Seven years after he brought home the ICC World T20 Cup, proving all naysayers wrong — all with a team of new faces — Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Indian cricket are standing at crossroads yet again.
Following a string of defeats and white-washes in Test cricket and unpalatable losses in ODIs, including a failure to reach the final of the Asia Cup, India now have the World T20 Championships ahead of them, a shot at re-establishing themselves as a force to reckon with.
In its previous four editions, the Championships has produced four different champions and they include neither Australia nor South Africa. That is how unpredictable — or predictable as its critics might say — it is. The T20 format is so fickle that India, despite its run of abysmal performances in all other formats, could still be a contender. No one knows this better than Dhoni, who will return to lead India at the Championships in Dhaka later this month. It was in the same format that he led India to an improbable win in South Africa.
It is said that 1983 was one of the turning points in Indian cricket history, when Kapil Dev led the Indian team to a stunning win at the World Cup in England. Soon after that, India became the hub of one-day cricket. Tournaments proliferated at a great pace and the shorter version of the game became the preferred one for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). It also fetched them maximum revenues. Similarly now, about 24 years later, the preference of the Indian public — and not just the BCCI and cricketers — has shifted to the even-shorter version of the game, the T20.
With India’s superstars Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly opting out of the inaugural edition of the World T20 Championships in South Africa in 2007, the Board handed the captaincy to the yet-untested Dhoni. Armed with a team comprising Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, ‘six sixes’ man Yuvraj Singh and the now-disgraced S Sreesanth, Dhoni stormed the tournament. The rest, as they say, is history.
A year later, the Indian Premier League (IPL) was born and Dhoni became its biggest superstar, and alongside, India’s clout in world cricket too grew. Soon he went on to take over the captaincy of the national squad and has led the team ever since, barring the odd injury or rest, over time becoming the game’s biggest brand.
In 2009, India went on to become the No. 1 side in Tests and in 2011, under Dhoni, they won a second World Cup in the 50-over format. The skipper’s cool 91 not-out in the final earned him praise from Sachin Tendulkar, who called him the “best captain” he had ever played under. It was a sign of his growing stature that the bat he used in the winning final fetched 72 lakh in an auction to raise funds for the Sakshi Rawat Foundation started in his wife’s name.
Call it whatever you will, the Indian captain today finds that the wheel of fortune has turned full circle. Over the past 18-odd months, India’s performance has not been in tune with its status as the global leader in sponsorship and cricket administration. Yet, Dhoni stays at the top, undisturbed, as it were, for he seems to have been guaranteed the captaincy till the 2015 World Cup.
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But now with the 2014 World T20 just a few days away, Indian cricket seeks to revisit the road it had once walked on and now seems to have forgotten the way. There are just three faces from the World T20 team that won the Cup in 2007. Apart from Dhoni, Yuvraj and Rohit Sharma have managed to find a place in the squad, the latter holding on to his place despite a string of low scores.
The losses in South Africa and New Zealand may have been attributed to unfriendly conditions, just as they were in England and Australia. But, the Asia Cup showed that India is now having difficulty even in sub-continent conditions. That the team should struggle in Bangladesh, where conditions are so similar to home, should have set the alarm bells ringing.
One of the criticisms that can be levelled against the Indian selectors is that even though they keep picking new faces, these players hardly get a chance to actually play. Most of them find themselves cooling their heels in the dressing room or, as the twelfth man, carrying water bottles to and from the field to cool the players. Few years ago, fast bowler Varun Aaron went a full tour without playing a single match; now we have Ishwar Pandey, who went to New Zealand and Bangladesh and has no games to show for it.
Cheteshwar Pujara is seen as having a great future in Tests. But if he is picked for an ODI squad, it is baffling to see him not being played even when the team is underperforming. At No. 4, Pujara could be just the man India needs, when the openers fail. Not so long ago, the team had made a similar mistake by categorising Rahul Dravid as a ‘Test player’. The same Dravid showed how he could adapt even to the T20 format for Rajasthan Royals. Is the management not making the same mistake with Pujara?
The Indian bowling attack, which has been its weakest link, continues to be a mystery when it comes to selection. Aaron is back, but despite getting injured in the Asia Cup, he stays on for World T20 and Ishwar Pandey is left out. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a bowler who time and again, got the early breakthroughs for India, is no longer the force he was a year ago. Zaheer Khan is now past his prime and Ishant Sharma too is erratic. Fortunately for India, Mohammed Shami is developing into a fine bowler.
For the spinners, Dhoni has stuck with Ravichandran Ashwin, who has of late not found himself among wickets, and Ravindra Jadeja, who is more of a lower-order batsman that can strike once in a while with his spin bowling. Specialist spinners Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha are subject to the selectors’ and the captain’s whims.
Mishra, in particular, has had an amazing career. After making his odi debut against South Africa in 2003, he has taken 40 wickets at an economy rate of 4.45 and an average of 22.77. For all this, he has played only 23 odi matches in 11 years!
Ojha has played 18 matches in a career that began in 2008. Sure, Jadeja is a useful all-rounder who wins matches, but would it not be wise to give chances to Mishra and Ojha too? If Jadeja and Ashwin are persisted with, because they can also bat better, then what are frontline batsmen like Rohit Sharma doing?
Yes, it is always easy to criticise selection and captains. Maybe, Virat Kohli too erred against Pakistan in the Asia Cup by giving the final over of Shahid Afridi to Ashwin, but then, no other bowler was bowling particularly well. So, he turned to a frontline bowler, who also failed.
If captains and selectors are to be accountable, the same holds true for the coach. Ever since Duncan Fletcher took over from Gary Kirsten, Indians have underperformed. He is simply so uninspiring and flat and there seems to be no joy in what he is doing.
Finally, are we ever going to pay attention to what is happening at the home front? Our domestic cricket is in disarray with none of the stars turning up. Even the Test discards throw tantrums, causing disciplinary issues. Take the case of the superstars in the Delhi team. That Sehwag, Gambhir, Ishant Sharma and Ashish Nehra are playing as and when they want does not augur well for Delhi or Indian cricket. It is certainly not the way they hope to make a comeback to the Indian team. As for discipline within the national team, former India captain and batting legend Sunil Gavaskar rightly pointed out “optional training is optional for those in form, for others, it is necessary to get back to form”.
Here too, Dhoni must take some of the blame. As captain, it is his duty — even outside of Tests and ODIs — to keep himself abreast of the situation in domestic cricket and the talent it throws up. After all, he did benefit from his performances in domestic cricket. Cricket has provided these stars the lifestyle they lead. It is time they started giving something back to the sport.