Up until a few days ago India were the No 1 ranked side in Test and ODI cricket. Virat Kohli has yet to lose a one-day series as captain and preparation for a tough tour of South Africa so far couldn’t have gone much better.
An odd time perhaps then for fans, journalists and ex-players to be questioning whether one of India’s all-time greats deserves his place in the side. But that is exactly what is happening, and it has caused an almighty stir.
The backdrop to this debate is India’s T20 form which has dropped off to such an extent that they are now down to fifth in the rankings. In England, if you were top or second in the other two formats no one would bother thinking about it, but this is India, the nation that gave birth to the IPL.
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The game that has sparked the debate was the second T20 against New Zealand, when Dhoni came in at 67-4 with 130 still needed off 11 overs and failed to get his side home. He finished with 49 off 37 balls and India fell 40 runs short.
‘A bit harsh’, I hear you say and you have a valid point. But the reaction to his innings was simply the end result of a build-up of growing discontent about his role in the team. When even the extremely genial VVS Laxman says your strike rate has not been good enough and it’s time to step aside for the younger generation, then you know there is a problem.
Kohli in return launched an impassioned defence of his former captain, claiming Dhoni is unfairly picked on when out of form – but the statistical evidence is quite damning.
While there is also a case to question Dhoni’s place in the ODI side, he is still an extremely sharp wicketkeeper and able to finish 50 over innings with the bat. Just ask Sri Lanka, who saw him get India out of a couple of tight spots in August.
Although his 88 strike rate is well below that of some the other top ‘finishers’ (Jos Buttler’s strike rate is 117, for example), Dhoni is one of the few players in the world to average over 50 in the format and he specializes in performing in low-scoring, high pressure games.
Plus, he’s said he wants to play in the 2019 World Cup and it would be a brave selector to force him to retire before then.
However, in T20 Internationals his stats are nowhere near as impressive. An average of 35 is decent but in 72 innings he has just one fifty and a strike rate of 123 nowadays is well below what is required of your main ‘finisher’.
For instance, Buttler’s is 138 and David Miller goes at 141. The death overs take on even greater importance in T20 and, as it’s such a short game, these differences are more noticeable.
In addition, the next World T20 is not until 2020, by which time Dhoni will be almost 40, giving the selectors a more valid reason to drop him.
So who are the possible T20 alternatives?
There seem to be five realistic candidates, of varying age. The three eldest are Wriddhiman Saha, Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik. While none are beyond 33 and still have a bit left in the tank, I would be inclined to find a younger, longer-term replacement.
On top of that, Parthiv and Wriddhiman are much more effective at the top of the order and India certainly aren’t short in that department. Karthik is a bit more flexible but is still a top or middle order player, not a finisher.
That leaves the two youngsters Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson. The 23-year-old Samson played one T20I back in 2015 and has not featured since, despite a couple of solid seasons in the IPL for Delhi Daredevils.
Again, he looks most comfortable opening the innings but has improved his power and could perhaps be converted to a hitter down the order. His 20-year-old Delhi team-mate Pant is the one who’s really caught the eye though.
What was immediately obvious after he made his IPL debut last year was the immense self-belief he has. A good gloveman, he too has featured at the top of the order yet has a lot of power and can be ultra-aggressive against spin.
With a strike rate of 148 and a brief taste of international cricket already, he could be the man to fill Dhoni’s shoes in T20Is, and probably in ODIs eventually too.
However, if Pant was brought in now it would affect the balance of the team. He batted at No 3 in the second of his two T20Is so if he were to continue in the top order that would leave Hardik Pandya as the only recognised finisher in the XI.
With Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin out of favour at present, India’s T20 side suddenly looks less balanced than usual with a longer tail than they would prefer.
That, in turn, makes the need for two ‘finishers’ in the batting line-up even more important as there isn’t much else to come.
For that reason, unless India’s two premier spinning all-rounders return to the T20 side, I would keep Dhoni in the team.
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The extremely talented Pant could well turn into a finisher of some repute and he looks like the future but, for the moment, he is not a like-for-like replacement for Dhoni.
The bigger picture though is whether Dhoni has the appetite to play in the World T20 in 2020. If he does, and he makes that public, it will put the selectors under even more pressure. Either way, they have a big decision to make!