His job may not be on the line yet but Mahendra Singh Dhoni will have to quickly pull out some of his old tricks if he hopes to continue for long as the leader of India’s limited-overs sides.
The magic touch that saw him guide India to all three International Cricket Council titles — the World Twenty20 in 2007, the World Cup in 2011 and the Champions Trophy in 2013 — has been missing of late.
A place in this year’s World Cup semifinals was at best a par, while the subsequent losses in a one-day series in Bangladesh and in the Twenty20 series during South Africa’s ongoing tour of India have been setbacks.
Dhoni, who retired from Tests last year, has been unable to show the instincts that had helped him outsmart the opposition with clever bowling changes and field placements. His own death-overs batting has also lost its spark.
The pressure will start mounting fast on Dhoni as India’s Test captain Virat Kohli is ready to take over in the shorter formats, even though a change close to the World Twenty20 in India in March-April may be unwise.
The 34-year-old Dhoni conceded his challenge after the 2-0 loss to South Africa in the three-match T20 series.
“It’s a very short format,” Dhoni said. “Personally, I feel I use a bit too much of my brain in this format. It’s very important that I keep myself a bit free and go and play my shots.”
Dhoni took his time during the first T20 against South Africa at Dharamsala but there have been more glaring instances of slow batting.
The loss to Sri Lanka in the final of the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh last year was blamed largely on Yuvraj Singh’s 21-ball 11 but Dhoni also scored four off seven deliveries in India’s mediocre total of 130.
In a T20 at Birmingham last year too he did not go for big shots till the end. Though he scored 27 not out off 18 balls, India lost to England by three runs with five wickets in hand.
Dhoni is at a stage of his career when a loss of the captaincy would also mean his ouster from the team. Retired pace bowler Ajit Agarkar has already questioned his place in the side.
“The selectors need to have a closer look at what Dhoni is doing, not just as captain, but as a player as well,” Agarkar told the Cricinfo website. “He has been a great player for India, but you don’t want him to become a liability for the team.
“And he needs to perform a lot better than he has (been). Just because he has done it over the years, doesn’t mean it’s okay for him to fail.”
Though chief selector Sandeep Patil has said that Dhoni’s captaincy is not under threat, both his leadership and performances will be under the scanner during the upcoming five-match one-day series against South Africa that starts with a day game at Kanpur on Sunday.
Dhoni has vast experience in one-dayers with 8,620 runs in 265 matches along with 246 catches and 85 stumpings. His performances in recent matches have also been better in this format than in T20s and it may be just the format that can get him back in the groove.