Undue clamour grows for Dhoni’s head

What next for MS? Problems aplenty on the horizon. Image source: 1

If one were to glance the papers and observe the media over the last  two weeks, an observation that Dhoni is a wanted man is not out of place. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown rings loud and clear after a series defeat to Bangladesh. If recent reports from his former coach are to be believed, there are suggestions of a rift in the dressing room. It is definitely not the first time something like this has been alleged against Dhoni in the matters of Sehwag, Gambhir and Yuvraj. Although, the links of him freezing them out of the team are tenuous at best, given that they were dropped after plenty of chances. Though Dhoni retains the backing of several Indian former captains and some teammates, the murmurs about the Indian team’s poor performance abroad refuse to die down and with it grows the unease about his captaincy. In the last 2 years, India has performed below par on the South Africa, New Zealand, Bangladesh bilateral tours and also in the tri- series before the world cup. Adding to this curious mix is Kohli’s honeymoon period of aggressive test captaincy (which is hailed as a breath of fresh air) and his comments on the team not expressing itself and the plot is replete with murky undercurrents. Cricinfo has two pieces on this issue- one is by Kalra where he talks about an absence of an immediate threat to Dhoni’s captaincy, which is not due to Kohli’s recent patchy form; the second one is by Monga where he makes an unfair comment by stating that Dhoni does not have match winning innings since June 2013.

If the Indian ODI team’s performance over the last two years is examined (until 26th June 2015), the source of the problem can be identified. Examining the batting average of regular batsmen who have scored more than 500 runs in these 2 years, the Indian top order is well represented in the top 10. A more worrying statistic is in the middle order- only 1 Indian batsman averages significantly higher than 33 (guess who?) and is amongst the top 3 players in the world in his position. The number 33 is important in this context as it represents the overall batting average of a middle order batsman in the last two years. India have found it difficult to perform when the top order is not able to mount a suitable platform.  He aired his concerns on these lines recently and his  move to no. 4 is also the result of a failed experiment of Kohli in that position, despite his success when Gautam Gambhir made the no. 3 his own close to the 2011 World Cup. It comes as no surprise that India are struggling to find consistency in the middle order with constant changes over the last few series and Ajinkya Rahane’s, the frontrunner amongst the pack, has found the going difficult in holding down the position imposed upon him. The issue of a brittle middle order poses a two- fold risk on someone like Dhoni- one, he has to make sure that he stays till the end given that the others have not performed in the last two years and two, the risks that he takes have to be high percentage shots rather than go all guns blazing. This strange dichotomy between the needs of the team that needed to co-exist simultaneously (i.e. preservation and destruction) has inevitably led to their weird marriage i.e. Dhoni’s performance at no. 6 over the last 2 years, as expressed in this article by Muthu:

So India have to make do with that rickety lower order. Dhoni has had to contend with it for months and admitted it has affected his game. So much that he leapfrogged to No. 4 against Bangladesh to set the game up, as opposed to worrying about damage control. Over the last two years, batting at No. 6 he has managed a strike rate over 115 only on five occasions. Because India, over the last two years, have been four down for less than 150 a total of 26 times. Predictably, they have lost 17 of those games.

Upon examining Monga’s remark, i.e. Dhoni’s record over the last 2 years, with the cognizance of the circumstances in which they were made,  the issue of significant contributions can be answered on the basis of one tenet – did Dhoni improve the team’s position by virtue of his innings with respect to what he was dealt with? Proceeding to examine individual cases:

1) Against SL in the final, Dhoni took India over the line, batting with the tail for the most part with a photo finish 15 runs in the last over. Tense Indian win.
3) In the ODI where Rohit Sharma scored his first 200, Dhoni scored 68 at highest SR amongst teammates. Big Indian win.
4) Against WI, Dhoni cames in at 203/4 in 38th over. Scored 51 off 40 and stayed not out. He had the highest SR amongst Indians who scored 20. Close Indian loss.
5) Against SA, chasing 358, he top scored for the team with second highest SR. Only Indian batsman to cross 50. India loses match badly.
Of the total 33 innings that Dhoni has batted in, he has played a significant hand in the team performance in 14. It is not correct to claim that he did not have a match winning hand in the last 2 years and certainly without Dhoni’s contributions in the above matches, the outcome could have been so very different in most of the cases. Given that cricket is a team sport, one is always slave to the hand that a player is dealt with (especially for a middle order batsman) and on any day, another player can lay claim to the most important contribution of the game. It must also be noted that the man of the match award is usually given to the victorious team and the award could have easily ended up in Dhoni’s hands if the result had played out differently in some of the above instances. Therefore, basing an argument on man of the match awards is unwarranted especially when the winning side possibly wins it 90% of the time. It is not possible for any player to come up with match winning performances/ end up on the winning side at all times and counting the man of the match award alone belies the number of significant contributions made by a player. In the last one year, where Dhoni has been off colour, he has scored 41 runs per dismissal at 85 SR as opposed to the average middle order batsman (cutoff 340 runs) who scored 34 runs at 89 SR. It is a measure of his consistency that in his off colour year, he has averaged more than 20% higher than a regular middle order peer at a very similar strike rate (Raina has found form this last year) . In any case, his average over the last year is more than the career average of many celebrated players of the last two decades.
Every cricketer is human and it is natural for any person’s value in the team to be questioned from time to time. However, the length of the rope given to a certain player often betrays popular logic- it could be based on a captain’s alleged favouritism, lack of alternatives based on a team’s style of play or a selection committee’s punt on intangibles such as talent. Indian fans will certainly attest to many of these sentiments in the case of Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma, and Ishant Sharma. Why, even the peerless Rahul Dravid in the midst of a wretched spell which lasted a little over two years was the subject of some chatter. During the time, one couldn’t escape the feeling that he was given so many chances as his slump was interpreted by the powers that be as vagaries of a sportsman’s performance rather than diminishing of ability. Dravid himself lent weight to this sentiment (also echoed by Border in the context of Ponting) during the afterglow of an Indian summer in 2011:
It is difficult when you are used to being a big contributor to the side and suddenly the runs stop coming. “I know I had earned a lot of brownie points for what I had done over the six years before that,” Dravid says, “but surely those brownie points were running out at some stage.”
On this note, a spot for a beleaguered player who has performed exceptionally year after year (calendar-wise) should not be in question especially when any stellar player can have an off year of two- past and present doyens of the ODI field (no less) such as Tendulkar, Richards and A B deVilliers have distinctly off coloured reports cards in ~20% of their annual performances. On the weight of this evidence and precedence of natural variance in yearly performance even amongst the best performers, the calls for Dhoni’s head are uncalled for and his critics are certainly barking up the wrong tree. Indian cricket would do well to build the ODI team around Virat Kohli in the future but it would be extremely foolish to continue this witch-hunt against the corner-stone of India’s ODI prowess in the last decade.

One thought on “Undue clamour grows for Dhoni’s head

  1. Pingback: The bat is mightier than the sword: A blow beyond the fencing | paajivspunter

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