Friday, July 5, 2013

Why Raina, and not Kohli, is a Better Substitute for Dhoni

By Carl Jaison:

The baton has automatically been transferred from Dhoni to Kohli for now, and it can continue untill further devastating losses for India, but it doesn't look like the best option for any farsighted cricket analyst. Kohli's potental for matching Tendulkar's performance in the coming years, and Suresh Raina's superb temparament, amicable nature, and demonstrated leadership skills, point to the fact that Raina might be a better captain for India in the long run. In any case, it would take either of them years to grow big enough for Dhoni's captaincy shoes.

West Indies pacer Tino Best rattled MS Dhoni’s stumps when the latter attempted to go for a wild swing of his blade looking to target the boundary ropes over deep mid-wicket. Then Dhoni limped off the field, after having been treated for sustaining a groin injury a couple of overs before his eventual dismissal.  At first many rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Dhoni clearly appeared to be struggling with his fitness. It was indeed a rare sight. A long pending fatigue issue had finally taken a toll on India’s skipper. But spectators who witnessed Dhoni’s painful walk back to the pavilion knew at once that the World Cup and Champions Trophy winning captain wouldn’t return back to the field for further participation soon.

As predicted, when the Indian team walked on to the field for defending a modest total, Dhoni was absent. Automatically, Virat Kohli was made the stand-in-skipper. Virtually, even before they began their run-chase, West Indies had already won the game.  In reality, they knew that they would be taking on a Dhoni-less India.

At the end of the match, West Indies surprisingly made heavy weather of their run-chase although scrapping through to a 1 wicket victory. Virat Kohli admitted quite frankly that Dhoni was missed in the crucial moments of the game; when he was in desperate need for expert advice. Yes, who would he approach for solace when the going gets tough? His bowlers tried their level best to restrict the Windies, but in vain.
Kohli’s critics would have the last laugh, as the so-called Dhoni magic was missing in his bowling changes. Later during the day, Dhoni was ruled out of the entire tri-series and would return back to India without much ado. All eyes now turned to his deputy. It would be Kohli’s first big assignment as captain.

Ever since this rookie skipper led his young and spirited brigade to a successful U-19 World Cup winning campaign, many touted Kohli to be the next heir to the throne once Dhoni would step down from the captaincy role. He even backed his leadership skills with a consistent and dominating showing with the bat. Steadily and gradually he announced his arrival onto the bigger platforms of the game. Since making his ODI debut against Sri Lanka in 2008, Kohli batting record remains a cricket statistician’ delight.

In 102 appearances in national colours, Virat Kohli has aggregated 4187 runs at a breathtaking batting average of 49.84 including 13 well-compiled centuries. Not simply did the selectors assign him with the challenging task of captaining the team in Dhoni’s absence. He deserved every bit of the glamour and prestige that comes with the Indian skipper tag.

But it also demands a favourable win-percentage in the early days into the new job, lest he face premature scathing attack by the media. Kohli already has difficult questions to answer after India crashed to back-to-back defeats at the hands of both West Indies and Sri Lanka. As if this wasn’t cruel enough, Kohli was then fined 20% of his match fee for maintaining a slow over rate during Sri Lanka’s batting innings, extravagantly leading to the misuse of time.

Though it is a bit harsh on blaming the youngster for the recent poor performances by India, his critics have started sharpening their knives questioning his ability to lead the team sans Dhoni. It may be an understatement to make, but Kohli doesn’t fit in very smoothly as the desired captaincy material.

Dhoni has grown into a giant oak tree, so much so that young saplings under his shade barely receive even a single ray of sunlight, which is essential for their growth. The oak tree metaphor best describes Dhoni’s position of strength as the leader of the cricket-fanatical nation that is India. His larger-than-life image has made him the face of Indian cricket. In fact, one would find it hard to imagine Indian cricket without Dhoni. Such has been the magnitude and scale of his rise to unprecedented prominence. His Big Daddy modus operandi has ensured that none in the current crop of players, if at least in the immediate future, will be exposed to the severity of captaining in international cricket.

The 2007 T20 WC was Dhoni’s first ever full-tournament as captain. Many tipped either opening batsman Virender Sehwag or Yuvraj Singh to lead the team. After he won the trophy for India, Sehwag and Yuvraj were eliminated as future captaincy candidates by the then selection panel with utmost calmness.

Afterwards, Dhoni tasted his first success as test captain in the second test of the series against Australia at home soil owing to original skipper Kumble’s injury. His immediate success was well received in cricketing circles. Kumble returned as captain in the third test but rather unexpectedly decided that it would be his last match. Dhoni was reinstated as captain for the 4th test, which India won and with it the Border Gavaskar Trophy. One after the other, Dhoni’s one time playing colleagues yielded to their fate of making way for the Jharkhand-born player, who in the coming years would take the nation to greater cricketing heights. The red carpet was rolled out to Dhoni; he didn’t have to ask for it.

He then won India the ICC World Cup 2011 after a gap of 28 years. By this time, Dhoni had muscled his way into being arguably the most iconic cricketer in the world after Tendulkar.  Also, India was ranked the No.1 test team under Dhoni on 2 occasions. Soon enough, the Master Blaster called it quits from the ODI format that paved the way for Dhoni’s stature as being the most valuable player in world cricket. During the course of a relatively short career, Dhoni has single-handedly rescued the team from dire straits on several occasions and in many of India’s victories his captaincy marvels proved to be the turning point.

For the past 2-3 years, India has heavily depended on Dhoni’s soothing presence and tranquil composure to ease tension-filled match situations. With Dhoni directing field placements and bowling changes, in subtle fashion, all that the other players had to do was to listen and obey his commands. More often than not, Dhoni’s decisions have proven to be masterstrokes and the players have responded well to him.

It is also interesting to note that Dhoni rarely consults or heeds the advice of his fellow players except with Sachin, which may have been out of his respect for seniority. Gambhir always wanted to barge in with his wisdom, but Dhoni went about applying his own mind. Sehwag had never been seen chit-chatting with Dhoni on the field, except while fielding in the slip-cordon when the two exchange wry smiles. It was not as if MSD missed a trick or two by ignoring his seniors.

His Rule of Thumb approach has been acceptable to the current bunch of youngsters who carry out his directions most faithfully.

Dhoni delivers when it matters the most. He is the axis around which the other players revolve and the lynchpin in the middle order department. Dhoni’s absence certainly leaves a huge void in the team’s scheme of things. We have little knowledge about Dhoni’s personal preference regarding his eventual successor. Worse, there is no grooming taking place of the youngsters on the captaincy front.

Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have captained their respective IPL teams but they have zero-exposure to the rigors of skippering in international matches. Why then didn’t India install either Kohli or Rohit as captain in the T20 format? Without the requisite experience of leading the national team, it would have been akin to sending a primary school child to take a civil services exam.

It doesn’t require much pondering to understand why Kohli was handed the baton over Raina. He seems to be the only player in the current squad who has cemented his place in all formats of the game. His inclusion in the test line-up is a testimony to his growing permanency. He has tasted success as captain during his U-19 days. Kohli also boasts of an enviable batting record.

But with Kohli always amongst the runs, it would be in the team’s and in his own interest that he be moulded into a Tendulkar-like run machine, kept away from the hardships of a captaincy job. Going by his run-making pattern year after year, Kohli is surely a Tendulkar in the making. He even looks to be in good stead to break Tendulkar’s celebrated milestones.

There are a couple of reasons why India will struggle in Dhoni’s absence, as long as it would take for his recovery, and why the selectors should invest faith in Raina, rather than Kohli, as an alternative to Dhoni.

While he did show in the IPL that the burden of shepherding the team wouldn’t affect his batting performances, Kohli’s man-management skills aren’t the best around. His attitude problem may hamper his relationship with his colleagues. Though the principle of seniority doesn’t account for much while deciding on a captain, Kohli remains one of the youngest in this team. His ascension may not go down well with the players who’ve played more games than him given his volatile nature.

Experimenting with Kohli isn’t such a bad idea but doesn’t Raina seem to be a better bankable bet given his cordial terms with most players in the team? He has played under Dhoni more than anyone, having watched his skipper controlling the proceedings from close quarters in the IPL as well playing for the Chennai Super Kings. Duly, some of the Dhoni magic may have rubbed off on Raina. He has also captained his state team, Uttar Pradesh remarkably well in the Ranji Trophy which is after all the bedrock of domestic cricket in India.

Like Kohli, Raina is also a good limited overs player but usually comes into bat when the chips are down. With both of India’s frontline spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, also playing for the Chennai Super Kings, Raina would be more resourceful and judicious in employing the two. Kohli has been criticized for persisting with Ishant Sharma even after the speedster was torn apart in his first spell by the Sri Lankan openers. The aggressiveness, with which the Sri Lankan openers played, in the initial and later stages, took Kohli by surprise which prompted uninspiring bowling changes.

It would do wonders to Kohli’s batting if he relinquishes the captain’s position as he wouldn’t have to be bogged down by any additional pressure while concentrating hard on his batting tasks. Rather, it will be a more pleasant sight if Kohli assists Raina as the latter is known to be more accommodating and a better listener than the former. The upcoming Zimbabwe series will be the real test for the likes of Kohli and Raina to stake their claim as worthy descendants of Big Daddy.

Dhoni, if BCCI sources are to be believed, will be rested for this series, which may also witness the comeback of Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan into the playing squad. Re-calling the senior pros in itself doesn’t point to any futuristic development but can Kohli really handle his elders as effectively as Raina, who seems to be in more amicable terms with most players. Not to forget Kohli’s verbal feud with Gambhir in the IPL.  India can’t afford to waste Kohli by choosing him as pack leader which in all likelihood may affect his primary role. He might prove his detractors wrong by scoring a couple of centuries or effecting match-changing tactics. But wasn’t a pure Tendulkar devoid of captaincy responsibilities better than a Tendulkar who struggled to excel in this role?

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