Rahul Dravid giving up the captaincy just before the announcement of the Indian team which will take on Australia in a one-day series at home starting on September 29, the selectors had very little choice in front of them. They obviously could not give the job back to Sourav Ganguly (never mind if a television channel had garnered the largest number of votes in Gangulyís favour as the next captain in a straw poll conducted the moment Dravid had announced his decision to give up the job). And with Sachin Tendulkar saying in England, in the course of the ODI series there, that his body was taking more time to regain full vitality after every match, the choice could not have been anybody else but Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The appointment of Dhoni to the hot seat where he will lead the team against two of the toughest opponents in one-day cricket, first against world champions Australia, and then Pakistan, might well herald the emergence of a new Team India with an eye on the 2011 ODI World Cup.
The 12 matches (seven against Australia and five against Pakistan) will give the shape that Indian cricket will take in the future. If Dhoni can survive his baptism of fire then Indian cricket will be on the right track. But if he fails to deliver then it might take Indian cricket to a depth from where crawling out would be a Herculean task.
With three former captains in the Indian squad, Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly, coming towards the end of their careers, the time is just ripe for somebody like Dhoni to shape the future of the Indian team. There is a lot of talent in the country and it only remains to be seen how the new captain can marshal the resources (with a little help from the national selectors, who having given the job to him must back him to the hilt). The three veterans will have to go one day or the other. The question is when. But when they do decide to retire, Dhoni should have enough youngsters to walk into the slot vacated by them.
Given the state of Indian cricket, the selectors probably had no other candidate for the hot job other than Dhoni. The only other person who could have claimed the top job was Virender Sehwag, if only he had been in full form. But the Delhi cricketer is fighting to regain a place for himself in the Indian team. His time will come sooner or later given the high number of matches India are scheduled to play in the months ahead (and as Dilip Vengsarkar has indicated) but Sehwag, for the time being at least, cannot aspire for the hot seat.
That Sehwag was being groomed for the hot seat is no secret given the fact that his state, Delhi, had given him the job of captain of the Ranji team a couple of seasons ago with an eye on the future. But the Delhi batsman has not been able to deliver, even if he has the potential to make it big once again.
Dhoni becomes the first Indian captain to come from the backwaters of the country. ďFive years ago people would have laughed if anybody had said that a player from Jharkhand would be representing the country,Ē Dhoni has been quoted as saying. But not only has he represented India in style, fashioning quite a few victories on the way, he has also now been given the arduous task of leading India in a game which is more than just a game in the country.
A win could rocket the captain and his team to the top, while a defeat could see irate fans asking for more than just his head. Dhoni knows this very well and should be ready to pick up the bouquets and face the brickbats, if any, when they come.
But whatever be his performance as the captain, Dhoni is already a hot favourite with the fans. His flamboyant hairstyle (which has received the praise of no less a person than Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf), his smile and his lusty hitting have all drawn fans. He already holds the world record of the highest individual score by a wicketkeeper (183 not out off 145 balls against Sri Lanka at Jaipur in October, 2005), shares the ODI world record of six dismissals (five caught, one stumped) against England at Leeds during the just-concluded series against England and the Indian record of most sixes (10) in an ODI.
Now the world of Indian cricket is at his command and one waits with bated breath to see how he performs. His performance in the Twenty20 World Cup should not be the yardstick to judge him since it is a form of the game with which the Indians are yet to fully familiarise themselves. But even in this limited exposure, Dhoni has shown glimpses that he is a fit leader of men and needs time to finetune this ability.
But one question left unanswered in this epic drama of succession is: what was the tearing hurry for Dravid to give up the job, especially after his fairly successful tour of England when Indian notched up a series win against the hosts after decades. His failure with the bat had definitely been troubling him but that could not have been the only reason for him to give up the job, a job he had got after waiting for years in the shadow of his predecessor Ganguly. To say that he was not enjoying his captaincy, as he told the media a few days ago, was only half the truth. There is more than what meets the eye.
Dravidís first wish to give up the captainís job was made just after Indiaís miserable showing in the World Cup in the West Indies where the team was ousted in the first round itself. He was asked to continue and he did it with flair but his batting did suffer.
More important, Dravid was caught between the senior players (read Sachin and Ganguly) and coach Greg Chappell, who at that point of time was of the view that the senior players must make way for juniors if Indian cricket was to look towards the future. This tussle only harmed the team and the exit of the coach saw the team doing much better, as is evident by the Test series win against England.
But the strain on Dravid was obvious. Leading a team of insecure veterans and struggling youngsters who were trying to find their international feet was not an easy task. It had been made more difficult by the Board which left the team to fend for itself in a demanding tour. And in spite of the fact that in Chandu Borde the team did have a manager who could do the thinking but not carry them out on the field, one can understand the strain on the captain.
The division in the Indian team in England probably came to the fore in the final Test against England when Dravid did not enforce the follow-on with the hosts on the mat. The captain said the bowlers were tired but the very next day Zaheer Khan went on record to say that he was raring to go at the England batsmen once again but was not permitted to do so. This probably was the last straw that broke the camelís back and Dravid decided that enough was enough. It was no use staying the team captain if the team could not function as one unit and pulled in different directions.
To add to his troubles, his batting was going to pieces and a player who had a career average of about 50 in Test cricket was averaging under 30 in the games against South Africa and England. To a perfectionist like Dravid, this would not do and he probably then decided that he rather play the game to his personal satisfaction rather that succumb to the pulls and pressures of other members of the team.