By Priyansh Jul. 01, 2019
MS Dhoni is not a cricketer or former captain to many. He’s a demigod whose myth is varnished by his unquestioning, overzealous worshippers. But it’s time to humanise him.
Look, here’s the thing. India did not lose that match against England last Sunday because Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav whimpered their way to defeat. The match was lost a while before, perhaps after the opening 10 overs of the Indian innings. And it seems disingenuous to blame the result on a single individual in a team sport. Teams lose for many reasons, even though the match-losing innings is part of the cricketing fan’s parlance now.
In fact, it seems difficult to recall any match that Dhoni may have lost for India. There was the ODI against England at Lord’s last year when a 59-ball 37 by the former captain prompted boos in India’s failed chase of 323. Or this year’s contest against Australia when Dhoni’s 51 off 96 deliveries again pricked a few as India was unable to successfully pursue the target of 289. And then there was yesterday. In each of those innings, Dhoni’s batting came under severe scrutiny but India was already behind the opposition to a considerable extent before he had even faced a ball.
He may not have inspired on any of the occasions but nor was India severely hampered by Dhoni’s presence in the team. Perhaps the disappointment had its roots in what we had come to expect from the maestro in the past. He could pull India out of the deepest trench, when drowning seemed inevitable. Dhoni’s myth and his legend was built on the superhuman effort – his ability to hit sixes when the cause seemed lost, his bravado in the face of unreal odds. And that’s what made him a great white-ball player. A recent episode of the ESPN Cricinfo Talking World Cup podcast discussed Dhoni’s enduring popularity among Pakistan fans, despite the rise of Virat Kohli. It is so because he is remembered as a match-winner.
This is an image that hangs heavily over MS Dhoni. Although data does show that Dhoni was never really a very quick scorer in chases, his aura was built on the ability to see the team home. But with the years advancing and the powers waning, the 38-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman finds himself unable to repeat the Houdini acts of old.
That seems entirely reasonable, only that nobody in and around the team is open to accepting it. Whenever a question is raised about Dhoni, it is evaded and you get other rationalisations from the Indian side. Sample this from captain Virat Kohli.
Although data does show that Dhoni was never really a very quick scorer in chases, his aura was built on the ability to see the team home. Clive Mason/Getty Images
Although data does show that Dhoni was never really a very quick scorer in chases, his aura was built on the ability to see the team home.
Clive Mason/Getty Images
“We have quite a few players who play instinctive cricket and follow their positive game plans. He is one guy in the middle who always sends out a message for the team, ‘I think this is the par score on this pitch.’ Understanding how our bowlers bowl as well, he has such a keen understanding of the game. So he is always giving us feedback, in terms of, ‘Okay, 260 is a good score, 265 is a good score.’ So that we don’t look at 300 and end up getting 230.”
And we have all heard how Dhoni helps the young spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal with their plans; not to mention, he guides the team on every possible review of the umpire’s decision as well. All of this is undeniably true. Dhoni’s understanding of the game is unlike most of his peers. Yet the Indian cricket team, and some sections of the media that serves as its extension, remain obstinately opposed to acknowledge the problems with his batting.
It is as if all the things he’s praised for will amount to nothing by merely saying the words “He is not the same batsman anymore”. It would seem that the phrase has insuperable power. Those few words are heresy, which would atrophy everything he has ever achieved, his name, and his memory. Perhaps, in the process of deifying Dhoni, his overzealous admirers have started to actually believe that he is a superhero whose every act must end in supreme victory.
But, pardon the stretching of the metaphor, the endgame is here now. Dhoni seems to be losing a bit of touch with even those things that he seemingly would never get wrong. Twice in this World Cup, he has counselled the team against reviewing the umpire’s decision even when India would have succeeded on appeal. It’s worth recalling that Dhoni’s fans had rechristened DRS as the Dhoni Review System. Not quite.
It’s worth recalling that Dhoni’s fans had rechristened DRS as the Dhoni Review System. Not quite.
Then there is his calm demeanour of which paeans have been sung. But as the latest IPL season showed, Dhoni is not immune to losing his cool. He was fined for walking on to the field and bullying an umpire during a tense match. Dhoni’s momentary lapse of reason set a worrying precedent, especially when you consider the meagre punishment dished out to him.
But these charges are not intended to demean Dhoni. Instead, they humanise him. It might seem like an obvious obvious task to undertake, but Dhoni is not a cricketer or former captain to many. He’s a demigod whose myth is varnished by those unquestioning, overzealous worshippers at every opportunity – there is a word for them in Hindi but I will not go there (yes, that one).
So, Dhoni battles with shots that do not quite come off, with spinners who put a leash on him with ease, and with an inability to reproduce the impossible acts of yore. This is entirely natural for a player nearing retirement. The World Cup will end soon, and no matter how it pans out for India, the team will forge ahead without Dhoni. That is entirely natural too. Dhoni’s legendary heroics will not be forgotten soon, and probably his occasional follies will stay in memory too. But the lack of “intent” that he has been accused of is far below that list.
Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi, looking for the intersections between sport, politics, and culture. His keen interest in sociology comes handy. When not working, he is busy preparing himself to work. He tweets @Privaricate.