There was a time, not too long ago, when Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni could do no wrong. As captain, he took India to the pinnacle in every format of the game: Winning the World Twenty20 in 2007, the World Cup in One Day Internationals (ODIs) in 2011 and a No. 1 Test ranking for 18 months.
His unconventional batting style, though devoid of grace and correctness, was thrilling to watch and effective. He wore his hair long, brought his own technique to the game, invented ridiculous shots like the "helicopter" and had such swagger about him that it seemed he always knew the winning formula.
He could be outlandish one day, bizarre the next and frustratingly orthodox following it, yet it all seemed to work like magic. As if he had a talisman locked up somewhere.
Now, however, it seems the magic touch has deserted him. Since India's World Cup win in 2011, India has lost 13 Tests on foreign soil, winning only two of the 20 they played.
After the recent Test debacle in England, where India lost the series 1-3 and were bowled out for 94 in the final Test of the series at The Oval, losing the game by an innings and 244 runs, his captaincy has come under immense pressure. He has been accused of letting games drift out of grasp. His decisions which were earlier applauded for bravado are now being questioned for foolishness.
The big question in Indian cricket these days is whether Dhoni should continue as captain in Tests. The clamour for his ouster from the longer format is growing in India.
However, cricket experts and followers of Indian cricket in Singapore are still throwing their weight behind him, believing that he has a lot more to give to the team. tabla! spoke to a few of them.
The vox populi
Singapore national cricket selector C. Nantha Kumar believes that Dhoni is a situational leader and, while he may be on his last legs as a Test player, it is not the right time to expose anyone else to the burden of leading one of the weakest Test teams, which is struggling with management issues as well.
"Dhoni should continue as captain," Mr Nantha Kumar said. "Dhoni still remains India's most successful Test captain. His win-loss record of 27 Test wins to 17 losses compares favourably with Sourav Ganguly's of 21-13. Dhoni ought not to be replaced as captain in Tests because India does not have a replacement handy. Most of India's top order batsmen had a nightmarish tour, but they are unlikely to be dropped because they lack bench strength. In this situation, replacing Dhoni isn't going to solve problems," he added.
Mr Nantha Kumar added that Dhoni's captaincy was occasionally praised on the tour of England, which shows he hasn't lost his touch.
Singapore batting star Chetan Suryawanshi, who holds the distinction of being the first cricketer to score a hundred and take a hat-trick in the same 50-over match and also holds the record of scoring the fastest 100 for Singapore in 36 balls, said Dhoni has undoubtedly been India's best captain and he should be given more chances to develop young cricketers under his captaincy.
"The team is going through a transitional phase. It's not easy to rebuild when stars and super performers like Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid are gone. It takes a while to find the balance again, especially in the longer format of the game. Dhoni has a young team. We know he has the capability to bring out the best in everyone," Mr Suryawanshi said.
He stressed that Dhoni can turn the game around, just by his captaincy, giving the example of India's historic win at Lord's in the series against England. "It was Dhoni who convinced Ishant Sharma to bowl short and the result was there for everyone to see," Mr Suryawanshi said.
India won that match by 95 runs, with Sharma picking up seven wickets in England's second innings.
Former Singapore international cricketer and current coach of Global Indian International School Munish Arora had a different opinion. He said that though Dhoni has been India's most successful captain, the team has struggled under him overseas and in the longer version of the game.
"In the recent series loss to England, he made a few tactical mistakes and with the top order failing miserably India didn't have a chance. However, Dhoni showed great character with the bat despite not being technically very well equipped. He fought with great guts to score runs in trying conditions," Mr Arora said.
He added: "Having said all that, India definitely needs a change in captaincy. The possible candidate whom selectors will look at will be Virat Kohli."
Mr Arora felt the Indian selectors should wait until the 2015 World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand, before making the change in captaincy. "At this stage a change will be a setback to the team morale. It will also mean too little time for the new captain to adapt. India is the defending champion in the World Cup, and I find no reason for their not repeating that feat under Dhoni again. However, after the World Cup, Virat Kohli should lead India in all formats of the game," Mr Arora said. Mr Shankar Lakshmanan, director at Matterz Consulting and an avid cricket follower, felt that Dhoni should continue as captain for ODIs and T20 as "he is the best person to lead the team in these formats".
However in Tests, he felt that a replacement for Dhoni is required but selectors might have to continue with the Ranchi man for lack of a suitable replacement. "There is no player who can take over the mantle from Dhoni so it may take a year or so to identify a suitable replacement. Till then we have no choice but to continue with Dhoni," he said.
Mr Prabhat Gupta, an engineer, believed that Dhoni still has his touch. "He is the best man for the job at the moment. I would rate him right up there with Sourav Ganguly as the best captain India has ever had. He is intuitive and reads the situations of the game very well, making tactical changes accordingly. On most occasions these have worked," Mr Gupta said.
"Sometimes he is bound to fail, especially with a young team that he has to lead. His bowlers have often let him down and in the series against England, even the batsmen let him down. But I think, with time and patience, this team can come out of the slump they are in currently in Tests and Dhoni has the talent and man management skills to do so. India is still doing well under him in ODIs so even in Tests it can be done."
Engineer Harish Taneja also backed Dhoni to continue as India's Test captain. "His record speaks for itself. He is India's best bet. He has led India in 58 Test matches since he took over in 2008 and enjoys a winning percentage of 46.55. The next best Indian captain Sourav Ganguly had a winning percentage of 42.85 and he captained India in 49 Tests. Dhoni clearly has the edge. Let's give him a chance. The team has failed together, he alone isn't responsible. I am sure they will come out of this defeat in England even stronger," Mr Taneja said.
The near future
India hasa home series against West Indies coming up in October. It is quite likely that India will win the five-match ODI series and the three-match Test series against the men from the Caribbean in home conditions.
It is also quite likely that after the win, all of Dhoni's sins, should he retain his captaincy, would be forgotten and locked up in the attic only to be revisited when India travels to Australia later in November for a four-match Test series and an ODI tri-series involving Australia and England. The conditions in Australia will test Dhoni and his men and poor performance there could effectively end Dhoni's Test career. Surely he knows that. For selectors can't ignore failure for long.
And he knows fans can be fickle - adoring one day, ruthless the next. The swagger they love now, will start to look jaded after more defeats. The talisman abilities will be questioned. His street-smart approach to batting will be criticised for its crudeness. The coming months are going to be the true test of character for India's captain cool. Are you placing your bets on him?
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