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September 25 2018

Should India take a 37-year-old Dhoni to the 2019 World Cup?

- by Benny Thompson

At least in India, no one can escape the questions that come with passing an age milestone. When you cross 20, especially if you’re a woman, questions abound about when you’re getting married. A few more years, and assuming you got married, the questions turn to when you’re having kids.

As it turns out, you cannot escape the questions even if you’re the legendary Mahendra Singh Dhoni!

It is typical for Indian cricket fans and media alike to start urging players to retire as soon as they cross the 35-year mark (A lot sooner, in some cases). Dhoni is 37 and certain sections of fans are distinctly unhappy that he’ll be going for the 2019 ODI World Cup in England.

After chief selector MSK Prasad made it clear in 2017 that Dhoni is very much a part of the plan for the World Cup, many fans have been left dissatisfied. And Dhoni’s every move and miss has been scrutinized.

Take the ongoing Asia Cup. Before the tournament, there had been calls for the selection of Rishab Pant who had impressed in the Test series in England. Having got a century there, many believed giving him some playing time in the Asia Cup would’ve been good for him and India would also have a choice when it comes to picking a squad for the World Cup.

Make no mistake, India is not struggling for choices. Both KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik are in the squad and both are able wicketkeepers. If the Indian think tank decided to go with Dhoni, it’s because they have a game plan in mind. Of course, Dhoni’s performances in the two matches so far haven’t helped; he got out for a duck against Hong Kong and dropped a sitter from Shoaib Malik versus Pakistan. But knowing Dhoni, another epic performance cannot be far off. And it is better for India if he comes alive in the later stages of the tournament.

Dropping him altogether seems unnecessary and from the look of things, that is not happening. What can be made however is a change in the batting order? Right now, Dhoni comes in at No 5 or No 6 and is tasked with scoring big and adding runs on the board.

And the batting stats from his last 15 ODI outings show that it is not going according to plan. He has just 309 runs with only one 50+ knock. These 15 innings have featured 9 scores less than 20 and he managed to remain unbeaten only on 4 occasions. That hardly sounds like the Dhoni we know!

We have to admit that, at 37, he’s not the same force he once was and cannot plunder bowling oppositions right from the onset. So maybe the right thing to do is to push him up the order and let him come at No 4. Assuming Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan are the openers and with Virat Kohli at one down, Dhoni would be the ideal anchorman at No 4, required to steady the innings and rotate the strike in the middle overs ensuring that the scoreboard keeps ticking. This would also solve the eternal middle order conundrum that has plagued Indian cricket.

Maybe then Pant can also be included, at No 6, and if required the wicket-keeping gloves can be tossed to him too. Dhoni is still an extraordinary wicketkeeper (never mind Malik’s dropped catch, he took 2 other catches and made a stumping against Pakistan) but relieving him off the added responsibility would help him focus on his batting. Because what needs to be understood is that Dhoni should not be depended on for his mammoth sixes anymore. What he brings is a steady head, a world of calm and a plethora of experience.

There’s no doubt that there’s still a place for him in the Indian Starting XI. What needs to be zeroed in on is the exact spot. Once that’s sorted, it’s not too difficult to imagine the legend of a 37-year-old Dhoni, with white in his beard, ushering India ever closer to yet another World Cup triumph.

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