Adelaide: Let us do a basic calculation. The Sydney ODI was Indiaâ€™s last one until the 2016 IPL season. The Men in Blue are scheduled to play three T20Is at home against Sri Lanka after returning from Australia, and then fly away to Bangladesh to play the Asia Cup (T20 format this time around). Thereafter the World T20 comes over.
As things stand, their next 50-over assignment will probably be the tour to Zimbabwe in the summer. Herein comes a straight-faced question: Has MS Dhoni played his last ODI for India?
The shadow of this question hung over the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday. Of course, the man himself had nothing to show for it. He was busy finding a way out of another frustrating performance by the Indian bowlers, though surprisingly upbeat towards the end about the impressive debut of Jasprit Bumrah. Yet, 331 was never going to be an easy target.
The powers that be played a part and put up a situation perfectly suited for Dhoni. If it was indeed his ODI swansong, it needed an ending in his trademark style. There were a couple obstacles though; his own waning powers and Indiaâ€™s meek lower order that collapsed miserably in Canberra. The skipper admitted thinking as much when he came out to bat.
â€œI started slowly, considering what happened in Canberra. I didnâ€™t want to play the big shot and take chances, because after me there were only Gurkeerat Mann, Ravindra Jadeja and Rishi Dhawan,â€ he said later. â€œThe good thing was that Manish Pandey was set at the other end.â€
Aah, Pandey! There was a certain â€˜passing of the batonâ€™ about the circumstances in which he took India home. Throughout the series, they had struggled to finish from advantageous positions, and the skipper talked about grooming youngsters in these situations, whilst taking responsibility until one of them put his hand up. And it just so played out that Pandey did it, that too in Dhoniâ€™s company.
Many will remember how he started off slow, and how he wasnâ€™t there when Pandey hit the winning runs. Not many will consider his inimitable nuance of reading the game though; yet again he took it to the final over and the bowler blinked, when he deposited that six over long off immediately after the wide ball. But for those six runs, it would have finished 5-0 to Australia.
When India finally won, the skipper wasnâ€™t around to grab his customary â€˜stumpâ€™ souvenir. You wanted to see some sign, maybe an emotional hint, but Dhoni isnâ€™t an open book. He played without much ado; he left the field in similar manner, not even raising his bat to the wild contingent of Indian fans crowding in front of the pavilion.
Last ODI or not, he isnâ€™t coming back to Australia, thatâ€™s for sure.
Perhaps it was too much of a build-up and there was indeed the expected question, immediately as the post-match press conference began. â€œIs this the last we have seen you in the Indian ODI jersey?â€
There was a smile. Dhoni had anticipated this moment, if not the first question itself. He looked at the teamâ€™s media manager, and asked innocently, â€œWill you answer this or should I?â€ And then added, his wide toothy grin in place, â€œFile a PIL (public interest litigation) to find out!â€
It was a nothing answer, absolute zilch. For someone who is very proficient at hitting big, this was yet another dead bat to the usual press conference bouncer. There isnâ€™t one he cannot handle from the media. Even so, that â€˜media manager momentâ€™ was odd.
About twenty minutes later, a BCCI media release arrived in the mailbox. It induced memories of that 2014 evening in Melbourne, when the Indian skipper had called time on his Test career. It was an eerily similar moment, and yet, this was different because of the anticipation that this could be his last ODI. Dhoni doesnâ€™t work as per othersâ€™ whims and fancies. As it turned out, the email contained an audio clip, the customary routine of sharing the press conferenceâ€™s recorded file.
At the time of writing, almost 24 hours later, there has been no declaration of intent or otherwise. Perhaps there is unfinished business this time, for T20s are part of the limited-oversâ€™ skill-set unlike Tests. And thus, now we can start moving on from the central theme, and break it down to smaller yet relatively important ones.
Dhoni has been named skipper until the end of the World T20. Given that India have not won a single ODI series under his leadership dating back to the tri-series in Australia last year, it is expected that the captaincy will pass on to Virat Kohli in the next international season. Will he continue to play under a different skipper? What will his role be, if so?
He displayed amply in Sydney that he still possesses the awareness to read the match situation, despite admitting that his batting powers are on the decline. â€œI find it difficult to come out and hit the ball straightaway, so I need to bat a few overs. I will have to adapt my batting accordingly, because batting lower down the order is my responsibility until we find proper nos. 5, 6 and 7. So I will try to adapt for the coming ODIs or whatever matches I will be playing,â€ Dhoni had said.
That last sentence ought to be taken in proper light. Only T20Is lie ahead, but even for the next ODI India plays in the distant future, there is a case for him to stick around. That partnership with Pandey saw Dhoni play second fiddle, but he honed the youngster enough, allowing him to finish the match in style. â€œI told him to run hard between the wickets, make the runs count on this big ground, and that boundaries will eventually come,â€ said the skipper. And indeed, they did come.
Given the inexperience of Indiaâ€™s newfound youth brigade, this ought to be his last role for the team, sans captaincy responsibilities of course. The new ODI team management, when it takes shape, needs Dhoniâ€™s match-finishing prowess to be imprinted on this batch of youngsters and they have until the 2017 Champions Trophy (in England) to do that, thus preparing a roadmap for the ODI World Cup (also in England) two years hence.
Yes, take a year, and groom the likes of Pandey, Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan, like he has himself talked about repeatedly. Build up Ravindra Jadejaâ€™s confidence further and make him more match-aware so that he doesnâ€™t repeat the embarrassment in Canberra again.
All of this, though, is dependent on that one fundamental question. An answer known only to Dhoni himself, and he wonâ€™t say anything unless it is finally time to bid farewell.