From his point of view, and of the long term benefit of Indian cricket, it was best that Mahendra Singh Dhoni missed the Asia Cup. He must be tired. Winning can sometimes mask that but losing accentuates it. When you are winning, there is always someone raising spirits, making 50-50 decisions feel like master strokes, making you believe that your instincts are still good enough. Winning is reassuring in many ways.
But when you lose, a tired mind accompanies a tired body. A good masseur and a caring physio can put you back in shape to play but it is not as easy to nurse the mind back. Suddenly you doubt yourself, you are not even certain whether long leg should have been a touch squarer, let alone whether or not backing your third seamer was a good idea. A losing captain also tends to be a lonely captain and negative thoughts can fester.
I’m just surprised that Dhoni isn’t tired oftener given the number of roles he plays in the Indian team. Being a wicketkeeper alone can be tiring, try going up and down five hundred and forty times a day, but add to that being captain and a frequent batsman, and the relentless scrutiny, and it makes it quite a lot. Writers get tired of writing, and often that is the only thing they do.
Tired and tested
A tired captain is bad for the side too. As a leader you have to sniff around for every opportunity. Dhoni has rarely had the luxury of bowlers he could throw the ball too and switch off, even if briefly, and so he needs to be even more alert. A tired mind can let things drift, see how often that happens to you for example. And inevitably, at such moments, the ball will go to where a fielder should have been but wasn’t.
Sometimes captains can get stale too. Like leaders in almost any walk of life, they have their way of doing things and that may get dated, or ineffective. They may have exhorted the team the same way, with the same words, and suddenly it doesn’t have the same effect. With Dhoni, some of these factors might be valid, there might be others, but it is apparent that he is letting things happen, rather than causing them to happen. I hope, therefore, that he is in the hills somewhere, taking in the still crisp air, and not reading newspapers or watching television. That might stress him even more.
But from India’s point of view there is another reason why this rest might be good. Dhoni is well into the second half of his captaincy and while his successor may still be some distance away from taking his place, we need to see how good he is. I think, like many others, that Virat Kohli will make a dashing captain one day but that hypothesis hasn’t been tested. As a leader he might be completely different in character from the way he is as a batsman, for example, and so he needs to captain the side a fair bit before he can get the job full time. A tournament like the Asia Cup will be just right for him. The competition will be tough but this is not the World Cup and so he can explore himself and his leadership skills. He can see if he really likes it because it is not mandatory that he must. Sometimes leadership can be far more attractive when you don’t have it.
However, if Kohli does like the job, and he displays some panache for it, and the players seem to warm to his leadership, it can offer India alternatives that might otherwise not be apparent. Why, it might even kindle a new fire in Dhoni as he sees a future challenger revel in captaincy. You never know!
Quitting CSK captaincy
I think India needs a fresh, hungry, and tactically agile Dhoni to lead India to England and Australia. Maybe from that point of view it is best if he gives up the captaincy in matches that, from the national team’s point of view, are less critical. Captaincy of the Chennai Super Kings, for example. It is not the first time I have advocated this and playing purely as an attacking batsman and wicketkeeper might reduce the stress a bit. Tiger Pataudi did that. He led India but in the Ranji Trophy he allowed his good friend M L Jaisimha to lead Hyderabad, even South Zone.
Apart from batting and bowling, there is something else to watch for at the Asia Cup.