Leaders can get lonely and captains need a calming hand on their shoulder, too.
In sport, as in industry, or indeed as in a traditional family set up, the leader is meant to nurture, to provide for, occasionally to demand but at all times to be in control. At the first sign of adversity, the team looks to him and he has to appear calm. The team feeds off that. But the rock gets denuded by the winds too, it can chip and occasionally crumble. It never gets shelter, it only provides it. Leaders can get buffeted by circumstance, they can grow weary, they can do with a helping hand. It is not a sign of weakness, just a need for replenishment.
I believe Mahendra Singh Dhoni is in that situation, and that is why what he needs at the moment is a reassuring hand on the shoulder, not a pack encircling him. In the news and media business, perspectives are shortening; the need to scream out loud is taking the place of reason. A career cannot be assessed over a 10 minute slanging match, or a 700 word column or a 140 character rant.
Whether or not Dhoni is still the right man to lead India is a worthy debate. It is even a healthy debate. All good organisations must periodically ask themselves whether the incumbent leader is the best person to take them forward. But it is a debate to be conducted amongst calm, caring, informed minds. When everyone has had time to take a backward step and acquire a wider perspective. July is a good month for that. This holiday was needed as all holidays are after periods of stress.
India needs to acknowledge Dhoni’s amazing record and his extraordinary achievements. And then to ask if he is the right man going forward. Every captain has a shelf life. Some can be captains for ten years, others for no more than a couple. The question to ask really is whether your captain is still buoyed by the idea of leading a side, or whether he is weighed down by it. If he still enjoys it, then a group of people above him must ask if he is still capable, that is a separate issue. But if he is weighed down by it, he must give it up, or be asked to.
There are reasons why captains have a shelf life. Their tactics can get dated, they can become predictable, they can grow weary or, as often happens, their experience which is widely presumed to be their greatest strength can start coming in the way. Sachin Tendulkar once talked about experience being a double-edged sword. While it helps you understand yourself better, you also know that you can fail. When you are younger you don’t always understand the consequences of your actions and sometimes that can help you go headlong into something. It could be rash or it might be brilliant. Experience, especially post failure, can make you cautious, you can budget too much for failure. In sport, you might miss the moment.
I wonder sometimes if Dhoni has got to the stage where he is weary and burdened. From a distance you can judge his actions or look at his choices, but it is those closest to him who can sense the truth. I recently asked a former top India player whether it is possible to sense whether or not a captain has come to the end and he said yes. That is the call the selectors have to take about Dhoni.
There is little doubt that, quite unlike himself, he has become a little edgy and irritated. His equanimity was his greatest virtue and maybe it is running a bit thin. He has expressed his disappointment with his players where earlier he stood up for them much more. Maybe he is a bit unsettled post the Test retirement, maybe he is tired, maybe he feels vulnerable and that is why the time has come to place a hand on his shoulder.
Once that is done, Indian cricket needs to ask if the two-captain period can extend too far. If Tests and One-day cricket have vastly different teams, it isn’t an issue but teams get used to the style of a leader and having two vastly different personalities can be confusing for players too. It could, for example, arise in the attitude towards fast bowlers. Kohli and Dhoni are two very different people at different stages in their careers and remember, that can affect your posturing too. But if Kohli is the way ahead, then a conversation with Dhoni and a succession plan is vital.
July is a good month to set a date. And the World T20 — with the Champions Trophy still a year and a half away — would seem at this stage to be a good transition point.