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India's wicket-keeper conundrum

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MS_Dhoni_India_Cricket_Wicket-keeper"There is only one MS Dhoni at the moment." former New Zealand skipper and Chennai Super Kings Coach, Stephen Fleming was quoted as saying before the Champions Trophy. India have had the luxury of going into major tournaments and Test series knowing that the wicket-keeping gloves are safe on the hands of MS Dhoni.

The talismanic former Indian skipper had led the team with flair and panache in his time while contributing significantly with the bat. He revelled as India's finisher and go-to-man in tough chases, but his numbers have taken quite a beating in recent years. In 13 ODIs in 2016, Dhoni managed just 278 runs at an average of 27.80. In 10 ODIs in 2017, he averages 50.8 but a large chunk of that average is owing to a 134 from a grand total of 254 runs he has accumulated this year.

Compared to his tally and averages in the years preceding 2016, the numbers are underwhelming.

He totalled 764, 524, 753, 418 and 640 in years 2011-2015 in ODIs.

The Dhoni phenomenon is certainly on the wane as his numbers in 2016 and 2017 suggest. But with him set on playing the 2019 World Cup, the selectors are left with the arduous task of deciding if he is the right man to continue behind the stumps.

Early suggestions from the men in office are that India are looking at options other than Dhoni. Dinesh Karthik was called up to the ODI squad for the Champions Trophy after a stellar year in domestic One Day cricket. Rishabh Pant, expected to take over from Dhoni whenever he retires and on standby during the Champions Trophy, earned a place in the 15 member squad for the West Indies ODIs.

The inclusion of the duo is also based on their superb performances with the bat in domestic tournaments, but with Dhoni's no-show with the bat and less than assured air at the wicket, the Indian selectors have a real drama in their hands.

Add in the likes of Sanju Samson and Robin Uthappa who excelled in the IPL and Wriddhiman Saha, who has been excellent in Tests of late, and India have a plethora of options to keep wickets. Each of the aforementioned players has put forward their cases with good performances in the recent past. But as long as Dhoni is there, none of them are going to make it into the team other than as a pure batting option.

Let us take a closer look at the permutation and combinations in the hands of the selectors across all three formats.

- Wriddhiman Saha is the no.1 keeper in Tests and has earned the right to continue in that role. But with India scheduled to play a lot of overseas Tests in the upcoming years, a back-up keeper is a must and this is where Rishabh Pant could fill in. Dinesh Karthik has been good in One Day cricket but Tests are probably beyond him at this stage. Besides, Pant, who boasts of some incredible records in Ranji cricket, is the obvious heir and should get used to the team environment in Tests. Saha and Pant should be the keepers India will need to carry for their overseas tours.

- In ODIs, although Dhoni's numbers are underwhelming, there is no denying the superman that he is. The calmness and composure he brings to the team is beyond value and the time might be ripe to push Dhoni to a more prominent position in the batting order. That said, Karthik and Pant have deserved their call-ups and should remain next in line for openings in the batting line-up alongside Manish Pandey.

- T20 is a format where the selectors could ponder infusing young talent. Rishabh Pant, who is a natural striker of the ball, should be in the playing eleven going forward. Rohit Sharma's switch to no.4 at Mumbai Indians is also a welcome sign. He could play at 4 for India in T20s with Pant opening the innings alongside Dhawan.

Dhoni, if he wishes to continue in T20s, should come in as the finisher, although the idea of introducing Sanju Samson in the middle-order is tempting. Given the champion player he is, Dhoni might consider concentrating on the 2019 ODI World Cup and retire from T20s, opening doors for young talents in the country.

India will be overjoyed with their problem of plenty in terms of wicket-keepers, although how they use them would be instrumental in India's success across formats. It would be ideal for the selectors to sit down with MS Dhoni and chart a future plan for him that works for both parties.

The likes of Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson need to be given game-time. Including them in 15 member squads and not playing them in the starting eleven is the biggest mistake India could make. No amount of net sessions can match a real game and the future keepers need to be given ample opportunities.

Pant in particular is young and ready for success and needs to be blooded in different formats. The wicket-keeping conundrum is welcome but needs to be managed to avoid unnecessary controversy. 

 

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