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MS Dhoni version 2.0

Chetan Narula | | Updated: October 7, 2015, 5:00 PM IST

The month of December 2012 was a woeful one for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Almost everything that transpired back then was a pertinent reminder of how Indian cricket's fortunes had dwindled since the ODI World Cup triumph in April 2011.

In the twenty-odd months between these two markers, there was the unforgettably humbling occurrence of 8-0 in the Test series in England and Australia. The team's ODI form dipped as well, with embarrassing losses on both tours, marred by 'fielding' controversy Down Under. That they didn't make the CB tri-series final was bloated even more by the fact that a return to sub-continental conditions in Bangladesh did not help, as the Asia Cup slipped from the grasp of the reigning ODI champions. Also, add two inane IPL seasons that just stretched India cricketers thin - physically and mentally.

The word 'transition' finally hit home hard when England thumped India 2-1 in their backyard. The rise of Cheteshwar Pujara, the growth of Virat Kohli and the coming of Ravindra Jadeja as a Test player came amidst the openers' woeful run, Sachin Tendulkar losing his touch and a random bowling attack. In summation it means that series will forever be synonymous with this period of massive change that rooted itself in Indian cricket. The sheer lack of direction and elevated confusion painted a big question mark on Dhoni's future as Test captain, obviously.

After that loss at Kolkata - in the grossly humid, make-shift Eden Gardens' press-conference room, an English journalist pointedly asked Dhoni: "Are you the right man to lead Indian cricket at this point?" The answer - "Selectors decide who is the right man for the job" - was an obviously scripted one, as is the case in most such scenarios. But it was his face that told a story.

The skipper had aged, perhaps at a rate quicker than most of his predecessors. This wasn't the young man who had taken over at a time when the relevance of Indian cricket was being questioned in 2007. This wasn't the adventurous bloke who had changed its subsequent direction with a finely balanced team of legends, experience and youth. This was a very tired cricketer, reeling under the combined effects of a downward spiral in form, a never-ending schedule, a thoughtless selection panel, an unforgiving media and the limitless-expectancy of a billion fans.

The underlying point is about re-invention, or the lack of it, for any Indian cricketer, unless he magically opens a trap door in his mind despite not taking a break from active cricket. For Dhoni, rejuvenation came in a different light, with the change of guard in the selection panel. In a matter of two months, Sandeep Patil and company showed exceptional resolve to clear out the mess in Indian cricket. Maybe the fact that Dhoni was propped up by the then BCCI president N Srinivasan also helped, in terms of pitch preparation and getting the players he wanted. Add to it the small matter of Dhoni just shrugging off the media completely and you will understand the new man who now leads the Indian team.

Dhoni version 2.0 is a mix and match from the old one, wherein extreme adventurism finds resonance with experimentation. This man is now senior-most in the team and there can only be one possible direction. That coach Duncan Fletcher and his support staff are present only to guide the transition also helps to understand who pulls the weight of team management. It is not a bad thing, not entirely, for a downward spiral as in the winter of 2012-13 can only be wrested back with single-handed firmness.

If there is a case in this point, it can be seen from Cricket Australia's struggles to get their transition right. You have the selectors playing guardian-angel roles, with now-sacked coach Mickey Arthur drawing his own line of extreme discipline, and somewhere in there, Michael Clarke's authority got undermined.

In Dhoni, the Indian team has only one centre of power, and how that is a good thing has showed up amply in the last six months. The selectors give him a youthful squad and step back, Fletcher tries to mentor them and stays in the shadow and then it's all Dhoni. He picks and chooses his battles, staying silent on the Eden Gardens' pitch controversy but proved his point with the 4-0 blanking handed out to the Aussies. He stays quiet in press conferences (yes, the spot-fixing one) and talks feverishly on the pitch, gaining their confidence.
He backs his young players and gives them an easy rope to walk on, soaking in the external pressure whenever they fail, ala Jose Mourinho. Rohit Sharma gets another life as an opener, Shikhar Dhawan succeeds where he would have failed (as his past record suggested), Ishant Sharma becomes the new Joginder Sharma, Virat Kohli and R Ashwin grow as responsible senior statesmen and the joker in the pack, Jadeja, gains respect.

All of it allows Dhoni to become the maverick he was earlier. His adventurism in limited-overs cricket is back in force. He is willing to experiment in the longer format too, and that will be tested away from home, soon enough.

Even so, that is where his seniority reflects, as does the responsibility factor. He has understood this very clearly and put up his hand in the time of need. If the media and fans made him culpable for losses in the past two years, Dhoni should now be the crown jewel in this surprising success gained in the last six months.
  • First Published: June 30, 2013, 1:17 PM IST

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