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MS Dhoni faces acid test in Sri Lanka ODI series with eye on 2019 ICC World Cup

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 19-08-2017

The lion may be the king of jungle, but elephants rule in the forests around the central Sri Lankan town of Dambulla, where the buoyant Indian cricket team starts a five-match One-Day International series against a struggling Sri Lanka on Sunday.

Drivers taking certain stretches around Dambulla in the night have eyes peeled for the big boys who sometimes decide to take over the roads. 

For Virat Kohli’s One-Day International squad, the series will start in earnest the build-up to the 2019 ICC World Cup in England and Wales, which is less than 24 months away. And all eyes will be on former skipper MS Dhoni, especially after chief selector MSK Prasad’s recent comments left an elephant-in-the-room tone.

Complete coverage: Sri Lanka vs India ODI series

© AFP

Under pressure

The suggestion by MSK Prasad, a former India wicketkeeper himself, that Dhoni, 36, will be in contention for the championship he won as skipper in 2011 only if he delivers consistently has put pressure on the senior-most member of the side.

“We don’t say it is automatic, this thing… but we will see. We are all stakeholders. We all want the Indian team to do well. If he is delivering, why not? If he is not, we will have to look at alternatives,” Prasad said.

The statement has brought extra pressure on a vital member of the squad building up for the 2019 World Cup, although MS Dhoni will be 38 when it comes around.

Prasad’s comments have caused confusion because there are no issues about Dhoni’s fitness as of now, his keeping remains sharp while vital inputs to Virat Kohli, who took over from him in January, from behind the stumps have been acknowledged by the skipper. Where MS Dhoni has been found wanting is in his famed role as a finisher.

Build-up time

However, the team composition does not reflect MSK Prasad’s comments. There is no second wicketkeeper with youngster Rishabh Pant, doing duty for India A in South Africa, not picked for this series.

India are unlikely to play more than 30 One-Day Internationals between now and the 2019 ICC World Cup, which has a May start. That means the national selectors face the challenge of giving MS Dhoni – his India appearances are limited --- enough games and at the same time stick to their rotation policy. 

The national selectors have slotted KL Rahul to bat at No 4. That leaves either the technically proficient, who is also the most versatile batsman after Virat Kohli, to take over at the top if Shikhar Dhawan or Rohit Sharma suffer a dip. Even Ajinkya Rahane, who finds his spot shaky, can step in if required.

However, India’s top-order is likely to be tested only while playing overseas, not in the sub-continent. And that is where MS Dhoni will also be required to marshal the middle-order batting, where Kedar Jadhav or young all-rounder Hardik Pandya don’t have the experience to handle pressure, like ‘Mr Cool’ has down the years. 

As of now, that appears the only box India would like to tick early in the World Cup build-up.

Familiar turf

Dhoni has seldom revealed his emotions, though he has acknowledged he is no longer the finisher of old. And his tortuous 54 off 114 balls, in the loss to West Indies at North Sound, Antigua in a 11-run defeat soon after the ICC Champions Trophy will keep experts wondering whether he will be a force when the 2019 ICC World Cup comes around.

READ | Seasoned India can now focus on bigger battles

However, India’s double World Cup-winning skipper can look forward returning to Dambulla. The last time India played here was in 2010, and Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan helped Sri Lanka extend their record against India here 7-4. Dhoni alone showed resistance, and was the only India batsman to get a half-century in that defeat.

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