End of the road for MS Dhoni?
India enter the Test series against New Zealand with an atrocious overseas record over the past few years. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the series that might be the death-knell for the Indian captain.
June 2011, Sabina Park: Rahul Dravid scored 40 and 112; India managed a 73-run lead; and the bowlers — Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra and Harbhajan Singh — bowled India to a 63-run victory. India drew the next two Tests and claimed the series.
The Test seemed to be an innocuous one for the Indian cricket fans. After all, it was just about retaining the rubber against one of the weaker sides in world cricket. Unfortunately, the Test remains the last India has won overseas: since then India has drawn three Tests (two of them in that West Indies series) and lost nine away from home.
This is the worst phase of the Indian side outside home since the turn of the millennium. Even if one discounts Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, India had drawn series in England and Australia (under Sourav Ganguly), won in Pakistan (under Ganguly and Rahul Dravid), won in West Indies and England (under Dravid), won in New Zealand, drawn in South Africa, and West Indies (under MS Dhoni).
This was a phase almost unparalleled in the history of Indian cricket. They had won series at home during the Mohammad Azharuddin era, but had seldom won overseas on a consistent basis in the previous millennium. Things had changed thereafter, and India reached their epoch by reaching the top spot in the Indian Cricket Council (ICC) rankings along with winning the World Cup.
Then it suddenly started to go wrong for them: they were whitewashed 0-4 in both England and Australia, and after a draw (their first in nine Tests), lost the second Test in South Africa as well. This, combined with a streak of eight overseas One-Day Internationals (ODIs) without a win, does not make things look too bright for the Indians.
To understand the gravity of the situation let us dig into the facts. As mentioned before, India has gone 12 overseas Tests without a win. They have had only four stretches that have been worse: they had not won their first 43 away Tests before Dunedin, 1968-69; there was a lean patch of 26 overseas Tests between MCG 1980-81 and Lord’s 1986; another run of 26 between Headingley 1986 and SSC 1992-93; and 23 between SSC 1992-93 and Dhaka 2000-01.
In other words, this is the fifth-leanest overseas patch in the history of Indian cricket. It might not sound too bad, but given the fact that the earlier streaks had come during the era when India were labelled as poor travellers, this run definitely comes as a rude shock. Given their performance of the side in the 2000s the expectations of the fans have gone up quite a few notches. This is not about a single series, either: this has been a phase that has lasted for two-and-a-half years.
One might argue that the phase has coincided with steady decline in the forms of all seven of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, and Harbhajan Singh — the remaining torch-bearers of Indian cricket since the retirements of Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly.
To put things in simple terms, the biggest problem with the Indian team is the fact that the number of certainties for a Test match from the current squad can be counted on the fingers of one hand. That, in itself, is a telling sign of insecurity the players and fans are up against: over decades the most successful teams have been the ones with the least changes. Australia, for example, have won the recently concluded Ashes without a single change to their XI.
The turnaround may just be around the corner, with youngsters like Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja, and Mohammad Shami moving up the rungs. However, it has been too long a wait and the patience of the selectors as well as the fans have been tested enough.
During the recently-concluded ODI series a livid Dhoni (which is not something one comes across too often) blasted his bowlers with a message as curt as “start using your brains more”. He knows what is at stake; if India returns from New Zealand without a victory there is a probability, however low, Dhoni may not be the one going out to toss in the upcoming England tour in the Indian blazer.
Of course he will be given more chances in the ODIs — given that even Kohli’s tough shoulders may not be able to withstand the pressure of stepping in a year before the World Cup. India has not done too badly under Dhoni either; despite their recent defeats they have won the Champions Trophy in England and in the West Indies Tri-Nation Series.
The corresponding picture in Test cricket, on the other hand, looks gloomy. Dhoni might have been given a long rope as of now, but unless he pulls something special out of his hat (or rather, get his bowlers to do the same) the future looks hopeless for him.
Having said that, having watched him play over the years, one can be rest assured that things will not be easy for Mike Hesson and Brendon McCullum in the upcoming Test series: his batsmen and bowlers may have let him down — but the man himself is too tough to give up so easily.