Why Dhoni should not retire

We should not be extra critical of captain cool, but issues of his selection and retirement need to be dealt on merit.

 |  7-minute read |   31-08-2017
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On both sides of the first few ODI matches in the ongoing India-Sri Lanka series, there was commentary galore about Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Before it (and post the Caribbean tour) was a barrage of pieces questioning Dhoni’s form, after it are a host of rebuttals and endorsements about what is left in him. Articles and commentary about Dhoni formed a rainbow of inscriptions and observations in their style and tone. 

From "violet" shades of compassionate and sensitive remarks to "red" strokes of strong and raged retaliations. Fans, critics, experts across the board made Dhoni their subject. Most with biases, a very few with detachment. Amid all, one wonders what has changed during this period? 

Well, quite a lot and nothing at all.

Dhoni has played the game for a long time to have fathered both promoters and detractors of his game: in millions. For Dhoni’s die-hard fans, questioning Dhoni’s ability for his slowest ever 50 was blasphemous, putting him under scrutiny by a humanly MSK Prasad was daring, thinking of an alternative in a Rishab Pant is outrageous.

For them, quite a lot has happened during this phase. Dhoni has answered all questions that have ever existed before him. With his performances, he has let the world know that he is in the squad for the WC 2019. For them, the case is open and shut. No questions should be asked ever again.

For the neutral, to cynical watchers of the game, nothing much has changed though. The three matches he has played since the beginning of the tour make no difference. Neither with respect to Dhoni nor much for Team India. For them, the first match was about Dhawan’s heroics, the second was about Bhuvi coming of age and the third, about Rohit’s long innings. There’s no special mention of Dhoni anywhere.

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To live with such contradictions is to embrace Indian cricket and the fandom around it. To experience this is to worship the gods on one side, and to remain atheist/indifferent on the other, where "religion" plays a pivotal role. Quite literally a pivot, a religion, separating worshipping fans from skeptical watchers of the game.

To be fair, Dhoni played two decent knocks. Showed grit and character. Demonstrated plentiful to give confidence that he’s worthy enough to be included in the World Cup squad on "merit". However, not an open and shut case. Not an automatic selection yet. No exemption from the Yo-Yo tests and performance scrutiny just now.

Amid all these, the larger questions, however, remain at large. Loose in fan frenzy, uncaptured in short term gains, elusive in avoidance of tough questions. How should the Dhonis retire? What should the Dhonis retire for? Who are the Dhonis?

From a little master’s so-called prolonged career to a captain cool’s much vociferous retirement debate, Indian cricket has always come under scanner when it comes to dealing with its legends’ careers in their twilight. It has always faced criticism on phasing out the seniors at the appropriate time and manner and has found itself trapped on formulating the sustainable bench strength strategies in the most judicious way.  

Who’s fault is it then? Individual players or a large cross-section? The captains of the squads or the selectors of the Board? The overwhelmed fans or the drifting young talents?

Answering such questions requires some soul searching.

The fault in our stars 

The title sounds filmy. So be it. If our cricketers are heroes, going a bit filmy does not harm as much. The master blasters or the captain cools are all stars of the Indian cricket. The problem with our heroes is that they occasionally don’t think straight and see clear. In an extremist’s words, the centuries, the wickets and the World Cup milestones (records in beckoning) haze their vision and clutter their thoughts.

In a rather grateful observer’s words, they commit human errors of judging their potential or turning too passionate. Whatever it is, our cricket culture does not allow us to be stringent to our heroes with retirement ultimatum. We can’t put the Sachins and the Dhonis under scanner like the other mortals. The heroes are expected to hand over the reins to other prospective future heroes, themselves, at their mercy, with generosity and for the "betterment" of Indian cricket. If at all that’s the job of our heroes, as history suggests, their occasional departures from taking such timely call are the faults in our stars.

The fault in our selectors 

The chief selector’s statement before the start of the tournament was as professional as it could get. Measuring Dhonis by their deliverables. As it should be in any profession. However, only if our selectors remained that professional and consistent all throughout, "Subject: Retirement" would not have become so tricky and dubious in Indian cricket. 

But we must live with our realities. Whether a selector felt the heat or faced flak, a selector’s comment about a player’s commitment – to take on an arch-rival even if one-legged – did not sound professional. If playing cricket is possible with missed limbs and cracked organs, a Kohli is also as committed to playing with broken hands, a Pandya with fractured ribs. Projecting a Dhoni in these circumstances looks and sounds blatant, cunning and exaggerated. 

The matter of retirement has always been handled bit inefficiently in Indian cricket. Often, in the name of being reverential and obliged to the legends. To have respect for a long servant of the game is not unjust, however, allowing the "alleged" to turn the "judge" is unmerited. In the trial by selection, an alleged (of bad performances) Dhoni or Sachin cannot take (judge) their retirement calls themselves. A star cricketer must always come under performance scrutiny, like all others. Only if a Sachin can decide when he retires, a Dhoni to decide if he plays an upcoming World Cup, A Kohli, who his playing XI and coach should be, we don’t need selectors. 

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The fault in us: 

We all know that a Sachin is not only a billion dreams but also a billion dollars. Dhoni, "The told stories" means business. We know that cricket is not just a game; but entertainment, business and more. Dhonis and Sachins are more stars than cricketers. In minting money or in fan-like celebrations, seeing and positioning our cricketers as representative gods is our fault. We are the media, the sponsors, the franchisees, the commoners and many.

Our fault is that we don’t appreciate a Saha as much as we worshipped a Dhoni, the Test cricketer. We don’t interpret a Pallekele ODI as Bhuvi’s heroics but project a Dhoni’s support act. We don’t see elongation of one’s career at the expense of someone needy and deserving.

At no point should we be extra critical of Dhoni or be unjustifiably harsh. As cricketers play by the merit of the ball with the right vision, we should pick Dhoni so long there’s merit in his selection and treat his retirement with the right vision. In the last 2 years, with tad lower average and slight slower strike rate, Dhoni is as consistent now in ODIs with respect to his prodigious ODI career as he had been in the last two years of his Test career prior to his Test retirement. 

Not that this Dhoni does not have a place in the ODI squad, but, this Dhoni can also retire by the same judgment of his Test retirement. That today we don’t miss Dhoni in Tests means Dhonis are replaceable. We won’t know, if a rookie Rishab Pant can fill Dhoni’s shoes as a long-term solution or if a Dinesh Karthik can be his short-term alternative unless we experiment. All we need is a strategy (with safeguards), and not making things flimsy in the lead up to the World Cup. In 2019, when Dhoni approaches 39, if things do not turn as expected, we should not lament for lack of options.

If Indian cricket is the Game of Thrones, aggressive Kohli is the dragon queen and icy cool Dhoni, the king in the north. It’s a queen-king alliance at the moment. Hope they will make "the world a better place", bring the World Cup for us. If not, the "dead are marching". 

If it is Ramayana, Dhoni’s Agniparikhsa has just started and is far from over.

Also read: Centre saying marital rape mustn’t be criminalised to save institution of marriage is terribly regressive

Writer

Debnath Roychowdhury Debnath Roychowdhury @imdebnath

Debnath is a Management Consultant and writer.

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