Mahendra Singh Dhoni Retires From Test Cricket

Mahendra Singh Dhoni Retires From Test Cricket

Mahendra Singh Dhoni retired from Test Cricket after helping India save the Melbourne Test on December 30, 2014. He retired as India's finest wicketkeeper batsman in the long form game. He led India in more Tests, and won more Tests than any of his predecessors. Under Dhoni, India dominated at home as they never have before, despite being a team in transition. Overseas, no other Indian captain has won more Tests than Dhoni.

Dhoni drew the ire of the professional commentariat for appearing indifferent to India's 4-0 defeats in England and Australia in 2011 and 2011-12. The obvious sight of an ageing, but celebrated set of batsmen not scoring Test hundreds on these tours as they had on previous ones seemed to upset fans. Yet, as Sambit Bal noted today, the charge of indifference is at the very least, an educated guess. The facts point not to India's batting, but to their bowling in the second half of the Dhoni era. His approach to captaincy has been perpetually criticized.

My view of Dhoni's captaincy has been rather simple. He did not have bowlers who could bowl all six balls in an over exactly where they wanted to. Lacking this basic control, no conventional tactic would have worked. When he tried it, it didn't work. Just look at the number for first sessions on Day 1 in overseas Tests when India's bowlers have delivered poor lines and lengths. When they did bowl well, as on Day 4 at Melbourne in Dhoni's final Test, he looked a different, more effective captain. It is true, as much as commentators might hate it, that a captain is as good as his team. This is true not due to vagaries of attitude or commitment, but due to vagaries of skill. How do the same observers who agree that Ishant Sharma is chronically inconsistent, and Mohammad Shami (or take any other name) lacks basic control, then set these facts aside when they describe Dhoni's captaincy? Not even God would captain well if he couldn't rely on the line and length offered by his bowlers.

Consider the bowling Dhoni has had at his disposal in 29 Tests Away from India. In 2011, Harbhajan Singh was found to be inconsistent and out of favor. Indian fans hated him, and the press wanted him out of the side. Harbhajan Singh took 44 wickets in 12 Away Tests at the cost of 34 runs per wicket (1 wicket every 12 overs) for MS Dhoni from 2009 to 2011. His replacements in the side, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have taken 32 wickets at 53 runs per wicket (1 wicket every 18.2 overs). Ishant Sharma played 27 out of 29 Tests Away from home, and took 98 wickets at 37. The best bowlers India have had under Dhoni have been 2 England specialists - Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Praveen Kumar. Unfortunately, these were surrounded by decidedly mediocre bowlers by Test standards.

If India were a team which had good bowlers who could bowl to conventional plans well, but played on wickets which were so flat that conventional plans didn't work, it would be fair to blame Dhoni. But when the bowlers are incapable of bowling to even basic plans, it is hard to charge the captain with not seizing the moment (or whichever other lazy martial metaphor critics prefer to use).

It is inescapably the bowling which failed India under Dhoni. In 10 Tests when India took 20 wickets overseas, they won 5 and lost 3. In fact, in 19 Tests (out of 29) where India took at least 15 wickets, they won 5, lost 4 (most recently, Brisbane) and earned 7 draws (most recently, Melbourne). Given a decent bowling line up, even that ageing batting in 2011 would have produced Test wins. As would the new look line up of 2014. In England this year, India had 2 poor Tests with the bat. In these two Tests they were equally poor with the ball.

At home, MS Dhoni built a record which is decisively superior to Azharuddin, Ganguly, Gavaskar, Pataudi and Kapil Dev. Remember that Pataudi had the great spinners in his team. Kapil had himself, Ganguly had Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, and Azharuddin had Kumble, Raju and Chauhan. India won 21 out of 30 Tests at Home under Dhoni and lost only 3. Azharuddin has the next best captaincy record with 12 wins and 4 defeats in 19 Tests. Under Ganguly, India won 7 and lost 3 out of 17.

It used to be that any international side which toured India would be a threat. When New Zealand toured in 1999, their batsmen were a problem, as was Dion Nash. India's batsmen won their battle against Nash and Vettori, the bowlers lost their to NZ's batsmen. But under Dhoni, India have always been clear favorites at Home, so much so, that fans don't even rate performances at home today. Even when England visited India with the best off spinner in the world and a strong, experienced batting line up, their win in India was seen as a upset.

India will not always be so dominant in India, and may well look back on the Dhoni era as one of great success.

Dhoni is an underrated Test batsman. In conditions where the ball did not move off the seam as a rule, he was a easily a Test quality run maker. His Test average in India was 47. Yet, even here, as a specialist wicket keeper, he is held to an impossible standard. The first thing you are likely to hear about his batting is that he was poor overseas. The counter example is Gilchrist. Gilchrist was a unique player. We are unlikely to see such a lethal match of stroke making talent, and team strength, as we did in case of Gilchrist. But Gilchrist averaged 33 in 13 Tests in Asia and crossed 50 4 times in 23 innings. Dhoni averaged 31 in 32 Tests in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand, and crossed 50 13 times in 60 innings. When you consider that given India's bowling, Dhoni almost always batted under enormous pressure overseas, his record doesn't stack up so poorly compared to Gilchrist's. Gilchrist played 96 Tests to Dhoni's 90.

Dhoni's greatest achievement, apart from all the Test success he brought India, is that he survived the increasingly crazy media circus which surrounds an India player. If there his one thing his successor could learn from him, it is the ability of Mahendra Singh Dhoni to be indifferent to victory, defeat and what writers are pleased to call 'constructive criticism'. If he wants to learn a second, it is from Dhoni's example. Captaincy is impossible with bad bowling.

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