As many as 14 overseas Tests without a win would put a shade of remorse on the face of any cricket captain. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, though, has been unlike most skippers in contemporary international cricket. For far too long, his calm demeanor has defined him irrespective of worrying on or off-field events. Now, the 'composure' seems to be on the brink of coming apart. (Team India blasted for chaos in New Zealand)
The Indian team has now been without a victory away from home in 14 Tests. The tour to New Zealand was expected to come as a respite - a warm-up before the World Cup in 2015. Instead, grey strands on Dhoni's shaggy beard has only seemed to increase after a 4-0 ODI loss and a 1-0 Test defeat. Excuses have come fast. Solutions have seemingly evaporated. (After ODI's, Dhoni blasts bowlers | After Tests, Dhoni blasts batsmen)
Rickety bunch of rookies
That the Indian team looked jaded in both formats of the game has been clearly exposed by a spirited Kiwi side. For Dhoni, the tour was like a 'study tour' with an eye on giving exposure to the newbies in the side. "It's good exposure for them," he had said before the tour, referring to the youngsters in the side. "The grounds here are a very different shape. Overall it'll be a fantastic tour for all the guys." Most in his team though would now agree that this tour was anything but fantastic! (Recap: Read full report here)
The likes of Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Varun Aaron, Stuart Binny and Cheteshwar Pujara failed to stand out and dominate the opposition. So, while New Zealand had several stellar individual performances - Brendon McCullum's 302 in 2nd Test, Kane Williamson's five fifties and Ross Taylor's back-to-back tons - India failed to fight fire with fire. And Dhoni was left trying to douse the flames that threatened to engulf India's formidable ODI and Test team ranking.
Leading Team India down the ranking ladder
India began the tour to New Zealand as the best ODI and the second-best Test team in the world. The team eventually gave up its position at the top of the ODI table and now is at the mercy of a South Africa turnaround vs Australia to save its Test spot. (Also read: India maintains No.2 Test spot, barely)
The journey from the tour to South Africa has not been too long but the hunt for an overseas win in Tests has been arduous. Since beating West Indies by 1-0 in 2011 in the Caribbean, India have lost four successive Test series away from home - 4-0 to England in 2011; 4-0 to Australia in 2011-12; 1-0 to South Africa in 2013-14 and 1-0 to New Zealand in 2013-14.
The lead in the rankings' table therefore, has also steadily reduced which has put a question-mark on India's dominance in on-field cricket and Dhoni's ability to extract the most from his players.
King at home, pauper abroad?
For someone who steered India to a World Cup win, World T20 triumph and glory in Champions Trophy, Dhoni has been India's stand-out leader for sure. But just as every success deserves accolades, repeated failures must also have penalties.
Dhoni's overseas record as skipper has gone from bad to worse. (Read: Dhoni is India's worst Test skipper, now confirmed) With wins on foreign soil eluding the side for over three years, Dhoni has appeared clueless with his group of wandering warriors. That he has become the Indian skipper with the most overseas Test defeats - 11, has clearly led to growing calls for him to step down and concentrate on the other two formats of the game. Like in the Board of Control for Cricket in India though, change in the top-hierarchy of the national team is a tabooed idea. India does not believe in what at least three cricket superpowers - Australia, England and South Africa - believe. It's split captaincy.
And with Asia Cup and World T20 scheduled in the coming two months, Dhoni can hope for a change in fortunes under the protective shelter of playing in the sub-continent (Bangladesh)!
Hunting for inner peace in cricket's cacophony
Legends of the game are hardly bogged down by conditions, venues and oppositions. Perhaps, Dhoni may well be missing the experience of having the likes of Sachin Tendulker, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in the side.
With focus on blooding the young, India's bruises have only deepened and Dhoni must be hurting the most. What must also be hurting the 32-year-old is the fact that his name is directly or indirectly always in the headline for the wrong reasons - be it the future of his IPL franchise after its Team Principal's alleged involvement in betting or his conflict of interest due to apparent 'stakes' in a sports management firm. (Read: CSK's future in doubt as Meiyappan found guilty of betting by IPL probe panel)
In fact even when abroad - especially when abroad, it is only obvious that news from home would only add to the anxieties whether Dhoni shows it or not. Although Indian cricketers are made out to be demi-gods, Dhoni is a mortal and must be getting bogged down due to off-field controversies. As such, on-field performance is bound to suffer.
The long road to redemption, or retirement
From where Dhoni stands today, there are only a few options ahead. Starting from the most viable, he steps aside as Test skipper and lets Virat Kohli take over. (Read: Virat only bright light in dismal NZ tour) While this will surely not guarantee overseas win, it will ease the pressure on him and help him - and therefore India, in the limited overs' format.
The second is that he continues to lead in all three formats but puts an end to a 'club culture' in Team India wherein reserve players hardly get to play on tours. An extended long run to non-performers in the side, irrespective of their potential and repute, cannot be justified.
The third is that Dhoni - the skipper - asks selectors to bring back seniors like Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh who may or may not be able to perform on the field but who have the experience to motivate the youngsters. If nothing else, it would be good show of intent that winning abroad does matter to this skipper and to his team.
Or he can just sit back, put his feet up and enjoy the next couple of months till the next tour - England in June - comes knocking on a helpless Indian team's door.