“Overstaying one’s welcome” would fall under the category of situations that most people would try their best to avoid. The person caught in this position would find that those who had fawned over him and sang his praises till recently had started avoiding him, or even worse, commenced criticising him. It would be a miserable experience for all those unfortunate ones condemned by fate to face it. This is particularly true in the world of sports where new talent is forever replacing the old and even the existing performers. Hence most sportspersons try to plan their career in such a manner that they are able to perform to the maximum within the minimum time possible and leave the arena before the signs of deterioration of prowess become evident to everyone.
However, even the best laid plans of the best and the brightest can occasionally go wrong. This is what is presently happening to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, arguably the best captain that Indian cricket has seen till date. The poor performance of Chennai Super Kings (CSK), the franchisee that he has been leading since the commencement of Indian Premier League (IPL) since 2008, has angered the fans so much that there have been reports of threats to his family, prompting authorities to offer them protection. Critics, including former players, have been unsparing in their criticism and they have placed all the blame for the bad show at the doorsteps of the skipper.
It is not in dispute that the CSK side has been playing insipid cricket. They are languishing at the bottom of the points table and are out of the play-off race. This position is totally alien to the franchisee who emerged winners on three occasions and had not failed to reach the play-off stage even once before this season. Hence, one can understand the shock and disappointment of the fans, some of which would have turned into ire and angst against their favourite players. But the volley of opprobrium unleashed by the “experts” prompts the questions - what went wrong wth the side? and how much is the captain responsible for this unexpected downturn in its fortunes?
Flatter to deceive
CSK started the tournament with a win, defeating the fancied Mumbai Indians in the inaugural match. But their performance has been patchy ever since, with the success against Kings XI Punjab, by a margin of 10 wickets, being the only one where they showed signs of the all-round prowess that had made them a force to reckon with, in the past. When one looks at the batsmen, one finds that apart from Faf du Plessis, there are none who figure in the top 15 run-scorers. Among the bowlers, none from the Chennai side figures in the top 10 wicket-takers and the only one finding a place in the best 10 based on economy rate is Josh Hazlewood, who could play in only three matches. Thus, it is easily evident that there has been a failure of both batsmen and bowlers, with neither the tall scores nor tight economy rates forthcoming.
Another aspect that comes to light while going through the CSK side is the average age of the team. It is seen that nine of the players who are part of their regular playing eleven are over 30. Leading the fray are skipper Dhoni himself and Shane Watson, both of who are near to completing four decades of life on planet earth. Dwayne Bravo, du Plessis, Murali Vijay, Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu follow them closely, all aged over 35. Ravindra Jadeja and Piyush Chawla are over 30s. This leaves Sam Curran as the only cricketer who has featured in all the matches, who possesses sufficient credentials for being described as young. In a format of the game where speed and supreme athleticism constitute a distinct advantage, the presence of a bunch of old and weary legs is bound to bog down the side and CSK has been no exception.
Now coming to Dhoni, it was obvious that his remarkable career was nearing its end when he last wore the national colours during the ICC World Cup 2019. His famed big-hitting ability was on the wane and he was no longer the reliable “finisher” that he used to be a couple of years ago. But he was still the best wicketkeeper in the country besides being the most reliable lower middle order batsman. Further, his shrewd cricketing brain and sharp game sense were assets that no captain or side could refuse. Hence, despite being well past his prime, he made it to the squad for the championship and, more importantly, justified his selection by coming good at critical junctures as well. The manner in which he carried India to the threshold of a win against New Zealand in the semifinals after the top order collapsed in a heap would remain etched in the minds of all who watched the game.
Dhoni took a sabbatical from the game after this but did not announce his retirement. Given his reticence and extreme reluctance to meet the media, one could only guess what his plans were. The prevalent opinion was that he was planning to make his final bow from the game after the ICC T20 World Cup, originally scheduled to be held in Australia in October-November, 2020. It was expected that the IPL 2020 would provide him sufficient match practice and also serve to assess his fitness levels. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the decision of ICC not to hold the T20 World Cup this year appears to have caused a rethink and he announced his retirement on August 15 through an Instagram post.
The contractual obligations with the franchisee required Dhoni to play in IPL this year and true to his style, he took up this challenge. He was never the one to shy away from a battle, unlike some of the lesser mortals who chose to stay away. But what he might not have factored in was the reality that in CSK side he was required to play many roles, some of which were beyond his capabilities, given his age and form. At the peak of his glorious career, Dhoni was able to perform two of the most difficult jobs on a cricket field - that of captain and wicketkeeper - besides taking charge of the most tense one - that of a finisher. Such was his genius that he made it all appear so disarmingly simple and easy. But in 2020, it is no longer possible for him to do justice to all these parts. He may still be a topnotch wicketkeeper but he is no longer able to shore up the lower order and win matches with his bat. And the pressure of leading a weak side with little gumption for putting up a fight has affected his leadership skills as well. In short, he looks a pale shadow of the all-time great who strode the field like a colossus during his salad days.
As a self confessed Dhoni fan, I must say that I had a premonition of the bad times to come when I saw him in action in the first match itself. It was not his batting or wicketkeeping or manner of leading the side that made me see red; it was the appearance of the man. From the time he made his first bow in international cricket, Dhoni had lived and played by the rules he had set for himself, one of which was a near complete lack of discomfiture regarding his looks. No player had appeared more comfortable in his own skin and style than him. He made headlines for his long wavy hair, which attracted attention from even President Musharraf of Pakistan, but had no hesitation in cutting it short when he felt he had outgrown that phase. He shaved his head when India lifted the World Cup in 2011 and later on, he made no attempts to hide the strands of grey that appeared on his head and chin. In this matter, he was the cricketing equivalent of Rajnikanth, a celebrity who had the guts and confidence to face the public without powder, paint, pancake and periwig. However, Dhoni who is seen during IPL 2020 looks more like a coiffeur’s mannequin, with his hair dyed and beard groomed and styled. This is not the Dhoni one has been used to seeing and this makeover stands out as a reflection of his poor levels of self confidence.
Dhoni would always command a place in the hearts and heads of cricket fans the world over as one of the greatest cricketers to adorn the game. But IPL 2020 was something he could have done without. He deserves a better farewell.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)