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Captain cool feels the heat
For years, people wondered how MS Dhoni — the man who had seemingly cracked cricket’s code — had the ability to log endless playing hours without showing any signs of wear and tear. But the mental strain of a World Cup campaign and the IPL seem to have finally caught up with him. In England, it showed, when a different man took the field...
One wonders what the neuro-management enthusiasts at IIM-Ranchi would have found had they mapped MS Dhoni's brain during the Test series in England. Instead of the cloak of invincibility and indomitable leadership skills they are seeking, would they have stumbled on a bubbling cauldron of conflicting emotions and ephemeral ideas? A mind riddled with all the phobias and foibles of ordinary men? It's possible they may have found the reason why RP Singh was played instead of Munaf Patel in the fourth Test at the Oval, and why there was no third man on Day Three at Trent Bridge. Perhaps they would have prised out the 'Captain Cool' mask, flung casually in a corner as a tired mind paused for a second wind.
These are strange times for Dhoni, a man unfamiliar with failure and renowned for an icy demeanour in crisis. A captain long admired for his uncanny ability to inject resilience into a cricket team infamous for buckling under pressure.
England has been different. India were savaged on the field of play, ridiculed off it, and Dhoni's greatest contribution - the optimal utilization of limited personal and team resources - was conspicuous by its absence. Now, India are no more on top of their game and neither is Dhoni. The old ghosts of mediocrity, stifled in recent times by a few brilliant and determined individuals, are back. Long-due systemic changes, forgotten in the welcome turn of luck, stand starkly revealed.
It's at such a crossroads that both Dhoni and the Board of Control for Cricket in India now find themselves in. MSD, the face of the debacle in England, will argue that a captain is only as good as his team but he cannot evade tough scrutiny any longer.
Having been a World Cup winning One-day and T20 captain, is his best behind him? Or can he, somehow, again miraculously sift through the endless grind of matches and motivate himself and his creaky, bedraggled bunch into reclaiming great heights? After all, he did it once before, when India crashed out of the World T20 in England in 2009. What complicates matters is that Dhoni's fortunes may be linked to whether the chest-thumping Indian board has the wisdom to protect its star players, the gumption to make state associations accountable and the competence to produce an efficient feeder line for the ageing top tier.
In the short term, though, the reinvention of MS Dhoni has to be - frighteningly - a one-man crusade.
Dilip Vengsarkar, former captain, former selection committee chief and the man responsible for nurturing many of the new breed of Indian players into top-flight cricket, feels the board may have run Dhoni, a prized leadership asset, into the ground. "The fact is Dhoni has been playing non-stop cricket for so long now that even sitting out for 10 days won't do him any good. He is still the best man to lead India, and we just won the World Cup, " Vengsarkar says. "He is only human, and jaded and fatigued It has taken its toll. His mind isn't buzzing with ideas like it used to. His wicketkeeping isn't as alert. Unfortunately, he has been let down by the system.
"No captain in the world could have won with the team he had against England, and endless injuries to key players made things worse. We had no planning ahead of a series in a place where we have always struggled. We distributed fitness certificates freely. Nobody, including Dhoni, was mentally and physically fit. Some questionable selections didn't help, " says Vengsarkar.
Since 2008, Dhoni has been playing almost non-stop, earning the sobriquet of 'hardest working man' in the show business of modern cricket. Vengsarkar feels the road ahead for Dhoni is tougher since opting out of captaining any team in any format - in T20s, ODIs, Tests or the IPL - is not an option. "The shorter formats are his strength, and the longer format needs his presence. It is not easy. "
For years, people wondered why the fatigue wouldn't show, how Dhoni had the ability to log endless flying and playing hours without his ability being affected. The mental strain of a World Cup campaign and the subsequent IPL seem to have finally caught up with him. It showed in England, where he fumbled behind the stumps, though luckily didn't drop many. He stared on, blankly, as a depleted and deplorable bowling attack went to
m. The batting stalwarts crumbled under the weight of runs. Dhoni's game was too unidimensional, his scything blade not technically cut out for epic rescue missions. Captains are used to being ridiculed for things beyond their control but he and his team whimpered and rolled over.
The barbs flew. Geoffrey Boycott commented that 'Captain Cool' wasn't cut out to be a motivator. Sunny Gavaskar said Dhoni had to find ways to lead from the front. Ian Chappell reasoned, perhaps rightly, that it was only Dhoni's reserves of guile that had enabled India to stay No. 1 for so long with such a weak attack.
MSD, universally hailed as cricket's greatest captain just months back, had misplaced his thinking cap, played players by reputation and paid the price. Fans discovered there was only a thin line between looking cool and being indifferent. There was a sentiment that India were caught out by England's professionalism, always a damning indictment.
Former chairman of the selection committee and ex-India wicketkeeper Kiran More believes the time has come for Dhoni to make some hard decisions with his squad. "The England tour will make Dhoni a better, more experienced skipper. I feel he is still growing as Test captain so we have to give him time, " he says, adding, "But decisions like not playing Ashwin on a regular basis, dropping Sreesanth from the ODI squad after he has played well in Tests, vacillating between Parthiv Patel and Wridhidhiman Saha, picking RP ahead of Munaf, these decisions are not doing his image any good. In cricket, the captain always becomes the face of all systemic failure but is Dhoni to blame for the indiscriminate fitness certificates being handed out to players? In Indian cricket, the captain has a lot of say in selection matters and it is here that Dhoni has slipped. The pressure piled on him after Lord's, and that showed in his wicketkeeping. When I was chief of the selection committee we took a lot of hard decisions but look at the crop of bowlers we blooded in Munaf Patel, RP and Sreesanth. Where is the new crop?"
More adds: "Dhoni will know how to pick himself up but the BCCI must support him. What has Eric Simons done in his time as bowling coach? Why don't we have a spin bowling coach like England do? What exactly were Duncan Fletcher's inputs on the England tour?"
Sri Lankan Arjuna Ranatunga, one of the greatest captain-motivators in his time, says both Dhoni and BCCI should "take a step back" and be honest to themselves. "Dhoni is a rare leader and cricketer. He must admit to himself where he went wrong with his captaincy and his game. He must go back to his coaches and most importantly, consort with people who have the best interests of Indian cricket at heart, not just those who have a financial stake in the proceedings, " feels Ranatunga.
"World cricket needs a strong India and a strong Dhoni. Hopefully, the England tour will be a wake-up call for the BCCI, Dhoni and the general public which expects miracles every time, " Ranatunga says, "The BCCI must rediscover the values which have made the team a force to reckon with. All Indians must realise winning the World Cup was a massive achievement and those involved should have been asked to sit out of IPL, celebrate and recuperate. More emphasis should be placed on performance in Test cricket because that is what players are remembered by.
Ranatunga continues: "The IPL has denied players an off-season. Administrators should be told their athletes are not machines. The selectors and board should take a major share of the blame for poor planning. India were underprepared, simple as that. There is a huge responsibility on the board to protect the game in India because the health of the world game depends on them."
Maybe the way out for Dhoni is to assert himself more instead of less. He might have to play an active part in improving Indian cricket's planning, and some in the board must listen to him. Dhoni has to learn that, sometimes, ruffling a few feathers is essential to get the job done.
Meanwhile, the brain-mapping over, the trainees from Ranchi would in all likelihood come away knowing that a good leader is as much a product of his environment as those he leads. And in that lies a profound lesson for both the man and the system which helped create the Dhoni aura.
HIGHS AND LOWS OF A BUSY LIFE. . .
In April 2005, barely months after making his international debut, Mahendra Singh Dhoni with his flowing mane announced his arrival to the cricketing world with a 123-ball 148 against Pakistan in an ODI at Vizag. In October the same year, he decimated Sri Lanka with his powerhitting display and in the process posted his highest ODI score of an unbeaten 183 off 145 balls in Jaipur.
The knock was studded with 10 sixes. Having made his Test debut against Sri Lanka in the 2005 home series, he notched up his maiden century during the tour of Pakistan in Jan 2006, scoring 148 off 153 balls in a drawn Test at Faisalabad. In April the same year, with 847 runs at an average of over 70, Dhoni ascended to the No. 1 position in the ICC ODI ranking, a position which he briefly held before a slump in form. After India's disastrous World Cup 2007 campaign, Dhoni was named the vice-captain of the Indian ODI team under skipper Rahul Dravid in June. In the seven-match Natwest series, he scored 175 runs at an average of 25.
In August 2007, was named the T20 skipper for the inaugural World Championships. Led India to an impressive title win. Fast-tracked to the role of ODI captain a month later with Dravid stepping down from the post. His first campaign was against Australia at home, which India lost 6-1. Dhoni had his revenge over Australia in Feb 2008, leading the team to the Commonwealth Bank series win - India's first title Down Under since 1985. In the tri-series featuring Sri Lanka as well, the Indian skipper scored 347 runs in 10 matches at an average of 69. 4. Made Test captain in Oct 20, 2008, after Anil Kumble called it quits. Celebrated by leading India to a series win over Australia in Nagpur. In Nov 2008, threatened to quit, allegedly over the non-inclusion of left-arm seamer RP Singh in the ODI squad against England in 2008.
Dhoni was at loggerheads with the selection committee chairman Srikkanth after Irfan Pathan was picked instead. In June 2009, defending champions India crashed out from the World T20 Championships in the Super Eight stage after loss to South Africa. India lost all three Super Eights matches to West Indies and England before SA. In the same series, news of a rift between Indian skipper MS Dhoni and his deputy Virender Sehwag emerged, after the latter returned home with an injured shoulder. It was speculated that Dhoni was miffed at not being informed about the opener's injury. India lost to Pakistan by 54 runs in the 2009 Champions Trophy in Sept 2009. The defeat ultimately cost Dhoni's team a place in the semifinals. In Oct 31, 2009, Dhoni once again rose to the top of ODI rankings. Dhoni had a sensational 2009 season with 1, 198 runs in 24 innings at an average of 70. 43. He was the joint top-scorer that year with Australian skipper Ricky Ponting. India rose to No. 1 in the Test ranking in Dec 2009, under the leadership of Dhoni after series win over Sri Lanka. In May 2010, India once again failed to go past the Super Eights stage in the World T20 Championships. Lost all three games to Australia, West Indies and Sri Lanka. In Aug 2010, Dhoni expressed his displeasure at then Sri Lankan skipper Kumar Sangakkara 'intentionally' asking off-spinner Suraj Randiv to bowl a no-ball to deny Sehwag a century in a tri-series. Dhoni later said the no-ball incident had made the team more aggressive, as it showed in the World Cup triumph a year later.
In April 2011, Dhoni scored his first half-century in 14 games - an unbeaten 91 against Sri Lanka - to guide India to its first World Cup title since 1983. In July 2011, umpire Daryl Harper accused Dhoni of trying to intimidate him during a Test match. Dhoni had earlier openly criticized Harper's poor umpiring during a Test match in the West Indies. Harper subsequently quit umpiring duties before what was supposed to be his farewell Test. A month later, India went down 0-3 against England following an innings and 242 runs loss at Edgbaston in the third Test. On Aug 24, Dhoni's team slipped down to third in the ICC Test ranking after an innings and eight runs defeat at the Oval, leading to a a 4-0 whitewash. This was also India's first Test series loss after 2008 in Australia.
Compiled by Devadyuti Das
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