These are fascinating times for Indian cricket. In Test cricket, the Virat Kohli era continues its upswing with the team reclaiming the ICC Test Championship mace following a 3-0 sweep of New Zealand; for the record, the third time under Kohli that India have been the top team in the five-day format. The success of Kohli’s team has, apparently, reignited the public’s interest in Test cricket. Ten Test matches remain in what is Indian cricket’s busiest home season ever. It is wonderful to imagine what this team could achieve before April 2017.
All this, against the backdrop of a long drawn out legal tussle between the BCCI and the Supreme Court appointed Lodha Committee, and in a season in which the Indian cricket board has doubled match fees for its Test cricketers. Where do the board’s priorities lie? It’s not so clear.
And now, as things go in these times of packed cricket, there is the small matter of five ODIs sandwiched between the Tests with New Zealand and England. And here is a lovely sub-plot to the bigger landscape of Indian cricket in 2016. MS Dhoni returns to lead India for these five matches against Kane Williamson’s team, with Kohli readily slipping back into the role of the ODI team’s best batsman at No 3, a position where he has scored over 5000 runs at an average of 52.27 and strike-rate of 90.72. It will be a while before Kohli is appointed captain of India in all formats, but rest assured he will resume his jaw-dropping penchant for plundering runs in a blue jersey.
Back to Dhoni, the more intriguing case study of the two superstars. He is 35, but looking the slimmest he has been in a while. The keenly awaited biopic on him released recently and its box office returns also seem on course to set a few milestones, like the man himself. It won’t be able to break records like the releases of the big Khan trio of Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir but in its own way, the film has set a new benchmark for its leading actor. Sort of like Dhoni, who carved a name for himself in a landscape dominated by Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and Sehwag.
Yet despite the film and the sudden spike in TV commercials featuring Dhoni – some of which are old ones – it is unmistakable that the buzz has shifted from him to Kohli, the hottest property in Indian cricket. And here is where watching Dhoni could prove captivating.
India’s next limited-overs assignment is not until the middle of January, when the first of three ODIs against England starts in Pune. Those are followed by three T20Is against the same team, and then it is back to Tests against Bangladesh (one) and Australia (four). Immediately after that is the IPL. These five matches with New Zealand across the next two weeks are Dhoni’s chance to stay relevant on the cricket field, before Kohli resumes charge of the Test team, and also to elevate the ODI team’s status.
Let it not be forgotten that while in the Test arena the Indian team has risen over the past year to become No 1, the graph for the ODI team in the same time has dipped downwards. Since exiting the 2015 World Cup with defeat to hosts Australia at the SCG on March 26, 2015, India have won 10 of 19 ODI matches, three of which came over a hopeless Zimbabwe in June. This run includes series defeats to Bangladesh, South Africa and Australia.
Dhoni the batsman is on the wane, as happens with age and an insane number of kilometers clocked to send the latest FitBit fitness band into hyperventilation. Whether the time away from cricket – he last appeared as captain for two hastily arranged T20Is in Florida in August – has been well spent remains to be seen. For cricket’s sake, many will hope that Dhoni the cricketer trumps Dhoni the film promoter come October 16.
Five ODIs – traditionally the format that draws the biggest crowds in India – in the middle of two Test series, with the leadership being swapped between two of Indian cricket’s biggest superstars. Suddenly Tests appear the flavor, and so it will be interesting to see what reaction these five matches get. Will Dhoni’s appeal have increased with his film doing well in cinemas? Will the success of the Test team draw more fans to stadiums in Dharamsala, Delhi, Mohali, Ranchi and Visakhapatnam?
India are fourth in the ICC ODI Championship, three points behind New Zealand at third. If they win 4-1, they will swap places. Williamson’s side is a tougher prospect in this format, in which Martin Guptill transforms into a different batsman – he struggled in the Tests – and the likes of Corey Anderson, James Neesham and Anton Devcich bring a certain je ne sais quoi. They will not be pushovers, this New Zealand team. India are without R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja for at least the first thee ODIs, remember.
Five ODIs between two bumper Test series. In times past, this could be excused as a sideshow. In this case, not so much.