Dhoni looked dapper, hair swept back and held in place presumably by gel, face cleaned of the grey stubble he had worn right through the T20 and ODI series in England, generally looking at peace with himself and the world around him.
Great sportspersons have the amazing ability to switch on and off at will, compartmentalize their thought processes to fit the moment rather than linger on what’s transpired or could happen in the future. Dhoni is no different.
If anything, he’s been indifferent to vicissitudes of fortune than most sportsmen I’ve seen. While he has often been loquacious during press conferences when he was captain, for the most he has been inscrutable and has rarely, if ever, discussed his own form or performance.
Whether this is Dhoni’s intrinsic personality or a defence that clever public figures use against incessant and harsh scrutiny is open to speculation. Going strictly by the photograph, he didn’t seem too fazed by the waves of criticism currently swirling around him.
Simply put, blame for India’s defeat in the ODI series – unexpected after the emphatic win in the first match – stopped at his doorstep. In its wake came another, prickly query: Should Dhoni be in the World Cup team?
It is important to deconstruct Dhoni’s value to the team – perceived and real – for the World Cup next year, but where form in England concerned, I believe he has been pilloried beyond reason. India did not lose the ODI series because of him, rather the failure of the top order to come good.
Only Virat Kohli in the top 5 was more consistent than Dhoni. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan were brilliant only intermittently. None from Rahul, Raina or Karthik came up with a stellar performance when this was badly needed.
True, Dhoni looked out of sorts in the second ODI when India were chasing a 300-plus score, but in the third he was left with a salvage operation as the main batsmen had fallen. One poor match on which to hang the team’s failure seems harsh.
This is not to suggest that Dhoni was in great form. Yet depending on number 6 to bail a team out consistently dilutes the responsibility of the top 5, who are entrusted with the task of doing the bulk of the scoring.
Dhoni comes into greater focus – and therefore faces more flak – because of his reputation as a great finisher. That really is the crux. Because he has done this often in the past, he must do this every time goes the logic.
That is an unbearable burden to carry for anybody. Ups and downs are part and parcel of sport, and as long as the former outweighs the latter by a healthy margin, a player is deemed successful. Moreover, expecting a 37-year-old to bat just as he did when 10 years younger is flawed thinking.
Inevitably, this will raise argument about Dhoni’s age, and whether India cannot be better served with a younger man. But you can’t conflate a player’s usefulness with the grey eminence in the stubble that advancing years highlight.
The history of the World Cup throws up interesting examples of players who played crucial roles in the evening of their career. For instance, Rohan Kanhai was 39 in 1975, and it was his solid, stubborn half century in partnership with Clive Lloyd that helped West Indies win the final.
Imran Khan was 39 in 1992. Apart from his captaincy, it was his measured, mature approach (he promoted himself to number 3 towards the end to hold together a jittery batting side), which took Pakistan to glory. And as is well-known, Sachin Tendulkar was 38 and India’s highest run-getter in India’s 2011 triumph.
Of course, this doesn’t work all the time. Javed Miandad was 38 during the 1996 tournament and the magic of old was nowhere in evidence as he huffed and puffed through the World Cup. He just wasn’t physically fit enough.
Moot point is that players don’t remain the same if they play for a substantial number of years. They change, adapt, evolve with experience over time. A necessary corollary to this is that their role definitions in the team should also reflect that change.
Dhoni’s value can’t be rated only on what he’s achieved in the past, rather what promise he still holds out. Remember, he’s not just a batsman, but also keeps wickets, has rich international and captaincy experience which makes him both been a great sounding board and mentor.
By this, I am not advocating free passage for Dhoni into the World Cup team. All players have to be judged for how good they are in the present. A major consideration in this situation would be whether there is anybody else worthy of replacing him the team.
Other issues like current form, fitness then follow. Yet, the most critical matter is what the team management expects from him and how he sees himself meeting these expectations. This must be discussed threadbare and candidly, as it would be for any player.
Dhoni’s own self-assessment is crucial in this equation. He needs to ask himself – undoubtedly superb fitness notwithstanding -- whether playing competitively at this level still excites him, and he still has the passion to excel.
So far, Dhoni’s shown that he does not hanker pointlessly to cling on to a place, or covet power. He gave up Test cricket when his mind said no, then surrendered the captaincy in ODIs and T20s too, passing on the baton to a younger man, without any withdrawal symptoms.
The selectors have their job to do. At a personal level, he can be relied to make the right decision.
2019 ICC World Cupengland vs india 2018From the press boxIndian cricket teamJaved MiandadMS DhoniODI cricketRohan Kanhairohit sharmasachin tendulkarshikhar dhawan
First Published: July 22, 2018, 9:16 AM IST