The Indian cricket captain has always been an object of great scrutiny — maybe as much as the prime minister and sometimes even more. Success is feted, but failure is not tolerated. But, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has defied that time-tested principle of selectors holding the captain accountable for the team’s failure.
It is hard to find many people outside of the offices of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) or the Chennai Super Kings dressing room, who still agree that MSD should continue to lead the Indian team. The man on the street, pundits on TV channels (most of them on most occasions, this writer included, are not to be taken seriously) and former captains, Indian and foreign have asked for his axing, but the selectors, the BCCI and Dhoni himself are not willing to budge.
Just as there are two sides to Dhoni — the smiling face when he is winning and doing well, and the sullen one when the team is in the pits — there are also two sides to his captaincy. The inspirational leader in the shorter formats seems a totally different skipper in Test cricket. The man, who conjures dream finishes in ODIs and T20s with his own batting in the closing stages, or with some clever bowling changes and smart field placements, gives the impression of having left his magic wand in the dressing room, when he walks out as the Test captain.
A string of former captains, none of whom are given to hyperbole, have been left perplexed by the Indian selectors, who have simply ignored the ‘other’ Dhoni. This is the one who leads India in Tests, especially on foreign soil.
Ian Chappell, the feisty former Australian skipper and commentator, never one to mince words, the equally aggressive Sourav Ganguly, often seen as the man who brought into the Indian team the belief that it could win, and the mercurial Kapil Dev, have all called for Dhoni to be replaced, at least in Tests. Then there is the understated Rahul Dravid, who, too, feels it is time for a change. Cricket fans, spectators and writers can be ignored, for it is their job to rave and rant, but it is hard to ignore the likes of Chappell, Ganguly, Kapil or Dravid.
Since 1989-90, the period when India became powerful with each passing season in world cricket — mainly on the strength of the money it generated rather than performance — after Krishnamachari Srikkanth’s one series as captain in Pakistan, India has seen seven captains. Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble and Dhoni, who took over in 2008, when Kumble was first injured and then finally retired, are the seven players who have donned the captain’s role.
Azhar’s was a long reign, but it was also the one, when Indians were labelled “tigers at home and paper tigers abroad”. Under him, India managed only one win in 27 overseas Tests, but he did have 13 wins at home. Overall, his win-loss record as captain was 14-14 in 47 Tests.
In what can only be described as a cricketing enigma, Tendulkar never really stood out as a captain; his 25 Tests on the saddle got him just four wins, all at home, against nine losses, six of them abroad. India did not win a single Test on foreign soil when Tendulkar was at the helm.
However, it is only when Ganguly took over the reins of captaincy that the team began winning Tests, if not whole series, abroad. Under him, India won 11 Tests on foreign soil and lost 10, so it was actually a positive equation. What’s more, the team won at least one Test match in every Test-playing nation, except South Africa and New Zealand. Sure, wins over Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have always been viewed with a certain amount of scepticism, but there were other credible victories, like those against the West Indies (2001-02), England (2002), Australia (2003-04) and Pakistan (2003-04).
The trend continued under Dravid. Five of the eight wins during his regime came when the team was touring abroad and only one of his six Test losses came at home. Under Kumble, two of India’s three wins came outside India and only one of his five losses was at home.
While statistics may not be the best measure of a player’s ability, it is hard to ignore the fact that India has lost four successive series outside India: 0-4 to England, 0-4 to Australia and 0-1 to South Africa and New Zealand. In all but one of those losses, Dhoni was the captain — Virender Sehwag led the team in the fourth and final Test against Australia in Adelaide (see box).
India has lost 10 of its last 12 Tests abroad; the other two were drawn. Though consistently winning Tests on foreign shores has never really been a feature of Indian cricket, neither has it been the case, at least in modern times that an Indian team has suffered a string of such defeats.
Even before those losses, under Dhoni, India drew the three-Test series 1-1 in South Africa in 2010-11 and beat a weak West Indies 1-0 in a three-Test series in June-July 2011.
Amidst all those overseas losses from December 2011 to February 2014, India did win at home against New Zealand (2-0 in a two-Test series), against Australia (4-0 in a four-Test series) and against West Indies (2-0 in a two-Test series). However, Dhoni’s team also lost a series at home, when England beat India 2-1 in late 2012.
In the face of such an abysmal record abroad and a period highlighted by controversies, questionable selections and highly defensive leadership, it is simply amazing that Dhoni has managed to stay in the saddle for so long. The only times he gets off — albeit temporarily — has been due to injury.
Team failures have proved costly for Indian captains in the past. Back in the 1970s, when Indian wins abroad were a novelty, Ajit Wadekar led India to wins in the West Indies and England, both in 1971 and by 1-0 margins. His team then beat England in India 2-1 for a third successive series win. But no sooner had he lost a series 0-3 to England in England in 1974, he was gone. Irate and intemperate fans stoned his house and the selectors and the Board lost little time in bringing Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as his replacement, though briefly for one series in 1974-75, before he too hung up his boots. Again, in 1974-75, Srinivas Venkataraghavan lost a series each to West Indies and England at home, but it was the loss to England in England (0-1, in 1979) that eventually cost him his captain’s cap.
The Sunil Gavaskar-led Indian team won a Test in New Zealand (when Bishen Singh Bedi was the appointed captain) and won three series in a row, all at home, when he finally took over from Bedi in 1978-79. Bedi, for his part, lost his captaincy after losses to England in India and away losses to Australia (2-3 in the thrilling and famous series after the Kerry Packer row) and Pakistan (0-2). Gavaskar took over from Bedi, but was relieved of his captaincy after a loss to England in India (1-2 in a five-Test series) and Kapil Dev went out in 1986-87 after a 0-1 loss to Pakistan in India in a five-Test series.
Dilip Vengsarkar lost his captaincy after a 0-3 loss to West Indies in the Caribbean; Ravi Shastri led India in one Test in India and Srikkanth’s only experience as captain was in a drawn four-Test series in Pakistan in 1989-90. Then it was Azharuddin and from there on we have had six captains right till Dhoni, who has lost more series in a row than anyone else.
But it was not always like this. Under Dhoni, India has won a World T20 Championship in 2007 and the mother of them all, the World Cup in 2011. But, it was also a time, when he was willing to try out new things. It is hard to believe that the same Dhoni could become ultra-defensive when it came to Tests. Many say he is stubborn to the point that he almost personifies the cliché: “My way or the highway.”
Remember the time he confounded all by handing the ball to a little-known and untried Joginder Singh in the final over of the World T-20 final against Pakistan? Or the time he promoted himself up the order to come out and close the match in the World Cup final against Sri Lanka? That was an inspirational leader. One who had fans eating out of his hand. Even in the Tests in South Africa and the West Indies in 2010- 11, he enjoyed reasonable success and did not look bereft of ideas.
But suddenly from December 2011, we began seeing a new Dhoni. As success in the longer format began deserting him, it seemed, so did reason. More than one potential captain was shunted out during his time, including Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and VVS Laxman. There have also been murmurs that the likes of Ganguly and Dravid, or even Laxman, may have stayed on for a bit longer, but found it difficult under Dhoni’s captaincy. Laxman, for one, found out firsthand that his captain was not easy to get through when he wanted to discuss his future plans.
Yet Dhoni stays on. Until a year ago, it may have been said that with a bunch of seniors bidding adieu for various reasons, there was no alternative to MSD. But now we do have one in Virat Kohli, a protégé of sorts, of Dhoni himself.
Dhoni’s new team — some call his “boys” — have ruled the roost since. Kohli, who seemed destined for greatness, has been an exception at a time, where more than one player has been given a long rope despite a string a failures, something the seniors were denied. It is almost as if Dhoni was happy to see their (the seniors’) back and the Board and selectors ensured it stayed that way.
On the field, Dhoni may be in control in the shorter format, but in Tests he has been found wanting time and again. He allows the game to meander, as Ian Chappell wrote, and just waits for mistakes to happen. Experts point out that back in the West Indies, he refused to take the new ball long after it was due, and more recently in New Zealand he did not attack and allowed a match-saving partnership by Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling to flourish and finally save the match.
Dhoni’s refusal to see beyond his blue-eyed boys is what is ailing Indian cricket now. For instance, Suresh Raina, who had played 17 Tests — though none since March 2013 — was preferred ahead of the likes of S Badrinath and Manoj Tiwary, who have had greater success in domestic cricket.
In the bowling department, while Ravichandran Ashwin has been the first preference when it comes to the spinners, Ravindra Jadeja has time and again been preferred ahead of other frontline spinners such as Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra. Fast bowlers like Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and recently, Ishwar Pandey, were left on the sidelines. The list can go on. It is no secret that Dhoni’s “boys” were preferred. That many also turned out for Chennai Super Kings was an additional factor. Then some others, like Rohit Sharma, got more than their share of chances.
But now with a string of losses, is it not time to judge Dhoni by the same yardstick that was used to judge his predecessors? It is no secret that his position as the captain of Chennai Super Kings, a team where BCCI President N Srinivasan has a major interest, has helped. What were mere whispers until now have suddenly become louder: having the Indian captain lead a franchise helps marketing a team in the Indian Premier League. And when the president of the Board happens to be owner of the same team, well, that’s just cherry on the top. Conflict of interest can be side-stepped for the moment.
However, with Dhoni’s latest injury, the reins of captaincy have been handed over to Kohli. Many are already talking about a rightful successor and the Asia Cup could prove to be the perfect opportunity. And Kohli has begun well. One-dayers on slow and low subcontinent pitches against opponents, whose strengths and weaknesses are well-known, and a century in the first match against Bangladesh, leading his team to a convincing win. Yes, Kohli has begun well. With a win in this tournament and some moderate success in Tests, he could well force the selectors to sit up and take notice.
The question, therefore, is: Will the Board find someone to replace a man who is probably the biggest all-time marketing success of Indian sport? Or, has it already?