Can India afford a Dhoni-shaped hole in its safety net?

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We can throw shade at MS Dhoni for failing to finish on occasion. We're entitled to as expectant fans. But to doubt his eligibility or call for his removal from the ODI side is to saw off the branch the Indian team is sitting on.

MS Dhoni cannot be sidelined in ODIs just yet. Not until the selectors unearth another finisher-cum-wicketkeeper-cum-leader to fill his boots. | Getty Images

India are playing the finals of a World Cup and need 18 to win from 6 deliveries. MS Dhoni is on strike and the bowler is Mitchell Starc. Dhoni swishes his bat, twirls his arms, and restraps his gloves, his eyes fixed on the bowler. As Starc runs in, the crowd waits with bated breath. 3 balls, 3 sixes. India win the World Cup!

Jolted awake from my dream, I rub my eyes, open them wide, shut them again, rub again, but the image doesn't vanish. It is right before me.

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Dhoni swinging his willow and the ball ballooning past long-on and into the stands for a third consecutive time. Him then walking off with a slight smile — I wouldn't even call it a smile, his lips are just curved upward. There is no celebration, as if to suggest this crucial match situation was no different from a nets session for him. The crowd aren't surprised either. They know Dhoni has done it before.

I had this dream two days after the selectors, MSK Prasad and co., announced the Indian ODI squad for the Sri Lankan tour. Yuvraj Singh had been dropped, and justifiably so. While Prasad suggested it had not come to that in Dhoni's case yet, there was a cautioning latent in what he said: “You never know. We don't say it is an automatic thing [selection] but we will see. We are all stakeholders. We all want the Indian team to do well. If he [Dhoni] is delivering, why not? If he is not, we will have to look at alternatives," Prasad had said. And I concurred. I am a staunch believer in shedding old skin to usher in rejuvenation. Why should they keep out a Rishabh Pant or a Manish Pandey just to accommodate Dhoni, who had plodded along painfully to a 114-ball 54 against the West Indies in an ODI a month back.

Dhoni isn't the finisher of old. He hasn't finished matches with the authority and calmness with which he has done it in the past. Quite a few times, of late, he has messed up India’s chances in those final few overs, which are rightly termed the “death overs". Fast bowlers have seemingly discovered that bowling short to him in the death overs helps.

But, for a second, think about it this way. If India needed 18 in an over in the finals of a World Cup with Mitchell Starc bowling, whom would you rather have on strike? MS Dhoni or anybody else in the Indian team? I bet more than 50% of the nation would cry out this Jharkhand man’s name. You know why? We love security. That buffer. We love the safety net beneath, ready to catch us when we eventually fall. Dhoni is that safety net. He brings the kind of assuredness and certitude that helps us rest easy.

 

We have seen this ex-captain in all his glory, weaving his magic over the opposition bowlers with his unwavering gaze and shrewd eyes. We have seen him take games down to the last over and test the nerve of the bowler in one-on-one battles. Umpteen number of times, we have seen him stride away nonchalantly, stump in hand and teammates milling around after he has done the job. Yes, job. That is exactly what finishing is to Dhoni. He does it routinely, without complaints, and rarely celebrates. Who celebrates getting a job done?

At times he falters. And the world turns upside down. Know why? Because the safety net is broken. But, do we ever question why we left it all to the safety net that Dhoni is?

People talk about his strike rate of 47 in a messed up chase of 190, how he hit just a single boundary in a 114-ball knock that yielded a mere 54 runs, how he has the second-slowest fifty by an Indian et al. But two days before this “crime”, he had taken India to a match-winning score with an unbeaten 78 at a run a ball. He was praised and lauded then. Two days later, his head is called for by individuals playing judge, jury and executioner.

Here's the thing, though. Even during his “crime”, Dhoni was one among the only two batsmen to cross the half-century mark, the other being Rahane, who opened the innings and scored 60 at a strike rate of 65.93 despite getting to face the hard new ball which comes onto the bat better.

 

We would probably not blame a freshman if they failed to finish off a chase, but Dhoni would surely face a lot of wrath. This is only because he has made us accustomed to the habit of winning.

Consider his knock against Sri Lanka at Pallekele after Akila Dananjaya's wrong 'uns had wreaked havoc on the rest of the Indian line-up. The visitors had succumbed to 131/7 from 109/0, chasing 231. Dananjaya had six scalps under his belt and looked good for more. But India had Dhoni, whose sheer presence inspires hope. Sure enough, India chased it down with three wickets still intact. The scorecard would show 53 against Bhuvneshwar’s name and only 45 against Dhoni’s. What the scorecard wouldn't show is that the calmness, composure and temperament displayed by Bhuvneshwar stemmed from his confidence in the man at the other end.

The warning from MSK Prasad when the team for Sri Lanka was selected, which seemed right to me at the time, strikes me as stupid now. Who would replace Dhoni? It would be like trying to plug a tap nozzle with a needle. Whomever you bring into the line-up as replacement for someone like Dhoni, there is bound to be a leak. You could push in a Hardik Pandya or a Manish Pandey as a finisher in Dhoni’s place. Who would keep then? Possibly, a Rishabh Pant. But can he bat at 7 and finish games? If not, would you have Pant at the top and Pandya and Pandey down at 6, 7? Wait, you didn't put captain Virat Kohli in the team!

Statistically too, Dhoni hasn't been below par in the past few years. Since the 2015 World Cup, Dhoni has averaged 45.30 in 36 ODI games, not far off from his career average of 51.57. In matches India have won during this period, Dhoni averages a sizzling 78.50. He may not lift India up from the rubble every single time but to say he has been rubbish is stretching the boundaries of logic.

No, you cannot. You cannot dispense with this man and hope to maintain the same balance in the team. You cannot replace a finisher, a 'keeper, and a leader all clubbed into one ominous, gigantic force. Forget all the statistics. Do a thought experiment, and step into a bowler's shoes. In a pressure situation, would he rather bowl to Pandey/Pandya or Dhoni? No offence to either Pandya or Pandey. They are both wonderful cricketers who deserve a place in the Indian squad. But not at the expense of Dhoni, at least until the 2019 World Cup.

 

I am not even going to dwell on the wicket-keeping. He is still the best wicket-keeping batsman in the country. By 2019, he will be 38. So what? He nailed the yo-yo endurance test a few days back to prove his fitness levels were as good if not better than most.

 

In recent years, we have seen Dhoni walking in earlier than usual. This probably needs to change. The wicket-keeper batsman should go back to his no.6 role and play 'the finisher' till he hangs up his boots. I wouldn't blame the selector for his statements or the other Dhoni-haters for the comments. Hate stems from love. We love what this man brings to the table. We love the kind of hope he gives every time he is out there in the middle. We love everything and anything about him.

We would probably not blame a freshman if they failed to finish off a chase, but Dhoni is different; he would surely take a lot of wrath. And it is only because he has made us accustomed to the habit of winning. I needed a dream to help me realise it. Perhaps you do too.

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