India versus South Africa, over 40.1: Jasprit Bumrah bowled to Andile Phehulukwayo, a full delivery that hit him on the back-foot and the bowler went up in appeal. Umpire Paul Reiffel said no, but the real attention was on what was going on behind the batsman.

Virat Kohli (standing at slip) appealed along with the bowler, whilst walking towards the umpire, and then looked back, appealing still, almost to MS Dhoni, as if he needed approval to go for a DRS review. On air, Sanjay Manjrekar said, “He has to look back at him for the final sanction!”

The commentary was in jest, but clearly, Kohli was not convinced without Dhoni’s opinion. He asked Bumrah if the ball had clipped bat, or was simply going down leg. Then, he turned to Dhoni and asked again. The former captain wasn’t quite convinced himself either, but agreed for the review. Kohli went up and the decision was over-turned in Bumrah’s favour.

Dhoni Review System

This happenstance sits in well with a joke going around on social media – the Dhoni Review System. Put it simply, the former Indian skipper is one of the finest readers of the game, and his heightened awareness behind the stumps is unmatched among contemporaries. Let it be said here that when it comes to judging DRS, Dhoni is miles ahead of many keepers, certainly ahead of both Wriddhiman Saha and Parthiv Patel.

The duo had given some grief to Kohli during the long 2016-’17 Test season, when it came to going for DRS referrals. Unlike in the ODI arena, when Dhoni made firm calls against England (in January), there was nothing definitive coming forth from Saha or Patel during the Tests. In fact, it was the singular reason that, time and again, his spinners hoodwinked Kohli into going for DRS reviews and team India lost them early in the innings on a number of occasions.

Now, consider this. During the India-Sri Lanka game last Thursday, in the 20th over, Jadeja had a huge lbw shout turned down against Kusal Mendis. Like most times, the spinner went on appealing and as the umpire said no, he was searching for Kohli to perhaps signal for DRS. In the meantime, Dhoni simply walked up to fetch the ball and threw it back to the bowler – end of story. There was no meeting to discuss the decision, or whether to go for the review since Jadeja was convinced. In the near future, when Dhoni is no longer around keeping wickets, India are likely to waste their one-allowed DRS review in a similar instance.

Dhoni commands a certain respect on the field (IANS)
Dhoni commands a certain respect on the field (IANS)

Truth told this isn’t about judgment of DRS alone, though. Dhoni commands a certain respect on the field, one that even Kohli – unmatched in stature as an Indian cricketer already – cannot deny him. He may have given up captaincy, but there is still certain aura about Dhoni, a magnetism that manifests itself whenever he takes the field, now as a simple member of the team.

It naturally flows from the timely decision he made to relinquish captaincy to Kohli at the turn of this year. There is some room for debate about whether Dhoni should have been Test captain until 2014-’15, but he judged his departure from the longer format aptly as well. If there was any way he could have outdone himself, it was in judiciously deciding when to completely hand over the reins to Kohli. That it happened after the gruelling-yet-easy Test series win over England is, on hindsight, no longer a surprise.

The age of Kohli

That series will go down as the establishment of Kohli as the alpha male of Indian cricket. Runs flowed from his bat in abundance, the team gelled as a unit under his leadership and raked up come-from-behind victories with ease, and it was as if England had lost because of their admiration of Kohli. That he was systematically targeted by the Australian team and their traveling media (even their former cricketers/administrators chipped in) later on was ample evidence of this.

By the end of 2016, this Indian team belonged to Kohli, period. If there was an ever example of how quickly a bunch of players seamlessly moved on from one leadership to another, this was it. To Dhoni’s credit, he recognised this aspect and stepped back. It also underlines his own comfort in this late stage of his career. At most, he has two years to play at the international level (assuming he maintains his fitness and form). Dhoni knows this, and wants to enjoy his time, naturally, like every other cricketer.

At that crucial juncture of the passing of the captaincy baton, the Kohli-Dhoni relationship has become one of respect and space. By stepping down of his own accord, the latter gets the long rope he deserves as a pure keeper-batsman. At the same time, the former can earn his stripes under the watchful eyes of an elite Indian captain, probably the finest of all time in limited-overs’ cricket. It is this aspect that is most visible on the field.

Kohli has identified where Dhoni is most comfortable in the batting order. To the outsider, it may be as simple as saying that he should bat at No 4 and guide the lower order, maybe even nurture the next great Indian finisher. It isn’t as simple.

Old habits die hard, and Dhoni has spent his entire career shepherding the finishing overs on his own. In the twilight of his career, it would be unbecoming of him to simply move up to a more comfortable spot, and put this tremendous load on someone else. As such, he bats at No 5, where he holds the late order and anchors the death overs in keeping with his now-waning ability, agreeable to the team management.

Kohli has identified where Dhoni is most comfortable in the batting order (AFP)
Kohli has identified where Dhoni is most comfortable in the batting order (AFP)

Dhoni too has identified that Kohli is a completely different character as leader. At times, a cricketer might be firebrand solely as player, but leadership can have a mellowing effect. Not Kohli, though, for he has infused his enthusiasm (putting it mildly) onto the team. So much so, the Test team looks completely different in body language from Dhoni’s era, and the ODI team is starting to look the same.

Learning from mistakes

In turn, Kohli has been left along to learn on his own, even from his mistakes. The keenest example of this was in the Lanka game itself, when Kohli had to go to Dhoni and ask what options were available to him, as the game started to drift away from India. It was then that Dhoni suggested using part-time options, including Yuvraj Singh, Kedar Jadhav and even Kohli himself.

“His input is obviously always very precise, very helpful at any stage of the game,” said Kohli after the intense win over South Africa. “In the last game [against Lanka], he mentioned about the part-timers. [Today], it was all about asking him whether to keep the slip in there long enough, what he thinks of the fields, and just taking assurance.”

This little phase of Indian cricket, whilst Dhoni is still around and Kohli comes of age as limited-overs’ captain, is a serious amalgamation of two extreme individuals. One is a livewire, on the field and off it; in everything he does in fact, and wears his heart on the sleeve. The other is, arguably, the most reserved cricketer to ever come out of India; never betraying his thoughts, not once losing cool in the tightest of situations.

To borrow from George RR Martin then, this Dhoni-Kohli relationship is a song of ice and fire.