Yes, that's what he does. Ask Dhoni a question about his team composition or the match or the series situation, and he will almost never give you a straight answer. Why should he? He is the team captain, their chief strategist. He likes to play his cards close to the chest. He throws in a simple analogy (during the 2011 World Cup, it was motorcycles) or raises a whole new debate (like spinning pitches during the recent England series or senior players' fielding during the Australia tour in 2011-12). Sometimes he will throw in a joke or make a statement that catches you off-guard (nowadays Ravindra Jadeja provides ample ammunition for that!).
But Dhoni talks long enough to make you believe that he has answered your question sufficiently. And then he smiles again, as if nodding to himself, that he has fooled you into believing so and gotten away with ease. He often does, for the Indian captain knows how to play to the gallery.
That is why it was shocking when he chose not to field any questions about the spot-fixing issue before flying off to England. He sat there with a dead-pan expression on his face, and that smile struggled to break out. Here was a man who is adept at handling any challenge thrown at him, on and off the field, yet he wasn't willing to pad up.
It was perplexing to watch, for his press conferences are otherwise a fun affair. It was in stark contrast to another difficult time, more than a decade ago, when Sourav Ganguly was the Indian captain. The team was heading off to Bangladesh for the Asia Cup, in the summer of 2000, and he was asked uncomfortable questions. He spoke about 'allegations not affecting his players', and that 'an honest conscience will withstand such allegations', and that 'such allegations need to be proven in the first place'. Later in the year, before heading off for the ICC Knock Out in Kenya, when allegations (against a few players) turned out to be true, he promised 'clean cricket from his team going ahead'.
It wasn't much, but it did a lot for the cricket community as a whole in this country. The match-fixing saga was haunting Indian cricket. And you could see that there was indeed a section of the administration that was willing to face up to this challenge of cleaning up the game. A young captain had spoken out. He was allowed to speak out.
Those last two sentences make up for a dual-edged perspective in this present scenario.
One way to look at things is that a mature captain didn't speak out this past week. A captain who has won an ICC World Twenty20 an ODI World Cup and led his side to the number one in the Test rankings. All of this surely makes Dhoni count among the greatest Indian captains ever. Yet his silence also marks the fact that the relationship between the cricketers and the media in this country is at an all-time low. A decade ago, it was at its zenith, when Ganguly and coach John Wright once sat surrounded by more than a hundred journalists in a packed room without an air-conditioner.
The present Indian captain doesn't feel that he needs to explain himself to the media. He doesn't come for pre-series press conferences (as was the case before the first Test against Australia) and chooses to shun responsibility after the team has a disappointing day in the field. Fielding coach Trevor Penney was sent to the sharks after India fell behind in the third Test against England at Kolkata. He refuses to speak when a major controversy erupts, even whilst leading an IPL franchise under the scanner. Forget his absence from the pre-and-post-final conferences in Kolkata, he didn't show up for the pre-semi-final one in Delhi either (to his credit, Mumbai Indians' captain Rohit Sharma did). It is a nominal expectation then that emotions boiled over this time round.
The other way, which is a little more plausible, is that the BCCI did not want Dhoni to speak up. If that is the case, it makes for a most baffling truth. Why did they call the press conference at such a delicate time? The official press conference for the Champions Trophy (hosted by the ICC) was to be held two days later. The board had no contractual obligation to talk to the press at this juncture and they could have seriously avoided it, like they do at most other times.
Ganguly was allowed to speak. A hands-on Jagmohan Dalmiya, then BCCI president, promised to clean up the mess. They did. Today, Dhoni keeps quiet and N Srinivasan feels it to be morally correct that he hold on to his chair. The times have changed and how. From an administrative body wanting to advance the Indian cause in world cricket, the BCCI today has become mired in greed.
With this gag on the Indian captain, the functioning of the BCCI is crystal clear. That it is a dark chasm of corporate games is not unknown. But it becomes an even deeper hole now. When such a crucial matter is in front of them, when there is need for someone to step up and calm their billion fans down, when they need to step up to clear the mess, they send forward a corporate pawn who was wearing a Dhoni face-mask. They sent him to sit and watch, quietly, as the average Indian cricket fan pulled out his hair, not in surprise, but in disgust.
First Published: May 31, 2013, 9:16 AM IST