By: Sriram Veera
Why are you still captaining? What excites you?” It’s 2012, India were in the middle of a masochistic tour of Australia, he had by then already said he would quit Tests by the end of 2013, speculations about rifts within the team were floating, when MS Dhoni was asked that direct question. We were in a press conference and the question, at least the way it tumbled out of my mouth, was probably harsh but that was that.
Dhoni didn’t stare. Too long at least. He looked into the eye, turned his head away to nothing in particular and said: “Not for the sake of it. It’s an interesting responsibility given to me… the challenge (excites me), the challenge to be with the senior guys, to groom the youngsters to keep the dressing-room atmosphere good. Leading a side is all about when the team is not doing well.”
It’s a good revealing answer. May be devoid of the joy of captaincy which did come through on the long hours under the sun overseas when he would often let things meander. Perhaps, the retirement of the seniors appealed to his sense of responsibility and he pushed that decision to quit Tests by an year, to now.
The timing, the manner, the secrecy, the abruptness was typically Dhoni. He hadn’t called his team-mates to his wedding; he wasn’t going to tell them now before the decision to quit. The timing is right for he had long failed to convince that he could really change his tepid captaincy style.
It’s the schizophrenia of Dhoni’s captaincy, and as Test batsman, that startles even after all these years. How can a man who was so imperious in limited-overs format be so tame with bat in Tests? How can a captain who was pretty good in India be so rudderless overseas? It’s no surprise that he has first quit the format he was least successful in.
Every captain has a shelf-life, but importantly every captain has a place and time where he fits. Arjuna Ranatunga was the freedom fighter that a then young vulnerable Sri Lanka needed to be confident to compete with international teams. Same with India. Sourav Ganguly’s passion was needed to inspire a young new India, coming out of the controversies of match-fixing; Rahul Dravid’s approach that led to a few controversial sackings of big players and also the re-establishment of some prodigal sons helped to reign in some big egos.
And Dhoni’s calmness was just what the star-heavy Test team needed, someone to give them the space to do their own thing. That bunch of individuals, who were self-aware and mature, didn’t need much work. They didn’t need a passionate Ganguly; they needed a nonchalant Dhoni and he took them all the way to No 1 spot in Tests. As a captain, he was all about control. And Indian conditions allowed him to micro manage. The big totals piled up by his batsmen would give him the scoreboard pressure he sought, and he could then let his spinners attack.
And when his batsmen couldn’t do that against England at home in 2012, he couldn’t do much with his spinners and they lost the series, a defeat that should rankle him.
He could still do his magic in ODIs abroad. The format gave him a natural framework to flower.
With certain amount of runs to be defended, he could do his thing. He could do the inspirational moves in ODIs — a fielder so straight, almost behind a bowler, takes a catch; a man at deep point as a catching option; a 7-2 field to induce claustrophobia in batsmen.
But in overseas Tests, he didn’t have that luxury of control from his bowlers. And without that control, he lacked inspiration and was on auto-pilot. Often, he would sit back for a mistake from the opposition on potential game-turning moments. On the balance, it has to be said that the Tests, with its unique almost time-less flow of things, didn’t suit him.
He fell into the same trap with his batting. An iffy defensive technique didn’t help, of course. It seemed he didn’t trust himself enough that he could do well in Tests. Not until the last series in England earlier this year did he really fight it out. Where previously he was just pushing and prodding and waiting for an inevitable edge, he put his body out there in England. He moved around the crease, stepped out of it, took body-blows, managed to push inside the line of seaming deliveries, and braved it out there.
It made you sigh about the lost years but at least he had showed us that he could bat in alien conditions. Pity that it came so late in his career.
It’s that schizophrenia that would stay in the mind for now.
History might probably be kinder on a man who led India to No. 1 spot in Tests, but in the here and now, he will be remembered more for his exploits in coloured clothing.