He’s a World Cup-winning captain and a true hero of Indian cricket, but India need to put sentimentality aside and replace MS Dhoni before this year’s World Cup, argues Yas Rana.
Few cricketers have captured the Indian public’s imagination quite like Mahendra Singh Dhoni. A talismanic figure who bridged the gap between the Sachin and Kohli eras, for a decade he was arguably the most deadly finisher in white-ball cricket.
Between 2007 and the 2015 World Cup, he averaged 56.81 with the bat, which is impressive enough, but when you look at his impact when chasing, you can quite reasonably make the case he was the most valuable ODI player in the world for that eight-year period.
In India’s 57 successful chases in that time, Dhoni averaged an astonishing 101.64. That number fell to a more human 32.28 in the 35 times they lost when chasing. Put simply, if Dhoni fired, which he normally did, India won.
But ODI cricket has changed in recent years: 300 is no longer a winning score. Teams like England have an insatiable appetite for huge scores that are only attainable if you attack throughout the innings. On true batting surfaces, you can no longer keep it ticking at five runs per over during the middle overs.
In Dhoni’s first eight years as captain, when he was at the peak of his powers, the top-eight teams in ODI cricket scored at an average run rate between 5.05 and 5.56 an over.
Since then, England, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have all scored at an average run rate of more than 5.70 runs per over – England’s figure of 6.23 runs per over sees them ‘averaging’ a total of 311 every time they bat 50 overs. The parameters have changed. What was recently a par score is now substandard.
Forty-one of the 115 350-plus scores in ODI cricket have come since the last World Cup. Part of that rise is undoubtedly that increased will to attack in the middle orders. In the 2015 World Cup, it became apparent that England were playing a different game to their opponents, and not in a good way.
Going into 2019, it is MS Dhoni who is playing a different game. Across his career, he has an average run rate of 4.41 runs an over in the middle overs (overs 20-40), which by modern standards just isn’t enough.
Dhoni is not just stubbornly playing his way that has got him success in the past, he’s actually regressing. In 2018, he scored at 3.91 runs per over in the middle overs, the second slowest year of his career in that section of the innings. His average run rate in 2018 (4.28) was the lowest of any batsman who scored more than 250 ODI runs for a team that automatically qualified for the World Cup.
Jos Buttler, who is very much Dhoni’s heir as the world’s premier middle-order white-ball wicketkeeper-batsman, had an average run rate of 6.22 runs per over in the middle overs 2018.
His match-winning performances are also not at all regular as they were. He’s been Player of the Match just twice in his last 70 ODIs. His lowest batting averages in a full year of ODI cricket came in 2016 and 2018. Dhoni will have turned 38 by this year’s World Cup Final, India need to put sentimentality to one side and look at the facts – Dhoni is no longer the best wicketkeeping-batsman at their disposal.
If Dhoni played for a team with a shallower talent pool, there would be less of an urgency to displace him. But India have Rishabh Pant waiting in the wings. Pant is just 21, and easy as it is to call him India’s future in white-ball cricket, he’s very much their present, too.
At just 21, Pant already has Test hundreds in England and Australia. He was the second-highest runscorer in last year’s IPL and his strike-rate was the highest of the top ten run-scorers.
The only mark against his name is his lack of List A experience – he only has one hundred in the format – but India should surely use every possible opportunity before the World Cup to bed him into the side.
Dropping a figure as respected in the game as Dhoni may not be the best from a PR standpoint, but in a World Cup year India have to be ruthless. This isn’t a 37-year-old defying his years and still producing the goods on a regular basis – this is a former great who has lost much of his stardust.