Where did things go wrong for India in the first one-day international in Sydney against Australia?

One reason could be allowing Australia’s middle order to score 93 runs in the final 10 overs of their innings to reach what then felt like a below par total of 288.

The other could be the fact two of the three highest scorers for this team in ODIs in the past year were back in the pavilion by the end of the fourth over. No run chase is going to be easy from there.

The third, and rightly or wrongly the most talked about factor in the aftermath of the defeat, is MS Dhoni’s 96-ball 51.

“I thought we could have done better with the tempo of the game,” was just one throwaway line in a fairly detailed post-match chat with Virat Kohli, where he touched upon the reasons for defeat.

That’s as close to a criticism as we are ever likely to get from Kohli when it comes to Dhoni’s strike-rate, one of the hottest topics of debate in Indian cricket in the last 12 months or even more.

Deja vu

When Dhoni walked into bat the required rate was 6.19 for India. When Dhoni was dismissed, unfortunate as it was with the ball pitching outside leg stump, the required rate was 8.27.

When Dhoni walked into bat, the scoreboard read 4/3 and he was dismissed after a 137-run partnership — comfortably the highest stand of the match, for both sides. Sure, Rohit Sharma scored 75 off those runs off 76 balls, but it was a partnership that kept India in contention.

Those are the facts.

But numbers, by themselves, never provide the full picture.

The truth is, we have been here before. Far too often in the recent past.

It seems Dhoni’s knocks go only one of two ways these days.

In one scenario, he comes out to bat late in the innings when the top three have scored the bulk of the runs and faced most of the deliveries. He has a free hand to swing his bat, sometimes he plays a cameo, sometimes it doesn’t work.

In the other scenario, he comes out to bat with enough overs left in the innings to get his eye in when the top order has a rare failure. He starts slow, the murmurs begin on social media. He uses up dot balls and finds it hard to rotate strike, the murmurs increase. He hits a big one out of nowhere, his fans find their voice — ‘see, this is what he can do. Vintage!’

He, however, ultimately gets dismissed at a crucial part of the run-chase, unable to catch-up the required rate.

That’s pretty much how his innings went down at the SCG on Saturday.

The last bit didn’t happen during the phase of his career where he was the best ODI finisher in the world. If one thing Dhoni did with alarming consistency, it was taking a run-chase deep and making sure he had the required rate always under his control. That’s rarely the case anymore.

We have all known this for a while. He’s not the same finisher he was. There’s nothing wrong, inherently, about that. Cricketers change, they evolve. The issue for Dhoni, of late, is that he starts slow despite losing the ability to play catch up at the end. If his acceleration at the end is not what it used to be, the adjustment should ideally come earlier in his innings, where for some reason, he seems to have lost the ability to rotate strike — something he used to do at will.

More scrutiny

Ultimately, Dhoni came out to play a specific role in Sydney on Saturday and for the most part, he did. It’s not easy to walk out with the scoreboard reading 4/3.

India didn’t lose the first ODI solely because of Dhoni’s innings. But, once again, we are left with the same debate. Once again, the discussion is about Dhoni’s place in this batting line-up, when you know there is a potential match-winner in Rishabh Pant lying in wait.

There is no right answer here, unfortunately. However, the fact that the debate won’t go away is an indication that something has to give. It is no longer a problem that India can just wait, and wait, and hope will vanish when the World Cup comes along.

If Dhoni is not going anywhere, as it looks likely at the moment, then he has to be followed by someone in the batting order who can do the catching up for him. And, at some level, Dhoni must (and in all likelihood, he has) realise that his approach needs a tweak — dot balls are not his best friends anymore.