MS Dhoni has been captain of India in 53 Tests. Nobody has done the job more frequently and the team have won almost half of their matches.
Yet, like most of his predecessors, he has struggled to marshal his team away from the comforts of home. Of the 23 Tests on foreign soil, India have won only five, the last of them 15 matches and more than three years ago. Dhoni’s position remains inviolable, however. In Indian cricket playing terms he truly is the master of all he surveys.
His press briefing on the eve of the Investec Series was typically charming, friendly but uninformative. Dhoni cannot help but give the impression that he knows everything and that his interlocutors know nothing, possibly because it is more or less true.
“Stats are one thing that really tease cricketers, that you can play around a lot,” he said in reference to India’s poor record on the road. “There have been a lot of changes in the Indian side in the last one-and-half or close to two years.
“If you talk about the last two Test series that we played abroad – in South Africa and New Zealand – the performance of our team was really good. Though we lost both of the series, we were definitely in a position to win them.
“So I feel that there is plenty to learn for the cricketers, and if I compare between the first Test we played in South Africa and the last Test we played in New Zealand, there has been considerable improvement. It’s a right way of moving ahead.”
Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not. Dhoni suggested that India’s travails were caused by the lack of a seaming all-rounder and that they therefore have had to rely on a four-man bowling attack, usually comprising three seamers and a spinner. That is unlikely to change on this tour, and the days of Vinoo Mankad and, perhaps more pertinently, Kapil Dev must seem distant memories.
Although the pitches may be dry, Dhoni rejected the notion that India would be tempted to play two spinners. Their recent experience of English conditions persuades him that it would be redundant.
India lost 4-0 three years ago and with it their top spot in the Test rankings. Despite their poor record as tourists it is difficult to think that they will be whitewashed again in the first five-match series between the teams in England since 1959.
Their bowling, however, has not provided any early signs that it is capable of sustaining a two-innings assault. As recently as February in Wellington they led by 240 on first innings but then bowled impotently as New Zealand piled up a second-innings total of 680 for 8 declared. The pace of their attack is reported to be down, although of course a full house at a Test match may change all that.
Dhoni has seen it all and done it all and he long ago learned how to take the rough with the smooth. In light of this, he had some advice for his hard-pressed counterpart, Alastair Cook, on how to deal with the constant scrutiny.
“One way to do it is not to read newspapers and not to watch the television,” he explained. “But as a captain you need to keep coming to the press conferences. Once you are face to face with the media, they will ask these questions.
“It is a difficult job being the captain but you need to ignore many of these things and take the team in the right direction. But I feel that it will only improve him as a person and player.”