Monday, January 23, 2012

Dhoni's Retirement Plans - warnings and probable holes

This article by the author  appeared on Cricket Country on  14th January 

A day before the Perth Test, MS Dhoni revealed that he was considering giving up one format of the game by the end of next year. Arunabha Sengupta discusses the eventualities of such a decision as well as the dynamics of the announcement.


The meditative aspects of Buddhism, and associated paradigms of attaining peace, emphasise the importance of living in the ‘present’ – the power of now – without dwelling in the past or worrying about the future.

In a quirky mirror image of this philosophical practice, a grotesque preoccupation with the present is found in diverse disciplines absolutely antithetic to the quest for tranquillity – from short-term goals of the financial institutions resulting in global crisis, to the myopic policies spreading across the heat and dust, fumes and embers of Indian cricket.

And Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s sudden disclosure of his possible retirement plans is all set to upset the precariously-balanced applecart that has long existed as offerings to the gods and demi-gods of the instantaneous in the Indian cricket world.

The planning of the game has for long been enmeshed in the time trap of the immediate – reflected in scorecards cast in stone, bearing the names of the same crusaders for decades. The same battle scarred behemoths are expected, even in their twilight days, to reinforce, repair and rescue tottering innings, to replay and relive the glory and pomp of their youth. Even as the passage of time erodes the freshness from the tired legs, the younger, newer limbs and sinews lie as assets frozen and unused till dystrophy sets in.

The short-sighted attitude has often been based in financial plans, leading to investments in instant T20 tournaments or meaningless One-Day Internationals, without pausing to raise the eyes from the balance sheets to glance at the craziness of the cricketing calendar.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the non-playing navigators of Indian cricket, who have for long looked the other way rather than at the future when asked questions about the replacements for the “Big Three”, now find themselves face to face with further  problems, perplexing and premature.

The team is set to be overhauled in a very immediate future, an eventuality pushed back to the future by shoving the decision making head under the temporary security of today in stubborn ostrich-like manner.With un-groomed and un-tested talents about to be inducted into the team at an epoch making tipping point, the think tank – if it can be euphemistically called so – have had the sudden shock of realising that their search parameters, seeking to replenish 36,000 runs into the middle, may soon contain the additional terms ‘captain’ and ‘wicket keeper’.

Dhoni has hinted at possible retirement from one form of cricket by 2013. While he did not specify the format, his appended apprehensions about lasting till the 2015 World Cup, viewed in conjunction with the constant demand for his head in Test cricket and his colossal showing in the ODIs leave little doubt about his preference. 

Choice of next captain not easy

If the threat is carried out, India will require to manufacture a captain by end of 2013. One assumes that by then the three great names of the middle order will have headed back to the pavilion for the last time. Even if one of them manages to carry on batting for India, thrusting the reins into that gentleman’s weary hands will perhaps be the most retrograde step imaginable. In any case, the surviving master, if there is any, will have neither the inclination nor the time for a stint at the helm.

The other established contenders are Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. While Sehwag’s current form has alarm bells ringing loud and clear, one can look at his record to pronounce with some confidence that runs will flow again soon. The dubious factor is that by the end of 2013 he will be 35, and given that his game is based on the quickness of the eye and the phenomenal hand-eye coordination, it is somewhat difficult to see him being the same breathtaking batsman in his late 30s. Sehwag, if made captain, will again be a stop-gap measure – which, while carrying on the glorious tradition of short-term thinking, may not be the greatest of decisions by a management not known for too many excellent ones.

Gambhir, an excellent man waiting in the wings till last year, has suddenly found making runs to be a backbreaking task. To recall his last century necessitates squinting a couple of years into the past, and if something drastic does not metamorphose his form and fitness, he can soon fall off the tottering Indian bandwagon, leaving a gaping hole at the top in keeping with the imminent giant craters at the middle.

Virat Kohli has been talked about in flattering terms as captaincy material, someone who has all the necessary attributes, ready to be groomed for his ultimate establishment in the hottest of seats. However, with just a handful of Test matches behind him, his tendency to match the flourish of footwork with his middle finger and the fact that his place is by no means cemented in the side, it will be fair neither to the team nor to the youngster if the crown is thrust on his head in less than two years from now.

And finally, what about the role that Dhoni performs as a player – that of a wicketkeeper batsman?

The myopic outlook in Indian cricket is not restricted to the wise men who make the decisions. It is also the confined consciousness in which the game is dissected under a microscope among the fanatical followers. As long as a victory or defeat creates an adequate number of heroes to worship, villains to abuse or targets to slander, the many judges in their self-created seats remain smug and satisfied.

Dhoni - greatest keeper-batsman in Indian cricket history

Hence, there can be genuine difficulties for the followers of the game to look back beyond the edge to the slips in the Perth Test, but the fact remains that MS Dhoni has been the greatest wicketkeeper batsman in the history of the nation.

While the cricket pitches was being set afire by the likes of Andy Flower, Kumara Sangakkara, Adam Gilchrist and Alec Stewart, Indians had long been hampered by the likes of Nayan Mongia, MSK Prasad and Ajay Ratra, who, while adequate behind the stumps, were less than lukewarm in front of them. Till MS Dhoni balanced the batting order and the global cricketing equation.

It has been a feature of the Indian fan to look gift horses in the mouth, from throwing rotten vegetables at the wife of Sunil Gavaskar to engaging in mindless criticism of Sachin Tendulkar. Hence it may take more than a while to realise that this is the very first time India has been blessed with a wicketkeeper who is steady as a stumper and averages in the late 30s with the bat. There are many who voice their reservations about Dhoni’s technique in overseas conditions, but one has to go back to Farokh Engineer to find another keeper who scored fifties in all the countries he played in, and even Engineer just about managed to break into the 30 average mark. 

And while it is true that Dhoni does not have a hundred outside the subcontinent, precious few wicketkeepers from the country have scored multiple hundreds on the home wickets or walked out to bat in the middle order ahead of specialist batsmen.

Add to these the incredible performances in ODIs, while at the same time handling the ridiculous pressures that come with the Indian captaincy, and we realise that we have with us a largely inconspicuous, yet invaluable asset. An asset who, in not-too-distant days of an already dimming past, had raised the World Cup in his hands in two formats of the game, and had taken India to the pinnacle of the Test ladder.

If he decides to call it a day from Test cricket in 2013, the batting line-up may become one continuous chasm rather than just riddled with gaping holes. Parthiv Patel remains erratic, Wriddhiman Saha a bizarre passenger on tours – Dinesh Karthik may perhaps come closer than the rest, but will still struggle to rise up in a fraction of the many dimensions that the current captain operates in.

Finally, let us reflect on Dhoni’s decision in isolation, without dwelling on the cataclysmic consequences.

The captain cool who shuns the spotlight and seldom reacts to media glare and criticism was curiously matter of fact as he made his declaration.

Was it a red-herring to divert a media busy trying to discover imaginary rifts in the team and snapping chunks out of the personal space of the cricketers? If it was, it definitely worked and I for one would not blame him for engaging in mind games with those of the media world who are more bent on scripting the fortunes of the game than writing about the game itself.

Or was it a public declaration of personal assessment?

Direct denouncement of the cricket calendar

In any case, the message that went out to BCCI was eloquent. For his body to survive till 2015, he has to give up one format of the game. Can there be a more direct denouncement of the cricket calendar, of cramming up every nook and cranny of the schedule with meaningless ODIs and T20 tournaments?

Anyone who has seen Syed Kirmani’s crooked fingers knows of the battering that the hands of a wicketkeeper are subjected to during an international career. Under the gloves, the two hands that rest on the throne of Indian cricket grow more and more patch-worked with tapes and bandages. The 67 Tests, 196 ODIs and 130 T20s, filled with hours of crouching behind the stumps, carrying the weight of expectations, brunt of criticism and worries of captaincy, must have reduced his back to its breaking point.

No wonder then, that by hinting to take his gloves off, in metaphorical sense Dhoni has already done so – and if the myopia of vision is not replicated by the authorities in refusing to interpret the message, the declaration has perhaps served its purpose of jerking them into action.

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