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CRICKET MADNESS

MSD deflects it to third man

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FUN AND GAMES: MS Dhoni plays the joker as he leads out his team during a practice match ahead of the Champions Trophy in Cardiff

With the never-ending protection and patronage of the BCCI chief, N Srinivasan, the Indian skipper MS Dhoni is proving to be a cool customer. As he leads his 'rookie' side in the Champions Trophy, suddenly words like conflict of interest and fixing seem so far away in tranquil England.

Forced humour is hard to hide, especially when the joke is on you. Despite experiencing a traumatic fortnight this May, the grin on the face of Mahendra Singh Dhoni has only been getting wider.

The travel to England at a time when the media is baying for blood where Indian cricket is concerned, couldn't have come with a more perfect timing for Dhoni. He's away from the microscopic view on the game in the country that first erupted in his own backyard, and that of BCCI president N Srinivasan, when Chennai Super Kings dugout regular, Gurunath Meiyappan was arrested on allegations of betting and fixing.

The Delhi and Mumbai police kept screaming of an expose, the central government advised procedures to contain corruption in sport, the paying public demanded sackings and an equally worked up Indian media sought to bring justice.

Dhoni landed in London and made his way to Cardiff along with a young team, quite away from the madness at home.

Ever since his arrival here, the skipper has gone out of his way to stay nonchalant about the recent spate of controversies. To shield him from a preying media, the BCCI has sent a media official to England whose job is to act like a scanner for him, checking each word of every question raised at Dhoni with great detail before the captain can answer.

On the face of it, he seems to be in comfort.

But scratch that surface a little, in getting across to him a question that he may feel the heat answering. Dhoni's eyes dart instantly towards Dr RN Baba, the team's media regulator. You're waved aside and asked to keep quiet. The grin returns to Dhoni's face.

He begins to talk about the kind of support Indian cricket continues to enjoy across the world and explains why. "If you don't have fans, people say you missed the home condition or the support of the fans. When you have the fans, people talk about the burden of expectation. So, I think when it comes to the Indian cricket team, level play is a situation where there is no pressure or the burden of expectation of the fans following, " he says, adding, "When you play warm-up games we are expected to win. It's all about getting the most out of the warm-up games. The reason being people say, 'Oh, they didn't win the warm-up games;they only win the series games. ' And then when you win it, they say, 'It's only warm-up games, so it doesn't matter. '"

Given the fracas surrounding the spot-fixing scandal, the latest conflict of interest theory to emerge from his own business partner's company Rhiti Sports and his 'good friend' Gurunath Meiyappan's arrest for betting are reasons he may need to explain at this moment of time. But Dhoni won't tell you he probably understands that.

A situation like this one, especially for a captain of Team India - who is expected to be perennially under pressure - can only add to the burden. And that is where you realise that Dhoni is special.

Whether at the nets or on the day of the match, he is in complete command of his boys and only the task on hand is important. Dhoni's ability, it seems, to put unimportant issues on the burner and deal with a sense of priority is impressive and unmistakable. He's got every trophy in his cabinet except for the Champions Trophy, so the target is set for him.
"None of the trophies go to my cabinet. What you need to realize is it's for Team India, " he says with that grin. "We'd like to win it. "

For the first time in more than 10 years, an Indian team is playing in a major ICC tournament and doesn't have the services of players like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan among a few others. This is a first for Dhoni, who's in England with a relatively newer squad and Suresh Raina as the other senior-most member in the side.

The skipper is busy defining roles for young men in his team and building the necessary camaraderie. Perhaps, it is this team that he will lead into the 2015 World Cup in Australia. The time is already short for the work to begin.

Like Sourav Ganguly did in the early 2000s, placing his firm belief in Harbhajan and Yuvraj's talents, Dhoni is cultivating his favourites too. He has great belief in Rohit Sharma's potential as a top-order batsman and has unflinchingly backed him in the 50-over format despite the batsman's shocking continuity in failing him.

Dhoni backed Ravindra Jadeja too, an all-rounder far too often ridiculed for being an ordinary talent, and he has also shone brightly. And like Ganguly in 2001 and later, Dhoni is taking the necessary risks and things are going his way.

Right instinct is an asset he knows will serve him a long way.

So, the skipper functions in a manner that makes little difference to him what the media may think or say about him. The ability to shut the door on questions he doesn't feel are important at all - no matter how serious they are - give him the space to accommodate everything else. Dhoni has great backing of the BCCI and especially the most powerful man in it, N Srinivasan, whose company India Cements is where Dhoni works and plays his cricket for.

With that kind of backing, the captain can talk only when he wants to and the subjects he chooses, so life is peaceful for him in this moment of crisis. That ring of protection given to him makes no difference whatsoever even if he feels the pinch or the need of having to answer a few tough questions.

He probably guesses that as days and weeks pass the issues now being spoken on the loudspeaker are bound to be swept under the carpet and the focus will be back on the game alone. So, he might as well concentrate on the game itself.

If Ganguly was special as a leader in his own way, preferring to talk to the media and work things out when controversies erupted, Dhoni seems to have his own style.
And it has worked for him like nobody else. The clichêd 'cool-as-a-cucumber' tag has stamped its mark yet again.

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