Mahendra Singh Dhoni walked in to bat at no. 6 in Rajkot on Saturday, with the scoreboard reading 67/4 in the 10th over. India need 130 runs from 65 balls, a required rate close to 12. Sure, Virat Kohli was batting like a dream at the other end, but that is an equation that was, perhaps, already out of India’s reach on a pitch that took more turn in the second half than the first. By all accounts, India’s fate was sealed when Trent Boult took two wickets in the second over and Shreyas Iyer and Hardik Pandya went back to the pavilion in the space of four balls. So, let’s not pin the 40-run defeat on Dhoni’s struggles when he came out to bat.

Now that we have established that, his 37-ball 49 in the second T20I against New Zealand summed up why India’s favourite wicket keeper-captain-batsman is well past his best in the shortest format. Had Dhoni reached his second half-century for India in his 82nd match, it could have been a very awkward moment to raise his bat and acknowledge the inevitable applause from his adoring fans.

Too many dot balls

Let’s rewind the 14th over of India’s chase. Dhoni is batting on 8 off 9 balls – rotating the strike since he came in, with Kohli looking imperious at the other end. The equation then read 100 runs off 42 balls. Ish Sodhi comes in to bowl. The first ball is a beauty. He tosses it up, lures Dhoni out of the crease, beats him with flight and turn but the wicket-keeper is unable to effect the stumping, concedes two byes.

Perhaps sensing that he is on borrowed time anyway, Dhoni clobbers the second ball – a loopy, over-pitched delivery – over long on for a six. 8 runs off the first two balls with the run rate required creeping towards 15, is a good start. Now it was either time to capitalise or let Kohli do the rest. What followed were three dot balls by Dhoni, where he tried to desperately look for a quick single but was unable to get the ball anywhere in the gap. And he ended up taking a single off the last ball, retaining the strike and more importantly, keeping Kohli away from the bowlers for a full over and the first three balls of the next.

Now that’s five dot balls in the space of six deliveries that not just prevented Kohli from providing a much-needed momentum, but ended up driving the required rate past 15 runs per over. When Kohli was dismissed two overs later, Dhoni was on 25 off 23 balls, having hit two sixes. Which meant he had scored 13 runs off the remaining 21 balls.

While it looked bad on the man’s unquestionable finishing ability, this is exactly what have come to expect from Dhoni these days. It’s been well established that he is not the guy who will go wham-bham-thank you ma’am from the very first ball – he has not been that for a long time now. He is the guy who takes time to get his eye in, willing to let his early strike rate dip, knowing that once he gets going, he can play catch up. His T20I strike in the last two years is a healthy 132, above his career strike rate. But that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that he has consistently struggled to rotate strike against spinners (not just in the shortest format).

Santner, for instance, strangled him during the five-match ODI series in 2016, drying up the easy singles for Dhoni in the middle overs in Delhi and Ranchi during not-so-tough run chases that eventually proved to be turning point in New Zealand winning those matches. The story was the same in the World T20 match against Black Caps as well. With the rest of his top order walking back to the pavilion in no time, Dhoni went into a shell against Sodhi and Santner, scoring 30 off 30 balls in a match India couldn’t chase down 126 on a turning track.

Time to look for Dhoni’s replacement in T20Is?

In the recent past, Dhoni has showed signs of evolving into a different kind of middle order batsman in ODIs – more conservative, a watchful protector instead of an exploding marauder, an enabler rather than a finisher. He has changed his pads to enable him bend his knee more, to rotate the strike against spinners. He has introduced a shuffle to his stance to counter the hit-the-deck hard strategy of faster bowlers.

Now, all this works fine in the 50-over format where Dhoni would invariably have the time to get his eye in first and then get going. And with the 2019 World Cup in mind, along with Kohli’s relative lack of experience captaining in that format, Dhoni has built a strong case for him to be persisted with as the wicket-keeper, an useful if not explosive middle-order batsman and the mentor for a learning captain in ODIs.

But is the same true in the shortest format? He doesn’t hold the same value as an advisor to the guy who has captained his franchise in the IPL for a considerable amount of time and he is, for the lack of a better word, a liability in run-chases where the required rate is high. And there is no major T20I championship in the horizon, where the men in blue require his services. Even his exploits in IPL with the Rising Pune Supergiant(s) in the past two seasons, with the bat, have been few and far between – with the occasional big-hitting display when the criticism grows from whispers to murmurs.

It’s been a while now that Dhoni has struggled in the shortest format. While there is no reason to look beyond him for the World Cup in 2019, it is not too soon to start looking at his successors in T20Is.