India may be in mourning at MS Dhoni’s abdication from the throne but once that period of respectful mourning has passed, it is time for renewal and rejoicing. The man will forever be an Indian legend but when the time comes, let it stand still for no man, especially not for a captain who has clearly grown weary of a job that he was ill-suited for away from home.
His final day at the office was symptomatic of all that ails Indian Test cricket on tour. With the game intriguingly poised and all three results possible, he began the day with no slip fielders and a defensive ring, as if waiting for Steven Smith to hand him a declaration that his talented young bucks could run down. He could not have got it any more wrong, not when his team were two-nil down and needed to make all the running, if nothing else, to show the Aussies that India were prepared to come to the party. Why would the Aussies, having controlled the game and with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy virtually in the cupboard, give India a target that they weren’t prepared to work for?
Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni celebrate India's Bangalore Test victory over New Zealand on September 3, 2012. Pic/Getty Images.
Even if they didn’t take any early wickets, India needed to give the impression that they weren’t just begging for a declaration — that sort of mentality, in the fractious atmosphere of this series, was unlikely to seduce Australia. Keep the field up, show that you are keen to do your share to earn the win, let the runs flow quickly and then hope for a 350 off 80 overs type target. Dhoni’s reluctance to do his share for opening up the game did nothing to convince Australia that India deserved a sniff, certainly not when bad blood was already running high.
The great irony of Dhoni’s last two days as captain of India was that he appeared to be at his most comfortable when the match became a virtual ODI on Day Four. It’s as if he was never comfortable with strategising over five days but once the game was compressed into a limited overs/time format, he was at his most imaginative. India were well and truly in the game throughout the fourth day but Dhoni’s reluctance to attack wholeheartedly in the last hour allowed Australia to crawl to safety. In some ways, it mirrored Dhoni’s approach to chasing in ODIs where he prefers to inch his way to the target and then launch a blitzkrieg at the end. The exception to that of course was his stunning innings at Wankhede in the World Cup final!
His wicketkeeping in Melbourne was excellent, in stark contrast to the potential match-turning moment when he allowed Josh Hazlewood a reprieve on nought in Brisbane. In the final wash-up, those crucial runs may just have won India that Test. His batting in the first innings at the MCG was curious, indicative perhaps of a man caught in two minds. Time to go...
Is there a more appropriate symbol of modern India than Virat Kohli, eyes blazing in perfect symphony with his flashing blade, refusing to bow to anybody and any situation? What Kohli will now have to embrace is the responsibility that comes with the ‘c’ next to your name. It’s all very well to stand up for your rights, correct perceived injustices and fight everybody else’s battles but when you’re the skipper, dignity and a calm demeanour might be the twin legacies he will wish to inherit from Dhoni.
The young tiger is hugely admired in Australia, such has been the artistry of his batting but there is the growing perception that his on-field persona is in marked contrast to his gracious presence off the playing arena. He needs to realise that as captain, he can no longer afford to charge headlong into every confrontation despite his fiercely competitive nature. In his case, pride may come before a suspension; India may well need to groom a suitable vice-captain because if Kohli continues to walk that fine line between refusing to take a backward step and defending India’s honour, he may well find himself on the sidelines. He could do worse than to take a leaf from Arjuna Ranatunga’s book — he stood his ground and refused to allow teams to bully Sri Lanka but you always got the sense that even his anger was measured.
Sydney will be an easy initiation for Kohli in some respects. Nothing to lose, everything to gain, in the form of his life and with a huge supporter base in the stands to cheer him on. Knowing Kohli, he will take this challenge head-on. Knowing the Aussies, and listening to the constant chirp from Brad Haddin and Dave Warner, they will test his patience to the limit. They bait him with being a spoilt brat, an insult he readily embraces. The constant refrain coming from the MCG sledges was “it’s all about you isn’t it?” As a leader of young men, Kohli will need to understand that in modern warfare, the leader doesn’t always have to take the first bullet. Sometimes, like Dhoni, he will need to learn to be Old India; a quiet dignity is not necessarily a sign of weakness or obeisance. For all his shortcomings, one cannot forget what Dhoni brought to the role — a statesman of steel, much respected by teammates and opponents.