Will India Go Into the World Cup Without MS Dhoni?

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Will India Go Into the World Cup Without MS Dhoni?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There are just seven months to go for the ICC World Cup to kick off, but something seems amiss. Virat Kohli, our captain and star batsman, is in the form of his life. India is at the top of cricket rankings, and the BCCI is organising cricket tournaments with the frequency of unit tests in high schools. With our bowling attack looking strong in both pace and spin departments, and the batting line-up entrenched in their positions, we more or less know the team that will be playing the World Cup, barring a few injuries and bad haircuts. But the feeling that the unthinkable has come to pass is unshakeable.

MS Dhoni has been dropped. Can we begin to fathom what Team India will look like without him in it?

Before getting into the nitty-gritties, it is important to zoom out and look at the enormity of the man’s achievements. Like the post of Defence Against Dark Arts teacher in Hogwarts, India had a new wicket-keeper every year. While other teams had players like Gilchrist, McCullum, and Sangakkara, our keepers batted like a college team in Benares, high on bhang. At one point, the role became so redundant that Rahul Dravid kept wickets home and away, having kept for more matches than all the keepers from the 1999-2004 era.

All of that changed when Dhoni came into the picture.

For Indian cricket, Dhoni played the role of a shrewd steward, the custodian of the team’s fortunes for the period between Sachin Tendulkar’s decline and Virat Kohli’s ascendance. And while he might have lacked the elegance or innate skill of those two generational talents, MSD possessed every quality needed to create an Indian cricket megastar.

In most likelihood, Dhoni will play the World Cup, following which the BCCI will invite Sri Lanka or West Indies for a “farewell party tour”.

A solid, middle-class upbringing that provided the perfect backdrop for a rags-to-riches Bollywood biopic? Check. Gladiatorial shots and big match heroics? Check. Humility? Check, and double-check. The last point is crucial – we like our heroes to start poor, and conquer the world, while remaining humble throughout.

There have been better keepers than him. There have been more explosive mercenaries like Gilchrist. But I doubt any wicket-keeper has been such a crucial tool in his team’s metamorphosis. For 15 years, he has played international cricket at the highest level, captaining his side in all three formats, while also being the crux of the batting order. But all the reverence over the last decade, has now become a burden.

Indian cricket has always been overtly benevolent to its icons. Kapil Dev retired way past his prime – cruelly delaying the blossoming of a red-hot Javagal Srinath. Vinod Kambli (by his association with Maryada Purushottam Sri Sachin) made a string of comebacks into the team. But his absurd batting average was only beaten by his beards and hairstyles. Even Sachin Tendulkar played for two years after the World Cup, despite a low average and a number of youngsters waiting in line.

But the issue with Dhoni is rather tricky. For one, he never seemed like a chaser of personal milestones. Even during the peak of his career, he was content batting at No 5 and 6, even though a higher position could mean more runs. He also quit Test matches in the middle of an important Australia tour. Unlike greats who let themselves go physically, Dhoni is still fit, and sustains no major injuries.

But the runs have all but dried up. The helicopters have been packed and locked up. Yorkers do not race to the fence like bullets – tracer or otherwise. Groundsmen do not need to scan neighbouring towns for the ball.

To make matters worse, younger cricketers have come knocking. Saha is competent behind the stumps, and Dinesh Karthik has a few more years left in him. And then there’s Rishabh Pant – standing at the door with his hands on his hips, shaking his head. One feels sorry for Rishabh Pant. One feels like telling him that he might have to wait for another year. Others have spent out their careers waiting for the man to retire.

In most likelihood, Dhoni will play the World Cup, following which the BCCI will invite Sri Lanka or West Indies for a “farewell party tour”. There will be a gala event attended by business magnates, politicians, and former greats, and anecdotes will be peddled by tired hawkers. News channels will run day-long bulletins called “Mahi Way” and “MSD will be MiSseD”.

It might seem unfair to his legacy. But Dhoni is an Indian cricketing icon. And that is how we Indians like to see off our icons – with great ceremony and on his own terms.

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