On a sunny day in Dambulla, MS Dhoni ambled out for a practice session. The face was familiar, but the gait was not. The head was bowed down, and there was no rush in the strides.

Dhoni would have lost count of the times he hit the nets ahead of an international game under the burning sun. But Thursday was different. It was an optional session, it was three days ahead of an ODI – against a Sri Lankan team that may find it hard to even fantasise perturbing this Indian team – and, most crucially, it was under the shadow of the recent axe that has been hung over him.

Kedar Jadhav, Manish Pandey, Yuzvendra Chahal and Shardul Thakur were the others, apart from Dhoni, who decided to slug it out on a day it was not mandatory to. The four of them bring along a combined experience of 40 ODIs. Dhoni alone has donned the India blues in 296 ODIs. Every game is a lifeline for the four others to cling on to, as they strive to set off on the path Dhoni has set alight over the years. For Dhoni, it is a matter of prolonging his legacy - more so now that the luxury to wake up with an assured place in the Indian set up has isolated him.

The rust from the month-long break from cricket, while his peers played Test cricket, was a tad stubborn. Dhoni scratched around to start with. Yet, with time the class returned, as it always does with players with a special pedigree. Pacers, spinners, Indian pacers and spinners and local pacers and spinners were all toyed around with by Dhoni’s heavy blade.

By the end of the voluntary stint at the nets, Dhoni would have walked back with the familiarity returning to his gait. The confident end to the session would have brought back the comfort factor for him too. And, he would have hoped that the comfort would only grow with his time in the Lankan Islands.

Fitness mantra

But the bubble was punctured on Friday. India started off their practice session with an hour-long meet in which they spoke about the importance of fitness.

“First of all, talking about fitness, I think it’s really important for all of us to be fit. We spoke a lot about this. We had a meeting today. Everyone is really happy with this. From the senior-most guy like MS Dhoni to the youngest guy like Kuldeep (Yadav), we all agreed to this point,” Manish Pandey revealed. There was no need to take names, but the focus on Dhoni glared through.

In a team defined by youngsters, Dhoni stands out for being the eldest of the lot. Fitness was never going to be an issue for the young blood, and while Dhoni himself maintains supreme standards, it was another warning issued for the former captain of the Indian team. Another reminder that he is being watched, and that his clock could be ticking faster than the rest.

Dhoni’s future had shifted under the focus of the magnifying glass first when MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors, had bluntly expressed his views after the team had been announced. “You never know (about Dhoni’s future). We don’t say it is an automatic thing (selection) 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.”

Recent struggles

People have had the liberty to be vocal about India’s most successful one-day captain because he has been unrecognizable at times with the bat recently.

A month and a half ago, Dhoni was at the crease for nearly 37 of India’s 49.4 overs against the West Indies at North Sound. He faced 114 deliveries for his 54, and had just one hit to the fence. It was the fourth ODI, of the bilateral series India had till then expectedly bossed, and not red-ball cricket. Despite the snail-like pace of the knock, Dhoni should have taken India beyond the lowly target of 190. Instead, he fell with an over to spare, and the visitors fell short by four runs against a West Indies team that had failed to qualify for the Champions Trophy.

Dhoni may be one of the best batsmen one-day cricket has seen, but he was not always an aesthetic treat to the eyes. But on that July day in the Caribbean, his batting looked painful. In the era of T20 slam-bang, his batting had regressed by a few decades. It looked out of place. He looked out of place.

The Dhoni from a few years ago was one of the best finishers the world had ever seen. But it has been a while since the world cheered their lungs out for that version of Dhoni.

The murmurs about the reduced impact of the spell Dhoni can weave over opponents had commenced a few years ago. They had turned louder after an ordinary Champions Trophy trip. And, after the North Sound ODI that he failed to close, they had turned boisterous and direct.

Dhoni should understand

But it is a scenario that cannot be too alien to Dhoni. Three years before the 2011 World Cup, as the then India captain, he left out Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid from his one-day team. Both of them were former skippers and legends of the game.

Dhoni first played for the country under Ganguly and had taken over the leadership of the ODI team from Dravid. But that was not going to stop him from pursuing the blue print he had in mind as he built a team with an eye on the 2011 World Cup.

Back then, Dhoni was just a few months into his captaincy tenure. Yet, he had been ruthless with the most successful names in the history of Indian cricket.

VVS Laxman, on the other hand, never earned an ODI cap under Dhoni. In fact, he even rested Sehwag and Tendulkar during the tri-series in Australia four years later.

These decisions left Indian cricket in a state of shock. Dhoni chose results over reputation, runs, history, and sentiment. But , as they say, what goes around, comes around. Dhoni is the legend in the team now, while captain Virat Kohli has his blue print of the 2019 World Cup in mind.

Under the pretext of fitness, Kohli has already made his moves. Apart from the startling omissions of Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin among others, Yuvraj Singh does not feature in his side for the one-dayers against Sri Lanka that get underway on Sunday. And if Yuvraj can miss a berth on Kohli’s side – considering the personal bond they share – anybody can.

A decade ago, Dhoni had first dropped Dravid and later isolated Ganguly from his one-day plans. Similarly, Yuvraj’s exclusion may be a reminder for Dhoni that he may soon run out of the rope Kohli has reserved for him.

For the time being, though, Dhoni is Kohli’s man behind the stumps. The five ODIs and the T20I against Sri Lanka is his shot at salvation. It is his shot at reminding Kohli that he is still the best ’keeper-batsman the country has to offer, and that he is the best bet come England 2019.

And, while Dhoni is there, Kohli will want to continue to benefit from his past experience as the leader on the field. Apart from Dhoni’s genius-like suggestion to switch a bowler or move a fielder, the country will hope that his blade too sparkles like it is expected to, like it did against England at the Barabati Stadium in January.

Because Kohli may not have said it, but the writing is on the wall. It is as if the Indian captain has left a stopwatch in his predecessor’s kit bag. It is a constant reminder about the battle against time Dhoni was sent to fight even before the action starts in Dambulla on Sunday.