With MS Dhoni, they say expect the unexpected. And so it happened on Saturday evening when a message on Dhoni’s Instagram page created a flutter across national media, sending sports anchors into a frenzied scramble for a piece of breaking news.
One of the most charismatic leaders the game has seen had just announced his retirement from international cricket.
You would say someone, with over 10,000 runs in limited overs cricket and three world titles under his belt ought to be serenaded on the shoulders of teammates like a certain Sachin Tendulkar.
There should be a farewell game which sees him stride out, one last time, to an assembly line of bats held up in deference to his incredible journey in cricket.
However, the man, as we know him, has never been about grandstanding. Though he commands a demi-god status in Indian cricket, MS isn’t one of those who would invite a media crew and bid goodbye with flashbulbs popping all around him.
Hence, it was hardly a surprise to those who know him well that he chose to finally get it off his chest away from the spotlight.
Well, now that it’s done and the media is agog with articles and shows glorifying the man, there isn’t much apart from MS Dhoni in the collective consciousness of a deeply obliged country.
However, it won’t be long before the focus shifts to a more pressing matter. Who will take Dhoni’s place as the finisher in limited-overs cricket? Who will take India past the finish line with 16 to get off 6 balls?
Well, the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. For a good part of his 16-year career, the Indian think-tank was so used to Dhoni doing the job that it didn’t consider grooming anyone else for the role, with an eye on the future.
Now, with Dhoni about to settle into a lazy and languid post-retirement life, Indian cricket stares at a future sans an accomplished and proven finisher.
The only other player who had a proven track record of getting India home from situations where all seemed lost was Suresh Raina. But he chose to follow in Dhoni’s footsteps barely minutes after the latter bid adieu to international cricket.
Though Ravindra Jadeja has shown good finishing ability in some close encounters, he hasn’t done it consistently enough to fill Dhoni’s void. His priceless 77 in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, albeit in a losing cause, and his unbeaten 66 in a tie against New Zealand in 2014 gave the cricket world a fair glimpse into his finishing skills.
However, with Hardik Pandya the preferred all-rounder now in limited overs cricket and ‘Kul-Cha’ (Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal) the preferred slow bowlers, Jadeja hardly gets a run in ODIs and T20Is these days.
For a spell, Kedar Jadhav was seen as someone who could be groomed into a finisher at number 4 or 5 in the batting order, but he fell out of favour with selectors after a run of poor scores.
With Mumbai batsman Shreyas Iyer now the preferred No. 4 for India in limited overs cricket, the selectors and the think-tank are perhaps looking at him to do the finisher’s job, going forward.
The 25-year-old seems to have settled into his role as was evident in the recent ODI series against New Zealand, where he scored three fifties back to back.
Former Karnataka Ranji captain Manish Pandey, who gets a look-in every now and then in limited overs internationals, has a reputation to finish close games in domestic cricket.
However, he needs more game time to be a success lower down in limited overs cricket. While Hardik and wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant can knock the cover off a cricket ball and clear boundaries at will, they haven’t yet displayed the temperament one would expect in a finisher in the Dhoni mould.
Mahi’s exit has left a big hole in the Indian late order and while there are several pretenders to his throne, it could some time before India gets its next Dhoni. Till then, the search continues.