New Delhi: The scene was a packed press conference room at the Wankhede Stadium. India had just been knocked out in the semi-finals of the 2016 World T20 by the West Indies. MS Dhoni entered and calmly answered questions about the defeat. 

There was an air of expectancy about the whole situation, yet no Indian journalist made the first move. Finally, an Australian journalist stepped up and asked about his retirement plans. Dhoni’s response that day – calling up the concerned journalist to sit next to him and posing a few rhetorical questions about his form/fitness – flooded social media timelines and broke the Internet.

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One particular statement stood out. “I was hoping an Indian journalist asks me that question, and then I would have asked if he/she has a son/brother who is waiting in line to be the next wicket-keeper of the Indian team,” quipped Dhoni in his inimitable style. 

Dial down the sarcastic remark, and it showed his thinking at that point. As a professional athlete, he had every right to prolong his playing time, perhaps to the point of safeguarding himself for competition. It was in contrast to how those on the outside saw him, albeit rather unfairly. 

When Dhoni called time on his Test career after the 2014 Boxing Day Test (at the MCG) in a stunning manner, everybody started winding down the clock on his career altogether. Some guessed the 2015 ODI World Cup, some others picked 2016 World T20, while a few thought he might simply stretch it to the 2019 ODI World Cup. In this guessing game, the spotlight on him increased so much more.

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In the summer of 2016, as Dhoni’s international engagements reduced, by his own admission, fitness was a primary concern. Performing dual roles of batsman and wicketkeeper, he needed to be in top shape to continue playing international cricket at least until age 38 (as on July 7, 2019).  True to his word, his fitness is at par with the fittest Indian cricketers (if not better) and his keeping skills are beyond compare.

But Dhoni is no longer the batsman he once was, and anyone who follows Indian cricket regularly ought to accept this harsh reality. Never mind a fantastic 2018 IPL season, his struggles in South Africa and England to time the ball made him look an ordinary cricketer, not the legend you associate with his name. 

And so, while the billion cricket aficionados were busy discussing his value to the Indian middle order, the selectors – in consultation with Dhoni – made a decision. 

“The selectors have spoken with him. Dhoni continues to be an integral part of the (limited-overs) team and he just feels that in the T20 format, someone like Rishabh Pant can get more chances,” explained captain Virat Kohli, after India beat West Indies 3-1 in the recent ODI series. 

Taking his comments from 2016 in summation, it is amply clear that Dhoni knows when to exit the stage. He stepped aside from Test cricket in 2014 when he saw that Kohli was ready to lead. He then stepped aside from ODI captaincy when the need arose to build for the 2019 World Cup under a new leader. And now, he has stepped aside when there is a new contender for his spot altogether, Dhoni’s eventual successor.

Make no mistake Pant has made enough impression in his short international career to take over the dual mantle of keeping/batting. Particularly this summer in England, and following it up in the Test series against West Indies, the left-hander has given a sneak peek into what his belligerent batting can do for the Indian line-up. 

For quite some time now, India’s limited-overs’ batting is heavily dependent on the top-order, often losing way in the middle. There is an urgent need to introduce a heavy-hitting option in that middle/lower order, and the team management obviously sees Pant as a keen resource in that regard. Dinesh Karthik, despite ample opportunities, has not been fully convincing, and thus the spot for a second keeper/batsman at next year’s World Cup is still open. Pant is the obvious choice, yes. 

Dhoni stepping down from the T20 side makes sense then. Put yourself in Kohli’s shoes, or even coach Ravi Shastri’s for that matter – would you drop him in favour of Pant if both were part of that same squad? It is an easy answer for people sitting in their armchairs and commenting on Twitter. The dressing room’s machinations are different, and far tougher. Given his stature, it is nearly impossible to bench Dhoni if picked as part of the squad.

Those are big boots to fill, whichever way you look at this situation. And Pant, in the four T20Is he has played for India so far, didn’t get enough opportunity. Now, he has a clear shot at making that open spot his own – giving him a run of six consecutive T20Is against West Indies and Australia to get a feel of things, settle in and soak in the pressure that comes with eventually replacing Dhoni. 

Additionally, this provides a trailer of the near-foreseeable future – wherein Dhoni no longer takes the field in ‘Blue’. For all those unanswered questions about his future over the years, the greatest finisher this game has ever seen is getting that much closer, and closer, to a grand exit. 

As Pant takes his spot against West Indies and Australia, it is time for Indian cricket to start preparing itself for Dhoni’s eventual departure.