All eyes On Dhoni, Kohli

All eyes On Dhoni, Kohli
Dhoni (left) and an eager Kohli are set to take on Australia in the One-day series.
PHOTO: AFP

IT WASN'T that long ago really that people were talking to, and about, M.S. Dhoni in the context of a World Cup win. It wasn't about Dhoni the batsman (that was whispered about post the 2014 T20 World Championship too) but about whether Dhoni the captain could deliver India another major win. Even though he had retired from Test cricket, the team in Australia was clearly his.

A little over nine months later, as he takes another team to Australia, there is a different wind blowing. A young man, as old as Dhoni was when he first captured young India's imagination, is batting well and leading the Test team with flair.

And he is doing so in a style far removed from the quiet, undemonstrative manner that Dhoni had made his own. Virat Kohli likes being captain and he isn't afraid to say so.

And so, the next three months will be the story of two ambitions; the display of it from one person and the bottling of it from another.

In their interplay will lie the fortunes of the Indian cricket team. You can see that it has engaged the attention of India's selectors with the vote of confidence in Dhoni extending till the end of March. But announcements are one thing, watching them take shape quite another.

And so, over the next three months, my eyes will be on two outstanding players and on how they make the best of their current roles.

I saw Dhoni at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) awards evening just before the team left for Australia and he looked seriously fit.

He has admitted that he weighs exactly the same but that he has used the off-season (well, for him!) to become stronger.

I wonder if that has been done with his batting in mind. For much of the discussion on whether or not Dhoni should remain captain centred on whether he was still the batsman he was, on whether he could still finish like the great Dhoni of a few years ago.

This might well be an attempt at packing more power into his shots.

Midway through the year, Dhoni had talked about moving to No. 4 and letting someone else take the responsibility of finishing the innings.

It was an interesting decision, a pragmatic one maybe, since great players change roles because they can play them, not because they can no longer play the earlier one.

If Dhoni was moving to No. 4 because he could no longer finish as strongly, in the little time you sometimes get at No. 6, it was an admission that he was no longer the player he was.

He was still very good, but just not the Dhoni we knew.

But time away doesn't just refresh the body, it clears the mind too and maybe Dhoni has realised that his calm finishing style has no replacement and that he is again game to give it a go.

And for that to work, for him to play the big shots on demand, maybe he needed to be stronger.

There is also the issue of leading from the front, of playing a lead role, one that the team will look up to him for, and so maybe, one that will put him in the heat of a finish.

Where he bats at Perth will be the first indicator of how he sees the rest of his time as an India cricketer.

Keep an eye out too for Kohli for he has a significant role to play. If he can slip back into the role of a lieutenant, if he can keep looking up to Dhoni as leader, it will make the team stronger.

This is not to suggest that there might be divisive forces at play, not at all, merely to say that ambition finds outlets in utterances, even in gestures.

There might be a couple of players more comfortable in their roles under Kohli, just as others might feel more secure in those Dhoni assigns them. There cannot be two leaders in a side, even if one is the nominated captain.

This is an article on what could happen, not necessarily on what will. Teams have been undermined by individual ambitions in the past but both Kohli and Dhoni will be deeply aware of what will be best for India. And so, India's performance will be determined, to a significant extent by the roles they play, both assigned and voluntary.

tabla@sph.com.sg


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