Even in the days when there were only two formats - Tests and ODIs - the Indian thinking on captaincy remained conservative. It was the same captain for both formats. Other countries were more flexible and adapted to changing times and situations. For example Steve Waugh was still around in 2003 and leading the Test side but it was Ricky Ponting who led Australia to a second successive World Cup triumph in South Africa that year.
India did make a break with tradition in 2007 for even as the Test captaincy passed from Rahul Dravid to Anil Kumble that year it was MS Dhoni who led India to a famous victory in the inaugural T20 World Cup in South Africa. But perhaps this came about because the senior players gave notice that they wouldn't be playing in cricket’s newest and shortest format. This opened the door for Dhoni who then went on to lead India to victory in the CB Series Down Under in 2008 even as the Test captaincy stayed with Kumble.
Dhoni became the regular Test captain following the retirement of Kumble and not unexpectedly he continued to lead the team in ODIs and T20 internationals too. Under his captaincy the team achieved a unique treble - victory in the T20 World Cup, victory in the Fifty50 World Cup and a rise to the top spot in the Test rankings. That was the time Dhoni could do no wrong. He was the man with the Midas touch. He could walk on water. He was the monarch of Indian cricket and in endorsement appearances and raking in the money he even outshone Sachin Tendulkar.
He certainly deserved all the acclaim. His captaincy was marked by innovative touches. He took calculated gambles and they all magically came off. His enterprising leadership was one big reason behind the successive Indian triumphs for to be candid it was not an all-conquering Indian side that he led. There were weaknesses in the bowling and fielding and Sourav Ganguly and Kumble had just retired even as he became the regular captain.
However over the last year or so much of Dhoni's charisma has waned. Thanks to successive setbacks in all three formats his leadership style has come for closer scrutiny and the experts all agree that while the skipper alone can’t be blamed when there are failings in all departments of the game there has been a palpable change in his approach to captaincy. The intuitive approach that was the hallmark of his captaincy is not there anymore. He has become less of a gambler and much more orthodox in his strategy. He has become diffident and tactically he tends to be more conservative. Like his batting, his captaincy too tends to be defensive. This is alarming for he is both a natural striker of the ball and a born leader.
The first signs of hesitancy were seen in the third and final Test against West Indies last year. Left with an eminently gettable target of 180 in 47 overs Dhoni promptly shut up shop when India were 94 for three. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were at the crease and Dhoni and Virat Kohli had yet to bat. Just 86 runs off 15 overs with seven wickets in hand should normally have been a piece of cake for a team that had won the World Cup three months before. Moreover the team members had played a lot of Twenty20 cricket thanks to the IPL. But Dhoni chose the comfort of a 1-0 series win and was rightly pilloried by the media. The Indian slide from the No 1 spot can be traced to that day at Dominica and thereafter Dhoni's leadership has been more inflexible.
Perhaps the string of defeats has led to the change in Dhoni's approach. Perhaps the nonstop cricket has made him a bit stale in his thinking. And perhaps the time has come to take some load off the enormous pressure on him for some time now. Yes, the time has come to follow England's approach and appoint different captains for the three formats. I am sure even Dhoni would welcome this move. Let him continue as Test captain while the ODI reins can be given to Suresh Raina and the T20 reins can be handed to Virat Kohli. That way a road map can be set for the future.
Raina who turns 26 next month has already led India in ODIs and has been impressive in his handling of bowlers, setting the field and encountering challenging situations. There is little doubt that Kohli is a future Indian captain and he is already being groomed for the top job. Under the circumstances he should be put in charge of the T20 squad right away. If he can bring the confidence of his batting into the captaincy - and there is every reason to believe that he will - he is bound to be a success. Kohli who turns 24 in a month’s time is a natural leader and if any proof is needed it is clearly provided by the World Cup Under-19 triumph under his leadership four years ago.
Handing over the captaincy to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir - and they have their own credentials and supporters - would constitute short term solutions. And in any case both have been struggling for runs for quite a while now. The need of the hour is a long term solution and towards this end the elevation of Raina and Kohli would be moves in the right direction and send out positive signals. In this scenario one could also see a much relieved Dhoni lead with a renewed vigour in Tests. He is only 31 and has much to contribute as leader and if his mind is not cluttered with too much to handle. Dhoni the enterprising and successful captain could well be reborn.