By Kanishkaa Balachandran/NIA
MS Dhoni is known for surprises. On Wednesday, the Indian wicketkeeper-batsman was watching his native Jharkhand take on Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy semi-final in Nagpur. After the game, he set out for some batting practice trying out various bats, in preparation for the limited-overs series against England beginning on January 15. He was his usual jovial self, obliging selfies to fans and even journalists, whose work he claims he stopped reading long ago.
In the lead-up to this day, he didn’t seem to drop any hints, even to his team-mates – who also double up as PlayStation buddies – on his latest plan. Around 9pm that night, the news broke, via a characteristically bland press release from the BCCI that Dhoni had stepped down as captain from India’s limited-overs teams with immediate effect but would still be available as a player.
There is nothing terribly unusual about Dhoni dropping such bombshells. He has done it before. Most notably, when he abruptly retired from Test cricket midway through the Australia tour in 2014-15. It was a decision that drove his successor Virat Kohli to break down in private, sensing the void it would create in the Test side, but he accepted the honour graciously. Nevertheless, it was the strongest indicator that Dhoni was looking to phase out his retirement as an international player.
This time, the biggest hint that something was brewing was a long chat he had with chairman of selectors MSK Prasad on the sidelines of the Nagpur game.
The reactions to him quitting, from fans, journalists, players and ex-players – mostly on social media – have been understandably emotional. He has led India to three major limited-overs titles, the World Cup, World T20 and Champions Trophy, and thrilled fans with his cunning tactics. But it would have been unrealistic to expect him to continue as captain in the 2019 World Cup, when he will be 38. So while the reactions may have been sentimental, it’s unlikely that his decision was an emotional one. Given the circumstances, it’s a pragmatic one.
When he quit Tests, he stated the strain of playing all three formats as the reason, given his multiple roles as captain and first-choice wicketkeeper. It was time for Kohli to settle in to the job and groom another wicketkeeper to take over. But by stepping aside from Tests, Dhoni had to make a compromise by spending considerable time away from the Indian team.
Since January 2015, Dhoni has played 33 ODIs and 23 T20Is and in this phase his presence was invaluable with the World Cup and World T20 and the surfeit of T20s prior to the 2016 tournament. In the middle of 2015, he was away from the unit for close to four months, during which time he skipped a short limited-overs tour to Zimbabwe. India’s tour to Sri Lanka included only Tests. An equally long break beckoned the following year when India left for the West Indies for a Test-only tour. His break was reduced to two months when two T20Is were shoehorned in Florida late in the day.
Given the one-day series against England comprises only three matches instead of the usual five, the stakes are higher because the pressure is greater. An early defeat could spell a series defeat.
It would be better for the sake of team dynamics to have one captain pre siding through the entire phase, leaving Kohli as the most logical choice for a complete takeover. Surely, Dhoni would have observed Kohli’s maturity as a batsman and captain over the last two years before deciding the right time to hand over. Kohli has learned over seasons to suppress his emotions when the chips are down. His theatrics as captain for Royal Challengers Bangalore in previous IPL seasons were a world apart from Dhoni’s cool head but Kohli to his credit has become more self-aware of his personality and responsibilities on the field. With Kohli enjoying the Test captaincy, this transition promises to be smooth.
Dhoni signs off as India’s most successful one-day captain with 110 wins in 199 ODIs. Only Ricky Ponting (230) and Stephen Fleming (218) have captained in more games. His 110 wins are second behind Ponting (165). His 6633 runs as wicketkeeper-captain in ODIs is a record, with Kumar Sangakkara a distant second with 1756. He also holds the world record for the most wins as T20 ca ptain – 41. Is there anything else left to achieve?
(Kanishkaa Balachandran is a Chennai-based freelance writer on cricket, travel ,films and music)