The Dhoni question and unfair criticism

The Dhoni conundrum and unfair criticism
Gautam Gambhir, right, has made it clear that it's time M S Dhoni called it quits. File photo: AFP

The lull following the conclusion of the ICC World Cup has been filled up by Indian media with thoughts over retirement plans of Mahendra Singh Dhoni or to be more precisely the lack of public announcement in this regard by the veteran player. There was wide speculation even before the start of the World Cup that Dhoni might announce his farewell from international cricket after the event. But the player himself remained completely reclusive, which is his wont, before informing the Board of Control for Cricket in India that he would be taking a two-month break to serve his army regiment, thus effectively ruling himself out of the tour of the West Indies that is scheduled to commence in early August.

Though most of the commentators and observers took the stance that it was up to Dhoni to decide when he should hang up his boots, spice was added to the debate by Gautam Gambhir, a former player who is now a Member of Parliament. Gambhir, a member of the Dhoni-led team that lifted the 2011 World Cup, stated that the former skipper promoted youngsters at the cost of veterans. He also recalled the specific instance in 2012 when Dhoni held that Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and he himself (Gambhir) could not play together as grounds in Australia were too large and the ageing players would cost the side precious runs on the field. The broad hint being dropped was that Dhoni should take the honourable route of bidding adieu from the game gracefully rather than face the ignominy of being dropped from the squad or not considered for representing the country by the national selectors.

Tough customer

Very few appear to remember that Dhoni quit playing the longer duration version of the game way back in December, 2014, and has been playing only white ball cricket since. His performances with the bat and behind the stumps were under close scrutiny during the World Cup. His inability to force the pace in the match against Afghanistan had attracted widespread criticism but skipper Virat Kohli and the team management stood firmly behind him. Dhoni’s detractors even found fault with his contribution in the semifinal against New Zealand, where he played the key anchor role while Ravindra Jadeja counterattacked the Kiwi bowlers, by chiding him for his inability to force the pace. A person with thinner skin and weaker mind would have thrown in the towel in the face of such unfair denunciation, but Dhoni is made of sterner stuff. It is to his everlasting credit that he has remained unfazed by the barrage of barbs and brickbats, all of which have bounced off his cool, teflon-coated demeanour.

But the truth is that very few cricketers are blessed with a temperament and fortitude that comes even close to Dhoni’s. Though international sportspersons learn through experience to ignore and disregard unfair comments, it remains a fact that at the core most of them are insecure and sensitive to criticism. They are acutely aware that the money and fame they enjoy are fickle and entirely dependent on remaining at the top of their profession, for which there exists a very definite cessation point. Since this professional “expiry date” does not invariably extend beyond the fourth decade of life, they would feel the compulsion to extend it to the maximum. Critics do not appreciate the efforts put in by players who strive to continue at international level once past their early thirties, which is the time their reflexes and fitness levels start going downhill. Only those who have absolute commitment to their craft are able to stave off these age induced changes and they achieve this by adopting a strict regime of exercises which require discipline, dedication and deprivation.

The relationship between sportspersons and the section of media that cover their activities is mutually complementary. During the early days of one’s career, every player requires support of local reporters, who cover their matches, to highlight their performances and give them sufficient coverage to attract attention of the selectors. These reporters, who perform the hard and unglamorous task of covering games played in small towns and cities, earn the respect of cricketers by their commitment to their profession besides the immense knowledge and experience that they possess. It would also be noticed that these journalists who cover the matches seldom indulge in unwanted criticism nor would they say or write anything that could create controversy. Their opinions are always based on solid facts and hence they are always given the respect and regard that they deserve.

Relationship between players and experts

Of late, a new genre of commentators, comprising entirely former players, have emerged on the horizon. They have the advantage that they have played the game at the highest level and can hence relate to happenings in the middle more effectively then persons who have made their careers as scribes. Initially, one witnessed the advantages of having such cricketers of eminence doing the commentary, as was the case when a Richie Benaud or Sunil Gavaskar (in the days immediately after his retirement) used to explain the events on the field to viewers in a simple language along with an insight into the pressures in the middle that made listening to them an enjoyable as well as gratifying experience. The popularity of such former players with the mike led to an exodus of many more of their yoke to the financially rewarding and socially attractive locales inside the commentary box.

However, one found that infusion of quality did not lead to an upsurge in the quality of output. More often, former players turned commentators relied on hyperbole to attract the attention of viewers, which resulted in much amusement that, later on, turned to consternation. Another phenomenon that emerged was that these former cricketers started using the freedom and reach of the commentary box to criticise the players using very strong language. This is something that players cannot stomach as they expect empathy and understanding from their former teammates who know only too well the extent of pressures on the ground and the dynamics of the dressing room, having been there not too long ago. Further, there also exists the feeling that these analysts owe their job solely to their cricketing prowess and not on experience and expertise as reporters and hence lack the sagacity and wisdom that comes with years on the field.

Verbal duel
Ravindra Jadeja, right, made his displeasure known after Sanjay Manjrekar called him a bits-and-pieces player.

It is this fundamental lack of respect towards the new generation of player-turned-commentators that caused outbursts from Jonny Bairstow and Ravindra Jadeja during the World Cup. The observations that provoked the responses might have been ignored had they been made by a veteran journalist but coming from their former teammates, they pricked and hurt badly. Dhoni is too shrewd a customer to respond to the statement of Gambhir, but it is certain that he would not have been amused or happy to hear the words of his former teammate.

Former cricketers who move to commentary box should remember that it is essential for them to earn the respect of players in the same manner that they won the reverence and love of public during their playing days. Resorting to overstatements and shooting barbs at their former teammates might attract the attention of public but would not help in the long run where there exist no substitute for honest observations moulded on experience and understanding.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)