Birmingham, June 29: With Mahendra Singh Dhoni, you never know what’s going on. News of his retirement from Test cricket came in the form of an email from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), minutes after his post-match press conference after a hard-earned draw in Melbourne in December 2014 during which there was no hint of the mania to follow.
His resignation as limited-overs captain in January 2017 was made public in equally underwhelming fashion, again through a mail from the BCCI. He is much the inscrutable onyx, his face providing little clue to the raging thoughts, if any, in his mind.
As he has been for a little while now, Dhoni finds himself in the eye of a gentle storm. Illustrious names such as Sachin Tendulkar have pulled him up for lack of 'intent’, especially during the Afghanistan game in Southampton when he took a long time to get going and eventually was dismissed for a 52-ball 28. Like then, he ought to have been stumped when on eight against West Indies two days back; Shai Hope looked a gift horse in the mouth, Dhoni didn’t, and he salvaged a floundering strike-rate with a 16-run final over from Oshane Thomas that helped him finish on a 61-ball 56.
All through his halcyon days, Dhoni has managed to cocoon himself from criticism, warranted and otherwise. His insulation from the developments around him was less a defence mechanism and more in keeping with his innate character trait of not focusing on issues over which he has little control. Now, with the finish line in sight, there is no reason to believe he is any more pervious to observations from former teammates turned media analysts than he used to be.
There is, it is possible, one part of Dhoni himself that isn’t too happy with what Dhoni is doing. Especially when he starts off against spin, or against bowlers adept at taking pace off the ball, Dhoni has found it hard to turn the strike over. It hasn’t been a decisive facet yet, but with the pitches getting slower, the sun getting harsher and the bowlers getting smarter, he can’t expect any freebies going into the business end of the World Cup.
The unfamiliar sight of Dhoni at optional practice at Edgbaston on Saturday (June 29), a day ahead of the face-off against England, has left itself open to interpretation. Ravi Shastri, the head coach, left the former captain to his own devices, instead opting to keep a close watch on Kedar Jadhav.
Dhoni faced throw-downs from the support staff, then trooped across to the net manned by local tweakers of various ilk, including a left-arm wrist-spinner. From the outside, it didn’t look like he was attempting anything different. Apart from one paddle sweep, Dhoni at nets was pretty much Dhoni in the middle. Maybe he just needed to feel bat on ball, maybe he felt an outing to the ground would rid him of some of the inevitable nervous energy.
As he left the practice nets, bats tucked under his armpit, his coffin trailing in his wake, Dhoni hardly looked a man in turmoil. He found time to joke with a couple of us journalists, smiling at his own throwaway line. He was in total control of himself, like he is most times.
Dhoni has had the unstinted support of his captain, who once again rose to the defence of his predecessor on the vexatious early strike-rotation issue. "He knows exactly what he needs to do,” Virat Kohli reaffirmed, almost exasperated that this topic should even be raised.
“I don't think he's ever been a cricketer that's had the need to be told what exactly he needs to do. What we experience and what we know inside the change room is the most important thing to us, and we have total belief in him. He has stood up for the team many times, especially if you look at this calendar year and the kind of performances he's given. I don't think it's fair to point out one or two performances, anyone can falter with the bat," said Kohli.
To expect him to turn the clock back and reproduce the vintage stuff that triggered the folklore of Dhoni is grossly unfair. He would have more than done his job if he can play the situation and conditions, play the mentor and guide, play his part in victories. To Kohli and the team, it doesn’t really matter how.
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)