ENTICING AS it is to see a young man, nervous and ambitious at the same time, take early steps in international sport, it is enriching, even if a touch disconcerting, to see a champion playing out his end game. Often the mind is still sharp, the ideas are still right but the implements have been blunted a bit.
The front foot doesn’t quite reach out as much, the bat comes down a shade slower, the short ball that was nonchalantly let go now produces a rather more clumsy reaction, the ball beats you into the fence a little more often.
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The very best accept this passage of time and adapt, they take a little out of their game, they respect the opposition a bit more! And because the gems they used to display appear a little less frequently, they are a source of greater joy when they do.
Tendulkar’s straight drive in his last innings, Sehwag’s starts for Kings XI, Kumble getting Gilchrist bowled in IPL-2…you wouldn’t have remembered them if they had happened a couple of years earlier. And of course Rahul Dravid’s three hundreds in England in 2011, a triumph of will and doggedness over the forces of nature, remain among the most alluring sights I have seen on a cricket ground. And so as I wait to see an exciting young brigade, hopefully take bigger strides in international cricket, I am just as eager to see how the mighty MS Dhoni returns to a stage he has often owned.
In England and Australia last year, and thereafter at the World Cup and the IPL, Dhoni was tired; as much physically as mentally. He had been captain for seven years and even for someone as easy-going as him, the odd doubt would have crept in. Mental fatigue is a less visible, even less understood, aspect of sport.
When the mind is tired, the body tends to be sluggish too and even adrenaline can only take you so far. It didn’t help Dhoni that his bowlers were keeping him on the field for long hours which meant his tired body was going up and down a lot more than it needed to.
And now, for the first part of the season and a lengthy last, Dhoni returns, hopefully refreshed and rejuvenated, but a year older. His fitness hasn’t ever been an issue and if he has been deemed fit enough to jump with army paratroopers from significant heights, he must be fine! But he returns after a lengthy spell away from the game and that can do strange things to your footwork or indeed to your bat swing.
These absences are something he must live with if he only plays one form of the game and so his hunger and his preparedness will be tested this year. As indeed will his hold over a team that he is now only a co-owner of. In Bangladesh earlier this year, we saw Dhoni bat at number four and I wonder if that will be his preferred position at home against South Africa and especially away in Australia. You can tell that his might, as the finest finisher in limited overs cricket, has been dented a bit.
Maybe he knows too that he needs a bit longer to get going, that maybe his game will revolve around lots more singles and twos (and watching his speed between the wickets will be interesting in itself) and that the job of finishing now needs to go to someone a few years younger. Maybe his protégé Suresh Raina who, it must be remembered, started playing international cricket a mere two years after Dhoni did!
Alternately of course, Dhoni might find the strength has returned to his legs and his shoulders and, armed with a less exhausted mind, he might opt to become the finisher again in which case number five will be just right for him. But for him to play significant roles against the two most demanding teams in international cricket, he needs to be playing fairly frequently.
Will he play Ranji Trophy cricket again, even if aware that it is at best a distant cousin of international cricket, merely to retain a feel for the game?
He has been an astonishing cricketer and a very smart man and I have little doubt he will find a way to play at this level for another year. I fear his real problem will start thereafter because India play 13-14 test matches in 2016-17 and that will mean long absences from top level cricket with a body a year older. Which is why I suspect by the time the World T20 ends, he will have a very good idea of where he sees himself. I would love to see him play on but I won’t be surprised if he thinks he has had enough.
I look forward to watching this young side play this year but just as much, I look forward to seeing MS Dhoni play.