MS Dhoni is back in the spotlight, and this time it is not in a movie theatre near you. Instead, it is for team India’s run-up to the 2017 Champions Trophy in England. You might wonder why, since that tournament is a good seven-plus months away. Why has this build-up begun already?

The answer is in the numbers. India play 13 Tests at home this season. They only play eight ODIs (and 3 T20Is). Five of those matches are going to be played now, against New Zealand, leaving only another three in January against England. By then it will be too late to experiment with available options, which means the team management needs to try out different players now.

Dhoni doesn’t like that word "experiment", though, and for good reason. “India is all about winning. Let’s be frank, people and the media only want the Indian team to win. So at the end of the day it becomes difficult. If you rest Virat Kohli or Ajinkya Rahane then there will be questions, what’s really happening?” he said in Dharamsala on Saturday.

It is not an odd statement to make, and perhaps a note to the new selection panel. While the likes of Kohli and Rahane continue to play, important names such as R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami are missing from the team sheet for the first three ODIs.


If India’s recent ODI history is taken into account (not the tour to Zimbabwe), then Australia (January 2016) and South Africa (November 2015) went on a merry run-fest against a full-strength bowling attack. In the light of those events, how prudent was it that India’s primary bowlers have been rested for the very first three ODIs of the home season?

Caught between a rock and a hard place

It is a tough task for Dhoni at the moment. On the one hand, he knows the gruelling schedule of the Indian team, and, indeed, the necessity of resting bowlers like Shami. On the other, he needs to keep delivering results in the limited-overs format. Otherwise questions will be asked, and this time not by a former chief selector on a news channel.

Let it be said here that India have a disappointing ODI record of late. You have to go all the way back to October-November 2014 to find a proper series victory. Since then, they have lost a tri-series Down Under, lost to Bangladesh (away), South Africa (home) and Australia (away). The two series wins in this duration have come against lowly Zimbabwe. The semi-final finish in the 2015 ODI World Cup is the only bright spark, but that already seems a long time ago.

With only two ODI series in the build-up to the Champions Trophy, Dhoni has a lot to play for: finding a team balance, unearthing new players for the middle-order, and winning. If Dhoni’s movie portrayed the obstacles he faced in his early days, now in the twilight of his international career, he is still walking a tough road.

The better team

On paper, they are the runners-up in the most recent ODI World Cup, and that alone makes them a formidable opponent. But a lot has changed since then, and it doesn’t have to do with Brendon McCullum’s retirement alone.

Kane Williamson commands a certain respect on the field, but he is still unproven in terms of results, especially coming on the back of a 3-0 thumping in the Test series. In that contest, the Black Caps were hamstrung by a combination of injuries, poor form and enforced team changes. The difference now is in the fresh blood injected in the team. Corey Anderson is back, and Tim Southee is fit again.

In individual parts, the Kiwis did well in the Test series. Luke Ronchi and Tom Latham were a revelation as they altered their respective games to suit the conditions here. The spinners – Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner – have prior experience of limited-overs bowling here, and the Tests ought to have enhanced that understanding.

The 2016 World T20 becomes a crucial reference point in this context. While the combination of Williamson and coach Mike Hesson was expected to display their collective shrewdness in the Test series, it didn’t materialise. The limited-overs arena allows them to express themselves better, especially given the absence of India’s premier bowlers and weary pitches. The question is whether as a team they can recover from the crushing loss in the Tests.

India’s Eleven

In the pre-match press conference at Dharamsala, Dhoni spoke about the need to personally continue batting in the lower-middle order, and shore up India’s finishing. It cannot be doubted that his powers are on the wane, and the team management must look for alternate options. Rishi Dhawan and Gurkeerat Mann struggled in Australia, but Manish Pandey made a case with a fighting hundred in Sydney. Hard-hitting Kedhar Jadhav could also get a look-in.

With Suresh Raina missing due to illness, Mandeep Singh and Hardik Pandya are both available for the all-rounder’s job. It is one aspect that this selected team looks rich in – players who can both bat and bowl. There are also Axar Patel and Jayant Yadav, who can both throw their bats around if needed.

The selectors have done a decent job providing numerous bowling options for Dhoni to choose from. Now it is for the captain to show some confidence in his players, something he has been reluctant to do, on evidence of the series against Australia and South Africa.

Our suggested eleven (in batting order): Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Manish Pandey, Hardik Pandya, Amit Mishra, Axar Patel, Dhawal Kulkarni, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah.