As the Indian cricket team was slowly moving towards defeat against Australia in the World Cup semi-final, many commentators, the normally erudite Allan Border among them, were still convinced that Indian captain M.S. Dhoni would explode at some point and carry India to victory.
It looks like Border and all the others of his ilk were dreaming earlier in the summer when Dhoni called time on his Test career, indicating that he was unable to handle that job any more. He did not step down from the captaincy, he quit Tests altogether.
Quite simply, Dhoni has lost it. He is past it and his sticking on for the World Cup was a typical reaction from a cricketer in a country where the selectors do not pick people on form alone. The same applies to Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan, and Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi. All are past it, yet were allowed to play on by their respective countries’ selectors, for so-called sentimental reasons.
Dhoni may have been the best finisher in one-day cricket for a long time. But that ability has gone. He cannot do it any more. The myth persists and that’s all it is — a myth.
Dhoni’s hanging on is not unusual in India; Kapil Dev, the captain under whom India won its first World Cup title, hung on and on, just so he could break Ian Botham’s record for most Test wickets. Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid all continued playing beyond the point when it was painfully obvious that they were no longer being picked on form. A lot of other good prospects were dudded of their chance of playing for the national team as a result.
In Australia, at times, that kind of sentimentality does not come into play. Ian Healy was denied a last Test in Brisbane in 1999, after he had shown that his talents were on the wane by dropping Brian Lara during a tense run chase in the third Test in the Caribbean. Adam Gilchrist made his debut when Pakistan arrived for the first Test of the Australian summer. But at times, Australia also looks the other way, a classic case being that of Matthew Hayden.
So the fact that Dhoni could not do anything except run himself out later on in the Indian innings did not come as a surprise. He gave an indication that he is no longer capable of captaining the team by letting things drift during the Australian innings: after David Warner had been dismissed early, Dhoni just sat back and let Steve Smith and Aaron Finch settle in. By the time he realised that the two spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, were being picked off for singles without showing any indication that they would take a wicket, it was too late. Finch, not in the greatest form, and Smith added 180-odd and ensured that Australia would cross 300.
Taking wickets later in the innings did ensure that Australia did not go on to 350-plus but the 328 that they got was at least 40 too much for any team to chase at the SCG. History teaches us many things, and one look at the totals chased successfully at the SCG in one-day matches would have told Dhoni that.
Whether the word foolish is politically correct or not, it is the one which fits the dismissals of both Indian openers Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma. At a time when India was cruising and scoring at six an over, Dhawan hit the ball straight to a fielder — just after he taken 16 runs off a James Faulkner over. Rohit did something equally stupid, attempting an aggressive stroke off Mitchell Johnson just after he had clobbered that bowler into the stands.
And all the commentators did not consider one thing — only Dhawan and Rohit had scored consistently for India in the tournament. Every one of the other batsman had got just one decent score. It was not surprising that every one of them failed.
In the end, India failed when it had to step up. That is not surprising, it has happened on innumerable occasions in the past. And it will happen again unless selection policies change.