NEW DELHI: Current India skipper Virat Kohli has gone to bat for his predecessor Mahendra Singh Dhoni, saying it was unfortunate to see so many people going after the veteran player.

Dhoni, 37, led India to World Cup victory at home in 2011 but his patchy form in recent times has led critics to question the wicket-keeper-batsman’s place on the side.

Last week, selectors picked Dhoni in a 15-member World Cup squad ahead of the 21-year-old Rishabh Pant, triggering fresh debate about his cricketing skills.

But Kohli, who played under Dhoni before taking over the skipper’s mantle, said defending him was a matter of loyalty.

“It’s unfortunate to see so many people going after him. For me, loyalty matters the most,” Kohli told India Today TV channel late on Thursday. “When I walked into the team he [Dhoni] had the option of trying someone else after few games, although I grabbed my chances, but for me to get that kind of backing, it was very crucial for me.”

Kohli, the world number one ODI and Test player, also praised Dhoni for giving him the rare opportunity to bat at number three when he was just starting out.

Dhoni earned a reputation as one of the deadliest finishers in 50-over cricket before struggling to make a mark in the crucial middle overs.

Kohli said Dhoni’s input and experience were invaluable assets for the team.

“He is the one person who literally knows the game inside out. He understands the game from ball one to ball 300 [50 overs] on the field,” said Kohli, 30. “I won’t say it’s a luxury to have him, but I am fortunate to have a mind like that behind the stumps.”

In 341 ODIs, Dhoni has scored 10,500 runs at an average of 50.72. After a sub-par 2018, he bounced back to score 327 runs this year, including three half-centuries in a row against Australia.

However, he will turn 38 during the World Cup and while he remains supremely fit a sub-par 2018 helped fuel suggestions that age has diminished his batting ability.

Dhoni was once considered India’s best finisher and no target was deemed out of reach with the boundary-hitting right-hander at the crease.

While some were calling for Dhoni to be dropped during his dip in form, Kohli said he had earned the right to try to turn his form around.

“It was important to give him space, for which people did not have much patience at that time,” he added. “Now after 12 months people are saying he is the most important factor in the World Cup, which is true. We knew deep down all along.”

While Dhoni’s improved batting form has eased concerns, the lack of clarity over the number four spot could still prove to be headache for Kohli during the May 30-July 14 World Cup.

India have included top-order batsman K.L. Rahul, wicket-keeper/batsman Dinesh Karthik and all-rounder Vijay Shankar in the squad, who could all fill that role but as yet there has been no clear choice.

“We tried a lot of things,” he said. “There were a few combinations that we tried. Eventually, when Vijay came in, it was three dimensional he can bowl, he can field, he can bat. He is a proper batsman.

“That just gave us an option, saying why not have that kind of balance, which other teams have had all these years. From that point of view, we all agreed on it.

“We are pretty sorted with how we want to go about the World Cup. Obviously, who bats where is the decision for later.”

India begin their World Cup campaign against South Africa in Southampton on June 5.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2019