludes Kumar Sangakkara, AB De Villiers, Alec Stewart, Brendon McCullum, etc), MS Dhoni is the fifth-highest impact batsman in the history of Test cricket. After Andy Flower, Adam Gilchrist, Alan Knott and Farouk Engineer. This is very interesting, as both Knott and Engineer have lower batting averages than him. But the ones below him on impact include Matt Prior and Lesley Ames, who have higher batting averages than him.

This means in 137 years of Test cricket, only four wicketkeepers batted more decisively than him in Tests. And two of them played about half the number of Tests Dhoni played.

“Dhoni had no special quality as a Test batsman.”

Actually, he did. In the history of Test cricket, only six Indian batsmen absorbed more pressure than him (min. 40 Tests) – MAK Pataudi, Chandu Borde, GR Viswanath, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. All but Borde were specialist batsmen.

Dhoni played more than a few Test innings which reflected his special ability to finish matches in limited overs cricket, in which he is a unanimously acknowledged master. None more than his unbeaten innings of 76 not out in July 2007 that narrowly drew the first Test in a series that India went on to win 1-0 (to make history after 21 years).

Despite not having the technique to play on difficult wickets or tough conditions, Dhoni made a fist of it several times with his determination and offensive ability – the recent tour of England being the best example; India lost 1-3, thanks to Anderson’s and Broad’s bowling, and he was the highest impact batsman on that tour.

The big black mark against him was consistency – he had a 58% failure rate batting failure rate but then once again, it is sometimes easy to forget that he was the wicketkeeper. This is still a much better failure rate than most wicketkeeper-batsmen in Test history (except the three above him particularly – Flower had a mere 40% batting failure rate, Gilchrist 48% and Engineer, most interestingly, a Gavaskaresque 39%).

Yet, the interesting caveat here is that given Dhoni was fulfilling three roles in the team – he almost always ended up contributing. This is why he has the lowest failure rate as a player in the history of Test cricket – 5%, which is mind-boggling. He is followed by Adam Gilchrist (7%) and Joel Garner (9%).

MS Dhoni is the fifth-highest impact wicketkeeper-batsman in the history of Test cricket. After Andy Flower, Adam Gilchrist, Alan Knott and Farokh Engineer.

“Dhoni was a bad Test captain.”

Clearly, it wasn’t a problem initially. India did become the number one Test team under him in early-2011 – a short period which climaxed with India drawing in South Africa for the first time.

Home Test series wins are brushed away by people as if that were a far lesser achievement despite it having a considerable say in the standing of a team in cricket history. Moreover, at a time when the IPL and its ilk has caused an internalization of corporate culture unlike ever before, it is not quite as simple as what it used to be.

Since Dhoni became Test captain (26 March, 2008), he has won the most number of matches at home by any captain in the world and also has the best win/loss ratio. He is followed by Kumar Sangakkara and Michael Clarke.

In Test history, he has the fourth best win/loss ratio (7) in home Tests as a captain after Steve Waugh (11), Javed Miandad (10) and Vivian Richards (7.50) if we take 20 Tests as minimum. Dhoni was also fourth best in terms of the number of matches won at home (21) as a captain after Graeme Smith (30), Ricky Ponting (29) and Steve Waugh (22).

When it comes to overall record, despite his terrible overseas record in the last 4 years, MS Dhoni (1.5) has the second-best win/loss ratio for an Indian captain after Sourav Ganguly (1.61).

He is fifth on the list of Indian captains according to win/loss ratio in overseas conditions after Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Kapil Dev and Ajit Wadekar. In terms of matches won (min. 10 Tests), he is second (6 matches won) on the list after Sourav Ganguly (11 matches).

Since his captaincy debut against South Africa (26 March, 2008), MS Dhoni has the third-lowest win/loss ratio for any overseas captain. The only two captains below him are Darren Sammy and Daniel Vettori.

His strange passivity in Test cricket in overseas conditions was perplexing, especially when the opposition fought back from a weaker position, but his failure to respond to that with imagination and decisiveness only suggests that he failed in this one role. The one time his plan succeeded, India won at Lord’s but to hold on to that as a singular plan was a sign that some amount of saturation had happened.

All this eventually just proves that Dhoni is not Superman.

“Dhoni is a corporate cricketer; he has benefitted more off-the-field.”

Everybody is a product of his time. Dhoni has been an important figure in this period when cricket corporatized to the extent it has been. It must never be forgotten that one of the big reasons for IPL’s success has also been CSK the team, (which, at its best, was arguably stronger than any international T20 team), led from the front by Dhoni.

This is a player who led various sides to success in all 3 formats of the game, in all parts of the world, right from the T20 World Cup in 2007.

As captain and wicketkeeper, this makes him the most overworked player in the history of the game. As calculated recently, since IPL began immediately after the 2007 World Cup triumph till now, Dhoni has spent 668 days on the field for India or CSK. That’s a bizarre two straight years on the field – keeping wickets and captaining the side (one which requires immense physical energy, the other mental) or batting as an outstanding finisher in ODIs and T20s and as a middle-order batsman excellent at absorbing pressure (of falling wickets), which takes considerable mental energy.

All this led to a situation where he did not even last a decade in Test cricket, despite being barely 33. Or, to look at it another way, to be able to last 9 years playing these key roles, with considerable success overall, means that he is Superman after all?

Dhoni came across as the most secure Indian cricketer since MAK Pataudi. You could argue about his cricketing choices and skills as captain or player, but as an individual, he was always secure in his abilities and his choices. This was a massively refreshing departure from the high levels of insecurity that were on display from the 1980s, especially amidst the big names in Indian cricket.

This inherent security was in full view very early in his career, when Dhoni received a Man of the Match award in his very first season in international cricket. At the post-match presentation, the first thing he said was that his real test would be in the next season when bowlers and captains would have figured his game out and would pose more questions to him.

This security continued through his approach to press conferences as captain – facing the media when the team did poorly and thrusting the best performers of the day when the team shone; staying completely hidden during the in-your-face celebrations by the team (of which there were many under his tenure). He had a healthy amount of self-belief bolstered by an expect-nothing-from-anyone attitude. How many individuals in those sport, under even half the scrutiny he is under, looks every person in the eye while answering questions in all those frenetic press conferences?

This, despite pulling together a disparate bunch of individuals, which includes former teammates like Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh who say, “No comment” when asked about Dhoni’s sudden retirement.

Dhoni would have rightly lost the Test captaincy permanently after the recent England tour if Virat Kohli had not failed miserably with the bat there.MSD-and-Kohli

“The best player should be captain.”

Going by the reactions of most Indian cricket observers and writers, it would be brilliant to have 26-year-old Virat Kohli leading the Indian team. Given that India is looking at an unqualified thrashing yet again in Australia, are these Romantics getting carried away by the “positivity” and “aggression” that has been on display here? Do they even see the big picture or are we missing it?

As a player, Kohli is a stunningly talented batsman – with a dynamism that reminds many of Ricky Ponting at his best. Little wonder that Steve Waugh mentioned earlier in the tour that Kohli bats like an Australian. But no Australian would have willfully given away the opening match of the tour on a platter like Kohli did in Adelaide.

“Indian cricket badly needs this positivity.”

Chasing 364 on the last day, India were 205 for 2 and the decision to go after the target was a good one. But, at 277 for 5 when Rohit Sharma got out, India had more than twenty overs to get to the target. But they had also had 5 wickets to play with, including a lower-order that had had little success lately. The obvious thing to do there would have been to play out the next few overs without risk, and then have a go in the last ten overs, so that even if they lost quick wickets, the chances of drawing the game would be decent – it is perhaps precisely what Dhoni would have done.

But it was bizarre to see a highly competent batsman like Saha come out swinging wildly and then give his wicket away. More shockingly, stand-in captain Kohli himself, well-set with a superb 141, played an ugly hoick and holed out. Significantly, Kohli has thrown away his wicket in advantageous situations before also – in a Test match in 2011 against West Indies (where India just managed to scrape through with a draw eventually), and more than once in the IPL for RCB. Despite being the greatest chaser in ODI cricket’s history, he has not been a good finisher when things have gotten tricky near the end of the chase (especially in Tests). The presence of players like Dhoni and Jadeja has ensured this has not been shown up in ODI cricket, but it did that evening at Adelaide.

Shami played a similarly mindless shot a few minutes later. There was little doubt that these were the captain’s instructions – he himself led by example here.

India eventually lost 6 wickets in 10 overs and squandered the opening Test of the series, when they just had 10 overs to play out. But many in our quarters thought that was a wonderful, refreshing change. And an “uplifting way to lose.”

“Great to see Indians sock it to those arrogant Aussies.”

How wrong they were was in full display in the third Test at Melbourne, when a typically cranky fast bowler’s throw by Mitchell Johnson clearly heading for the stumps struck Kohli, who was playing beautifully till then. His behavior from then on was ridiculous as he gesticulated and argued as if some great injustice had been done. It clearly affected his game too, as he was almost out twice, but Australia dropped a catch and found another just short. Kohli survived, somehow got his equilibrium back, and played superbly.

During that innings, there were signs of that familiar brashness again – debutant KL Rahul played a ridiculous hoick (given the circumstances) and got out – Kohli was seen exhorting him to go for it from the non-striker’s end. The problem? India were still 115 runs behind Australia. The bigger problem? Kohli flashing at a wide ball outside the off-stump in the last over of the day and getting caught behind. He was eighth out for 169 and India were 68 runs behind Australia. Next morning India were dismissed after managing to add just 3 runs and the pressure was squarely back.

MS Dhoni has the lowest failure rate as player in the history of Test cricket – 5%, which is mind-boggling.

The way the Indian team conducted itself on the field was tastelessly arrogant. They initiated unpleasantness in such a transparently forced manner that it was laughable. It is as if someone has told them that being obnoxious in the middle is the ticket to beating Australia.

“See how contagious this positive approach is.”

In the second innings, promoting KL Rahul to number 3 was very odd, as was the desperate shot he got out to. These all seemed very un-Dhoni-like decisions, even though batting in that desperate manner made much more sense at Melbourne than Adelaide, given the series circumstances.

Our detail-loving Romantics have been at it again, claiming that Australia delaying their declaration at Melbourne was evidence of Kohli’s “positivity” (as if Sehwag was a fictitious character from the past). Broadening the picture just a bit would suggest that they would not have done this if they were not on the verge of winning the series. In fact, by reducing India’s chances of winning to almost zero, it was a typically ruthless Aussie response, even if not a crowd-pleasing one.

“Love our plain-speaking captain.”

Kohli going into the press conference on the third evening at Melbourne and complaining about the Johnson incident was perhaps reminiscent of Tendulkar’s conduct after the infamous 194 declaration at Multan in 2004. What happened in the middle did not stay there. That was silly but hopefully he will learn from this.

It is hard to disassociate the memory of Kohli batting with Tendulkar when the latter played his most transparently selfish innings – that infamous hundredth hundred; they batted together for 30 overs and batted similarly slowly. Hopefully his role model putting a personal landmark obviously over the team’s interests has not had a long-lasting effect. It would be tragic if this is Tendulkar’s legacy. But hopefully, with other influences around him, Kohli will keep a balance between this positivity and the limitations of certain circumstances and not allow it to become unbridled bravado.

“New India needs exactly this kind of captain.”

It is not surprising that Kohli has become the poster boy of the entitled “new young urban India” which wants respect among the giant achievers of the world (in every field) having done very little themselves.

Their notion of giving aggressors a taste of their own medicine is on the surface and amounts to not more than emulation. Most importantly, it fails to distinguish between organic aggression which is more about self-belief than a posturing which is a reflection of some kind of insecurity. Thin-skinnedness is also usually a feature here, which does not allow banter to coexist with respect as was evident in the back-to-back press conferences of Kohli and Ryan Harris that same Melbourne evening.

“Kohli was made captain for the last Test but Dhoni refused to play under him.”

That all that is mentioned above could happen under Dhoni’s captaincy has to be one of the reasons why Dhoni retired before finishing the series.

It is clear that the Kohli-Shastri mindset will decide Indian cricket’s direction for a while now – Dhoni’s locus standi seems to be gone in Test cricket.

It is highly unlikely that the selectors decided to change captains before the series was over. Going by how Dhoni has conducted himself right through his career, this has to be a decision he took.

Hopefully, the new team leaders will fix their focus on more substantial solutions like finding two consistently penetrative bowlers than making twisted faces at the opposition.

 

Jaideep Varma/ Soham Sarkhel/ Gokul Chakravarthy
Caricatures by Vasim Maner and Rajni Kanth.