M S Dhoni has stepped down as the skipper of Indian ODI and T20I side with immediate effect.
BCCI confirmed the news and acknowledged Dhoni’s “outstanding contribution as the captain of the Indian team across all formats”. He would be available for selection as a wicketkeeper-batsman.
“Age is not the issue … fitness is”
About 90 minutes into the movie bearing his name, a video-conference with the selectors reveal something about Dhoni which is both surprising and unsurprising.
Surprising, because subcontinental greats are rarely known to retire when at the top of their game. Instead, the history is littered with ‘once-great’ players holding on to their spot (and perhaps, by extension that faint chance of few more brand endorsement opportunities). Despite the blazing torch of their youthful game having long eroded by lack of form, injuries, or shown up by emergence of hungrier, fresher pack of players, they continue until their creaking joints reduce them to a flickering candle. So obsessed are we, for a proper ‘farewell’, that it was remarkable for Dhoni to have actually spoken up to drop at least three ‘senior’ players citing their lack of fitness, in spite of their formidable record and fan following.
And that’s where the unsurprising bit follows. For anyone who has followed Dhoni’s career closely, it’s hard to miss his practical streak. His transformation from a swaggering power-hitter to a cool, calculated finisher wasn’t as stark as that of his long, red mane to his close-cropped salt-n-pepper. But it typified his ability to absorb lessons quickly, and mental strength to apply it. The big shots still remained in his armory, inevitably pulled out when a steep asking rate had been reduced to a one-on-one duel with those bowling at death. His decisions as a skipper followed similar patterns to get the best out of his limited resources.
The records and awards are too well-known, but deserves a repeat – most wins as an Indian test captain (including a golden 18-month run as the World’s top ranked team), winning the top prize in global tournaments of each format (including holding all of them as defending champions at one point), and some stellar records as cricket’s premier keeper-batsman. He remains one of the top ODI batsmen, with a career average over 50.
The astonishing bits are, however, between the lines. Dhoni managed to keep his team atop the heap with rarely even two top-class bowlers to call upon. Zaheer Khan’s fitness and Harbhajan Singh’s form meant for the most part his best test team was reliant on the likes of Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Umesh Yadav etc. Heck! he even traded his big gloves for the cherry to nearly take out Kevin Pietersen once (just another reason why the Indians hate the DRS). And he barely missed a game owing fitness – tests, ODIs, T20s, IPL, Champions trophy – anywhere between 120 to 540 squats a day, batting, being electric between the wickets, planning his team strategy, media appearances and all. It took barely 3 years, and half of this workload, to bring down Rahul Dravid’s test batting average from 57 to 52. Dhoni did it for 8 years.
Like all good stories, even ‘untold stories’, this too must end. The power hits have been missing for a while, slowly-but-surely that hand-eye coordination is giving way. The helicopters, once a scourge of Malingas and Steyns, are now failing to fly against Rabadas and Bravos. The mind is sharp and the body is still fitter than most, but perhaps they aren’t quite coming together as seamlessly as often. But most of all, the young incumbent is showing the hunger which Dhoni of 2008 identifies instinctively. He knows, 2019 World Cup would need that hunger.
And so, he rode to sunset, doubtless in one of his bikes. The ‘timing’ is still intact.