During India's first ODI against Australia in Sydney earlier this year, the visitors were chasing a target of 289 with Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni at the crease in the 33rd over. India were 141/3 with Rohit looking set for a big hundred while the former captain sedate as ever. But one could sense something was going to give as the required run-rate touching 9 an over. Just then, fast bowler Jason Behrendorff bowled one on the stumps and hit Dhoni on the pads as he tried to flick it over the leg-side. The umpire promptly raised his finger and the wicket-keeper started his long walk back to the pavilion having made 51 off 96 balls with just three fours and a solitary six to boot.
Ten years ago, you'd have expected him to finish off the chase, especially having spent close to two hours at the crease. But the stark reality is that Dhoni is not the batsman he was a decade ago. But another reality is that India still need him and not just against Australia in the ongoing series but also at the all-important World Cup in England.
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As the Men in Blue prepare to take on their rivals in Dhoni's hometown Ranchi on March 8, one gets the feeling that it is bound to be the last international outing for the legend at his home ground. A boy who fought off adversity with sheer talent to bring home the biggest global titles which exist in cricket, it has indeed been a magnificent journey. While he started as a dasher, soon evolving into one of the best ODI players of all time, Dhoni of today seems a shadow of his younger self. You can't blame him though, can you? There hasn't been a cricketer whose reflexes haven't declined alongside a greying beard and in his 38th year of life, MS has the latter in abundance.
What stood out the most about Dhoni when he started his international career was his great hand-eye coordination and the ability to mix big hits with quick singles and doubles. But nowadays it is evident that the Ranchi batsman has to put in just a bit more effort into his big hits and thus he is not able to hit them at will as he used to before. Along with this, his knack of piercing gaps to find runs also seems to have been diminished - a fact that is supported by his slowing strike rate. While earlier he used to milk the spinners for runs easily during the middle overs, he seems to be more circumspect against the tweakers as the number of wrist-spinners has grown around the world in limited-overs cricket. So does it mean that with younger talents like Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill waiting in the wings, India doesn't need the maverick? The answer to this is not that straightforward.
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To gauge Dhoni's usefulness for Team India today, one has to carefully examine his recent contributions. First and foremost, his keeping skills behind the wicket remain as flawless as ever even though he is not blessed with the most agile body. Video clips of his lightning-quick stumpings now have their own huge fan following on YouTube due to which he has been given the title of 'Fastest hands in the World'.
As far as his batting is concerned, Dhoni currently is best suited to come in when India are in trouble after a top-order wobble. For instance, in the example cited at the beginning of this piece, he arrived at the crease with the team score at 4/3. For long, Mahi has been a pillar in India's middle-order and unarguable there is no one better than the former captain to arrest a batting collapse. Say what you may at him eating up deliveries in Sydney but his innings had a huge role to play in giving India the slightest chance at chasing the Australian total.
But what about Dhoni - the finisher? On the recent tour to Australia, Dhoni was adjudged the player of the 3-match series prompting his staunchest critics to say a word or two in his praise. While Dhoni showed glimpses of his old self Down Under often taking the game deep and then winning it for the team, none of those innings needed him to fire on all his cylinders. The real problem with Dhoni arises when the team is let's say 200/3 with about 10-15 overs to go and the side is looking for quick runs or when India is chasing a steep total. It is now clear that MS is not the enforcer that he once was and in such situations, it is better to have a hard-hitter like Hardik Pandya or Rishabh Pant at the crease rather than Dhoni who might take a long time settling in. This is where Virat Kohli will have to use his senior smartly.
Apart from his glovework and batting, there is another dimension in which MS has contributed to the team and his teammates immensely and that can't be underestimated. His guidance to bowlers and other batsmen in the team including valuable inputs to Kohli himself during crunch situations are of immense importance.
Kedar Jadhav, the Man of the Match of the recent Hyderabad ODI against Australia had this to say about batting with Dhoni: 'See, whatever Mahi Bhai asks me to do, I follow him blindly and I become successful in that. I never fear when Dhoni is batting with me.' During the tour of New Zealand last month, young gun Kuldeep Yadav had this to say about his senior: 'Mahi bhai has vast experience and keeps telling us the nitty-gritty of the game. He is like a game changer and we are lucky to have him in our team.' Even Kohli who is often seen taking help from the World Cup winning captain on the field revealed that the plan to bowl Vijay Shankar in the last over of Australia's chase in Nagpur was partly Dhoni's idea.
Thus even though his batting skills have waned, MS still remains a valuable asset for the team going into the World Cup. On flat tracks that should be on offer in England, Dhoni might not be required to up the ante with hitters around him proving capable for the job. But if India find themselves in early trouble, Dhoni is the man who should be sent in ahead of the younger lot. The way Kohli uses him in the batting order will be key to India's success in the big-ticket tournament. But it is difficult to see his utility beyond England.
If Kohli uses him smartly, Dhoni could yet provide all of us with a fairytale ending to his career that we all wish for the ODI behemoth. Being one of India's most successful Test captains, with over 10,000 runs in ODIs, two World Cups and a Champions Trophy title, you'd imagine that Dhoni has had it all. Don't be fooled though. The English summer of 2019 could yet prove to be his ultimate swansong. So, while we keep waiting with bated breath for the kind of flourish that we saw from him at the Wankhede on 2nd April 2011, the greatest finisher the game has ever seen still has some unfinished business before he can say goodbye to the sport we all love. Good luck Dhoni!