Disinterested Dhoni's half-baked wicketkeeping leads India astray

 

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The Independent Online

For three years or more, everything that Mahendra Singh Dhoni touched turned to gold. These days, everything he tries to touch seems to end up on the floor. Bit harsh? Perhaps, but these are worrying times for the man who did the impossible by replacing Sachin Tendulkar as India's most talked about cricketer.

At least, one would hope these are worrying times. There have been occasions this summer – and, most recently, yesterday afternoon – when Dhoni has seemed to accept his team's fall from grace with not much more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Perhaps it is just his way of trying to stop the pressure from reaching mountainous proportions. But if ever there were a moment for him to gather his players and lay down the law in full view of friend and foe alike it occurred with England about to resume their first innings on 157 for 0.

Instead, Dhoni and his downcast crew drifted on to the field after lunch like men who knew that another game was already up and there was nothing they could do other than wait for the inevitable.

As captain, it is up to MS to set the tone – something he has done, quite brilliantly, on numerous occasions since leading an inexperienced Indian side to unexpected triumph in the inaugural World Twenty20 of 2007. But so far this series, save for a couple of hours in Birmingham on Wednesday afternoon, Dhoni has been a huge disappointment.

His captaincy has been straight up and down. True, his resources were badly hit from the moment Zaheer Khan limped towards the Lord's dressing room on the first afternoon of the series. But where were the imaginative bowling switches or the "make the opposition think" fielding changes during the two and a half Tests we have seen so far?

It is Dhoni's wicketkeeping though, that seems to typify an outfit that is either tired from too much cricket or unwilling to fight tooth and nail to protect a title as unsexy – at least to a majority of Indian cricket fans – as that of the world's No 1 Test team.

If the keeper is sloppy then there's a fair chance the rest of the fielding will be below par – and Dhoni has been sloppiness personified behind the stumps. True, he hasn't missed many edges, but then there have not been too many to miss. Even the most eagle-eyed observers though, have lost count of the number of routine takes that MS has messed up.

By the sky-high standards they set in Australia last winter, England's catching has been a cause for minor concern this series with perhaps eight chances going to ground.

Compared to India however, the home team's ground fielding, athleticism and sheer eagerness to save every possible run has been top class. It is hard to remember them putting a finger, or foot, wrong here whereas the visitors dived more in hope than expectation – when they dived at all.

So what is Dhoni to do about this? Duncan Fletcher, the grey-haired coach probably going greyer by the day, can talk tactics, try to raise spirits and bring in assistants like fielding specialist Trevor Penney until he is blue in the face. But what happens out in the middle is beyond his control.

On Wednesday afternoon, for the first time this series, Dhoni looked like a chap who was seriously fed up at being knocked about and wanted to give a bit back. And he did, with an innings of 77, but if ever there were a case of too little, too late, then that was surely it.

So how is India's so far abject surrender of a Test title being regarded back home? Not well, obviously, but according to most reports Dhoni remains immune from major criticism.

He has a huge amount of credit in the bank, having not only led India to that Twenty20 title in 2007 but also captained them to a wonderful World Cup triumph just a few months ago.

Dhoni could do no wrong. And while he cannot do much right at the moment, it may take a 4-0 whitewash for serious criticism to come his way. About a week and half's time, then?

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