Saturday 1 October 2016

Why I Stopped Loving Mahendra Singh Dhoni

Indian Cricket Captain MS Dhoni Press Conference

<in b4 hate parade>

Long locks, a classical Maharaja-esque countenance, a subconscious shrug, a conscious ball smashing bravado and the bursts of childlike impishness. That was the Dhoni I first saw, that was the Dhoni that caused love at first sight. That was also the Dhoni I lost, and the Dhoni I never saw again.

Unlike Sachin, Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly or Kumble, I've watched Dhoni right from his debut. It's been a tumultuous relationship we've shared (if I may take the impudent liberty to assume he cares for my opinion) - I've liked him, like liked him, loved him and absolutely hated him. Thankfully, we've (read: I've) now moved past it all to settle into a phase where I reserve a deep trench of respect for the greatest cricket captain I have ever seen. He is yet to acknowledge my presence, but I guess some people belong in the spotlight, and for now I'm one of those meant to extol them - which brings us back to this isolated blog post in the dreary, desert sands of dead habit internet domains.

I'm not here to tout records or statistics, for they will always be in Dhoni's favour. Statistics, however, often tell inadequate, incoherent, abridged and at times, specious stories. Rahul Dravid batted at the top order for 344 ODIs and managed just 12 centuries. To put that in perspective, that's half of the number Virat Kohli has scored in half of the number of matches Dravid has played. Yet any ardent follower of the Fab 5 era of Indian cricket knew that Dravid was incontrovertibly indispensable, to put it mildly.

Funny things, them statistics. Here's another one - the undisputed distinction of owning the best bowling figures by an Indian bowler in ODIs is held by Stuart Binny.

Let that sink in.

Stuart Binny, who nearly emulated another Stuart's shambolic performance at Lauderhill this summer, is hitherto the man behind the best Indian bowling spell. If none manage to upstage the figures of 6-4, there might come a fateful day when posterity might fondly remember Stuart Binny as a 'wasted talent'.

I've always been a stickler for the stories scorecards tell, and the stories they don't. An enigma that comes ensnared with the clarity they're intended to proffer. Wahab Riaz ended the 2015 World Cup quarter-final with decent figures, yet no scorecard can do pure justice to the ruthless spell he unleashed upon unsuspecting Australian batsman.

That fact will, and can, only stay engraved in living memory.

In living memory stays the acrid taste that Dhoni cooked up on multiple occasions. Whether it was a covert declining ability in finishing innings, an overtly unorthodox technique that struggled in exacting conditions, an obstinate tendency to promote lesser batsmen above himself when India needed him most and the frustratingly recurring feeling each game that he could've done a lot more given his talent. Surely, my memory shouldn't be any different from the rest of the world's?

Yet I often found myself spearheading a minority - a subversive retrograde who was just simply hatin'. Public perception was deceptively influenced by his captaincy, and everything else was annually redeemed by the IPL. As has been the case with multiple cricketers since the inception of IPL, fans tend to diffuse the divider between international and league cricket in retrospect. IPL allowed Murali Vijay, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohit Sharma and of course, Suresh Raina, to convince people that they had talent, despite multiple failures in international cricket. Not for nothing, since all those individuals are fantastic cricketers today (or well, most), but repeated fondness for non-performing cricketers reeked of favouritism, especially when they all belonged to the same IPL team whistlin' and podu'ing its way through corruption, scandals and glory, and also especially at a time when several Indian legends had been axed with no second chance.

As Dhoni flourished under the tutelage of Gary Kirsten and burgeoned his wallet, fame and acumen for captaincy, he gradually lost his reckless abandon. I lost the Dhoni I loved - the milkshake drinkin', papaya devourin' six hittin' maniac. The aggression was substituted with calculation. Dhoni the Tactician replaced Dhoni the Aggressor. The helicopter feebly sputtered, before vanishing from the international circuit for years.

He had luck - an incessant truckload of it. Joginder Sharma was bowling the worst over in a T20 World Cup final before Misbah-ul-Haq decided to give us a reason to cherish a video clip with Sreesanth in it. It worked. In the 2011 World Cup final, Dhoni walked in after Gautam Gambhir and Kohli had steered India clear of ominous disaster. Gone ahead of a Yuvraj Singh in the form of his life, Dhoni quickly overshadowed Gambhir's herculean effort and his own piss-poor performance in the entire tournament, and before it. It worked. Another IPL season followed, a little more whistlin' and podu'ing, and no one would remember his dismal performances in the years leading to the World Cup and in the tournament itself. But I do, with my memory testament to my claims.

Indian Cricket Captain MS Dhoni at Edbaston Birmingham UK Only T20I 2016
Dhoni at the post-match presentation after the infamous Edgbaston T20 where he refused to give the strike to Rayudu and subsequently failed to finish the game.
He never had a good batting technique - his assets being rapid bat speed, supple wrists, brute strength and acute hand-eye coordination. He openly voiced boredom in watching and playing Test cricket and prematurely retired the moment tiny inklings of doubt started seeping into the people's minds. His defensive tactics faltered in stark contrast to Kohli's aggressive strategies in his stand-in match in Australia - so he quit before the criticism could build. His batting had often been shielded by his exploits in captaincy, but the day people started questioning his captaincy it were the first signs of impending doom. For a man guilty of overthinking scenarios, a skirmish with impending doom for a format he was never really able to establish mastery over seemed foolhardy at best. But then if not anything else, Dhoni was definitely the smartest cricketer of his time.

I hated the situation he had built for himself when the men he had blissfully snubbed struggled in domestic matches for the remote plausibility of a recall. I never wanted him dropped or sacked as captain. I just wanted him to do better, do more and be accountable. He was glorified beyond belief and always escaped unscathed. He had statistics that told a different story, fans that happily overlooked his shortcomings and frankly, a captain's mind that belonged on the field. Even if his batting fortunes swung like Bhuvneshwar Kumar's spells, no one exuded a higher mastery of cricket than Dhoni keeping behind the stumps when Indian spinners took over.

He seems to be doing well again, so we're back to reverence. But like a relationship once gone sour, a rope cut and knotted back, it's hard for me to love a man who played his politics, forgot his game, kicked my idol out of the team and ignored him thereafter and still gave me enough reasons to not want him out of the team - I couldn't love or hate completely, resorting to an unwelcome state of indomitable helplessness.

I hated that, and in turn never saw him the same again.

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