Time for MS Dhoni to reassess his career
What's eating MS Dhoni? Some might think that a ridiculous question to ask about a man whose mighty straight heave for six sealed a much-celebrated World Cup win just four months ago.
But less than two games into a series that has been billed as the unofficial Test championship, plenty has been said and written about Dhoni and his lack of impact on the proceedings.
The hotly-debated decision to recall Ian Bell after tea on the third day aside, Dhoni has not exerted any influence on the two Test matches.
After three innings, he has just 49 runs. He has laboured 161 balls for them. Aside from Ishant Sharma, who bats at No 10 or 11, no one in the side has a lower strike-rate.
The wicketkeeping has not been any more distinguished.
Twice at Lord's, at vital junctures, he made no attempt to go for edges that whizzed past him and were too far away for first slip to take.
At Trent Bridge, some of the takes were so clumsy that the more strident tabloid newspaper commentators were calling him the worst in the world - solace for the now-dropped Kamran Akmal, of Pakistan.
England is not an easy place to keep wickets.
The ball can die on you and it often swings very late after leaving the bat.
At Lord's, prior to the first Test, Kiran More, the former India wicketkeeper, sadly best remembered for dropping Graeme Gooch on 36 when he went on to make 333, was heard advising him to stand closer to the stumps to avoid problems.
With the bat, his travails were perhaps expected.
Dhoni's game has never been built around a textbook technique.
His methods are homespun and they have worked for him in certain conditions.
But when the ball seams around, the statuesque carves tend to find the edge or thin air rather than the meat of the bat.
He is not the first instinctive strokeplayer to struggle so either. Adam Gilchrist had a superb first tour of England in 2001, lashing 152 off just 143 balls at Edgbaston in Birmingham in the first Test match and scoring two other half-centuries as Australia won at a canter.
Four years later, he went past 30 only once as the Ashes changed hands.
With England finding both conventional and reverse swing, he was one of many game changers who found themselves caught unawares by the excellence of Andrew Flintoff and his fellow bowlers.
When Dhoni came to England in 2007, one of the tabloids labelled him Show Dhoni - rhyming with Show Pony. Dhoni, who cannot be bothered with the newspapers, responded with a match-saving 76 at Lord's, and went on to play a big part in India's series win, exceeding expectations with bat and gloves.
The Show Dhoni jibes were largely a result of the Mumbai Test of 2006 when he played two appalling hoicks - one dropped, the next taken - as India slumped in dismal fashion on the final day against an England side galvanised, by Flintoff and Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash classic.
The critics forgot how new Dhoni was to international cricket at the time, having made his Test debut only in November 2005.
By the England trip, he was being talked of as captaincy material and he proved his backers right by leading an experimental side to glory in the inaugural World Twenty20.
So, what ails him now? In a word, exhaustion. His elevation to the captaincy of the Test side in 2008 came soon after he had skipped a Test tour of Sri Lanka - India lost 2-1 - pleading tiredness after having spent the traditional off season playing in the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Since then, apart from leading the national side in all three forms of the game, he has led the Chennai Super Kings in a further three IPL campaigns and captained them to the Champions League Twenty20 title last September.
The workload for a wicketkeeper-batsman is hard enough.
In Dhoni's case, he has had to manage captaincy and sky-high public expectation, as well as an endorsement portfolio that even Sachin Tendulkar, India's batting legend, cannot match.
A look at the burden he has shouldered is enough to make one wince.
Since January 2008, Dhoni has played 36 Tests and 90 one-day internationals. Rahul Dravid, India's best player on this tour, has played 39 Tests and only six ODIs. The numbers for Tendulkar, who has enjoyed a stunning renaissance in that period, are 36 Tests and 46 ODIs.
But the real difference comes in the Twenty20 arena.
Tendulkar has played 60 games and Dravid 66. Dhoni's number sits at 95, and as soon as he returns from England, he has to suit up in canary yellow and lead Chennai's defence of the Champions League.
He averages 16 from six Tests this year and that World Cup-winning 91 is his only one-day half-century in 2011.
Most of the time, he has been a shadow of the six-hitting destroyer that he used to be. While many cry for him to play his "natural game", few address the real issue - fatigue.
Something has to give, and it should be one-day cricket.
His lucrative contract and status as an IPL figurehead mean that giving that up is not an option. The Test team, which faces a period of transition once the three middle-order legends leave, needs his calm and leadership.
The 50-over arena can be used to groom his successor.
Having won the World Cup, there are no more one-day mountains left to climb.
Published: August 1, 2011 04:00 AM