Guts & Balls

The Dhoni Question

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Is there room for a neutral in the great cricketing debate of this World Cup year?

NO OTHER INDIAN cricketer, past or present, has split popular opinion as divisively as MS Dhoni in a World Cup year. The Dhoni faithfuls, a vociferous group that includes captain Virat Kohli, believe that the 37-year-old (he turns 38 a day after the group stage ends) remains essential to a successful Indian campaign in England later this year—in the middle order, behind the stumps and with his on-field leadership. On the other (equally loaded) hand, Dhoni’s critics are certain that he has long been a liability with the bat; a has-been who could well be the reason for the team not to be perched on top of the Lord’s balcony after the final ends on July 14th. In this debate Dhoni is either a sacred cow or a paper tiger, the either-or wholly hinging upon whether the cricket fan is a worshipper or an atheist and thus far there had been no room for a straddler. Then Mohali happened.

On March 10th, in India’s penultimate ODI match before the World Cup no less, Dhoni’s absence loomed large over the PCA Stadium; far larger than his presence did in any of the other preparatory games over the last two years in this long and ruthlessly experimental build-up to the quadrennial. Given a rest for the last two one-dayers against Australia, a Dhoni-less India smacked 358 runs in their innings perhaps because they were a Dhoni-less India—a younger, fresher and hungrier middle-order powered on from where the openers had left off and Dhoni’s replacement at No 5, Rishabh Pant, was a big reason why. It was only the second time India had scored over 350 runs in the last 12 months and the thinking fan, however staunch his support for Dhoni may have been, joined the dots.

But then, just three hours later, a weak Australian batting line-up had chased down the record target (it was the highest successful run-chase in India by any visiting team) with two overs and change to spare; and again, Dhoni’s replacement behind the stumps, Pant once more, was a big reason why. Not only did he fluff stumpings and catches and run-outs and concede one too many byes, Pant couldn’t read the variations of India’s twin wrist spinners, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav—bowlers that Dhoni has a complete command over; insofar that he is often found guiding them with what to bowl and even where to bowl it. Not just that, in Dhoni’s absence even Kohli’s strategy of placing himself in the outfield during the death overs (usually in the arc between long on and deep midwicket, where his speed and skill help sabotage the flow of big runs) backfired.

It is impossible to tell whether Dhoni’s presence at the World Cup is a good thing or not, or whether his waning batting prowess will be made up for by his waxing wicketkeeping and ever-present leadership skills

At this late stage of the match, Kohli always hands the reins over to Dhoni, a born leader of men and a strategist second to none. The transition is smooth and from this point on the former India captain controls the game and the infield, allowing Kohli to focus on running down sure-shot boundaries and take blinding catches. In this match, though, without Dhoni to share his burden, Kohli was often found at long-on with his hands on his head and a curse on his lips as his side simply imploded. Forget the thinking fan, a packed stadium adhering to herd mentality joined the dots. As chances were missed and reviews were wasted and big runs were hit, the crowd chanted his name over and over again in one voice— “Dhoni, Dhoni!” When the match ended, I too had been overwhelmed enough to take my final position on the Dhoni debate; that of an unabashed fence-sitter.

From this vantage point of a straddler, it is honestly impossible to tell whether Dhoni’s presence at the World Cup is a good thing or not, or whether his waning batting prowess will be made up for by his waxing wicketkeeping and ever- present leadership skills. It is also hard to guess why exactly a man who had little patience for legends living off their good names decided to walk an eerily similar and mucky path and drag his impeccable reputation through mud. The answer lies in the moral of a story—apocryphal, most likely—and the moral is that he derives great pleasure in proving his detractors wrong.

That tale is set in 2002, when Dhoni was desperate to make it to the Railways team, whose good offices he believed would help him gain the attention of the national selectors. Only, Railways never did select Dhoni after a coach rejected him not long into the specially organised trial. Lacks the technique to make it, Dhoni was apparently told. The story then cuts to the Brabourne Stadium in 2009, where Dhoni, captain of the Indian team, has declared the innings on the completion of his hundred and is walking back to the CCI Clubhouse when he spots the old Railways coach among the dignitaries. So, he digresses from the dressing room and heads to the said coach to check if his batting technique is holding up alright.

Those were his greatest days—a time when he crystallised his fabulous legacies as the country’s finest captain across formats and the world’s deadliest finisher in the shorter ones. He hedged his bet on the unheralded Joginder Sharma and won the first World T20; he backed himself with a promotion to finish off the World Cup in 2011; and he rolled the dice on a defeated Ishant Sharma and clinched the third of the three ICC majors, the Champions Trophy in 2013. This was also about the time when cricket fans noticed the beginnings of the triumviral descent of Dhoni the captain-’keeper-finisher. And when even one of those tightly entwined roles began to fray, they all frayed rather quickly.

By 2014, I, for one, was of the opinion that neither Batsman Dhoni nor ’Keeper Dhoni in isolation was heavy enough to hold down a spot in the playing eleven without Leader Dhoni. When Leader Dhoni gave up on Test cricket, so did the other two simultaneously. But when Leader Dhoni handed over the ODI keys to Kohli in the beginning of 2017, the other two Dhonis stubbornly refused to follow and this is when the cleave between his supporters and critics widened. Today, he is appreciated most for his sonic reflexes as a wicketkeeper when, ironically, it was him that put an end to the specialist-’keeper days in the country. Also, the man- philosopher who, at the prime of his finisher days, reduced cricket into a contest of nerves between only the batsman and bowler now seems to be batting against all eleven opposition players at the same time.

So, what will Dhoni’s final contribution be in what is likely to be his final assignment as an international player? Tug on your earlobe and you’ll be able to hear the wildly contrasting opinions of the screaming masses. But from high up on my fence and well above the chaos I can say three words with more conviction than anyone else placed on either side of the Dhoni debate; and those alleviating words are ‘I don’t know’.