MS Dhoni: The diminishing light

MS Dhoni: The diminishing light

TIME UP?: A master of chases in his pomp, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has considerably struggled to dictate the course of play in the recent years. Reuters

In the M S Dhoni biopic – M S Dhoni, The Untold Story -- there is a scene where, in conversation with the senior national team selectors, Dhoni emphasises the need to inject youth in the team, keeping in mind the 2011 World Cup. One selector then tells him that there were still some three years left for the tournament to which Dhoni replies “Sir, World Cup aane mein teen hi saal baaki hai (sir, there are only three years left for the World Cup).”

Cut to the present, Dhoni should be asking this question to himself that whether he will be able to play another World Cup when he would have turned 42. With that being a reality, it makes little sense for him to continue in the team keeping in mind the 2023 edition which will be held in India.

Unlike in Test teams, ODI players are picked with an aim to get them ready by the time the World Cup arrives and Dhoni should make way for someone like Rishabh Pant to grow in that role. For a captain who disliked keeping players in the team beyond their sell-by date, Dhoni is maybe overstaying his welcome.

When India crashed out of the 2015 World Cup after the semifinal loss to hosts and eventual champions Australia, Dhoni was asked if he would consider retiring from the shorter version as well with him having already quit Test cricket just a couple of months ago.

Four years later and after another World Cup exit following another last-four defeat, the question remains unanswered. The 2019 World Cup, one thought, would be the last Dhoni would appear in India colours but the veteran player, as has been his wont, has kept the retirement cards close to his chest.

To his credit Dhoni still ticks many boxes. He is one of the fittest players in this Indian team where he can easily outrun many of the young guns save for the likes of Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya.

He brings an immense value to the side through his years of experience. His reading of the game, situation, conditions, field placements, inputs to the bowlers and his views on taking DRS are unmatched.

That allows Kohli to man the boundary without worrying about his captaincy responsibilities as the game wears on. He is also by far the best wicketkeeper among the three that India carried for this World Cup.

All this had combined to make Dhoni an irresistible choice even if his batting is becoming a bit of a liability. The Ranchi man was a master at taking the chase deep and pulling it off from the dead. You sat assured of a win every time he took it down to the last few overs or balls.

He remained so calm in the face of a stiff equation that the bowlers quaked in their boots and invariably lost that mental battle at the first hint of aggression from him. Everything else remains the same even now, except that he isn’t the same young Dhoni whose body was perfectly in sync with his plans.

With the advancing age, it has begun to rebel and therefore he looks half the fearsome batsman he used to be.

Another feature of his batting was to rotate strike and keep the asking rate there and thereabouts to the achievable mark. He didn’t play out as many dot balls as he does now, which only makes the task in the end more challenging with his diminished batting prowess.

“Look, it’s always a safer option to look at it from outside and say, ‘maybe this could have happened’,” said Kohli when asked if Dhoni’s strike rate could have been a little better. “… But I think today he was batting with Jadeja and there was only Bhuvi to follow, so he had to hold one end together in my opinion.

“And because Jadeja was playing so well, you needed a solid partnership and to get a 100 partnership from that situation I think it had to be the right balance of one guy holding an end and Jadeja playing the way he did, his knock was outstanding.

“So as I said, when you don’t win in hindsight, a lot of things can reflect in different manners but you have to understand how the game (semifinal) panned out and until what stage did the game go.

“And you would obviously expect New Zealand to fight back at some stage because the target was steep after losing five or six wickets, but the way they batted together, I think it was the perfect tempo for that situation, according to me,” Kohli observed in defence of his beleaguered team-mate. 

To an extent, the role given to Dhoni -- that is to bat around the hitters while at the same protecting the tail from getting exposed -- restricted him from going for his shots as often as one would have liked him to.

While the criticism of his batting isn’t completely unjustified, the part he is required to play in the line-up has magnified his struggles.

That’s probably affecting his otherwise serene mind and manifested in him failing to gather balls behind the wickets or even concede byes – a rare occurrence. “Well, he’s been given that role after the first few games of being in a situation where he can, if the situation is bad, control one end like he did today or if there is a scenario where there are six or seven overs left he can go and strike,” Kohli said when asked about sending Dhoni late (at No 7) in the order against New Zealand. 

For a man who never chased limelight, name and fame has followed him like his own shadow. There was nothing that he did wrong or rather could go wrong with him.

He always remained in news for the right reasons, more by accident than any design. In the last few years, though, little has gone right for him. Whatever he has done has attracted negative reactions.

All these are perhaps tell-tale signs that it’s time for Dhoni to make peace with reality and move on in a dignified manner that he has been known for.