Fans, aficionados and fellow cricketers are still seeking a context for Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s sudden surrender of the One Day International and Twenty20 captaincy. Was he “nudged” into this decision, as has been reported in some sections of the media, or did it come of his own volition?
In my opinion, this is not an either/or debate. It is perfectly plausible—and in fact necessary—that the selectors would have wanted know how Dhoni saw his future. That is fundamental to their job. Given cricket’s frenetic itinerary these days, advance planning is imperative. There is no dissonance in this.
Simultaneously, it is equally important for a player, especially a captain in his mid-30s as Dhoni is, to know where he stands in these plans. That is being commonsensical, not insecure.
I do not know whether the selectors and Dhoni exchanged views directly on the subject. Such sensitive matters demand prudence and are better tackled indirectly. Team members, coach, support staff and other sources can be a good barometer in such situations for both parties.
The timing of his resignation, of course, seems enigmatic, what with the One Day International series against England less than two weeks away. That perhaps fuelled the belief that selectors may have weighed in on him though Dhoni’s approach, on and off the field, has usually been off-beat.
Unlike two seasons ago, however, when Dhoni caught everybody off-guard by retiring from Test cricket altogether, this time he has quit the captaincy but will continue as a player. This suggests a detailed self-assessment of the circumstances, not a knee-jerk response to some external stimulus.
He would still harbour hopes of playing the 2019 50-over World Cup, but at his age, Dhoni would have to review the situation series by series: see how his body continues to take the heavy workload and, more pertinently, whether the desire in him to continue playing is still alive.
It seemed at one stage that Dhoni might take a call on his future after the Champions Trophy. But that would mean lopping off six months from the new captain’s tenure. Virat Kohli now gets that much more time to get into the groove for the World Cup.
My surmise is that Dhoni made the decision juxtaposing all of this with the winds of change blowing currently. There was greater value to him, the team and Indian cricket in giving up the captaincy. He couldn’t have timed it better.
Quitting the captaincy obviously unburdens him, but Dhoni will still have to keep himself relevant as the future unfolds. India are currently flush with wicketkeeper-batsmen. Though nobody is quite in the same league, there is a threat from younger players.
In a sense, that should keep Dhoni on his feet, stoke his ambition; in fact, give him second wind. Undemonstrative he may be, but there is no more resolute and combative a cricketer, as teammates and rivals will testify.
He is still supremely fit, and relieved of the captaincy, should be able to play more freely. Dhoni’s wicketkeeping, unorthodox as ever, remains top-class. While age may have dimmed some of his physical power as a batsman, his prowess is intact.
He remains a terrific improviser. More crucially, Dhoni’s depth of experience means he is still the best reader of a game situation. He can hold the innings together or accelerate when needed. With so many dashers in the batting line-up, he could be the pivot.
Great players are always self-starters but if Dhoni at all needs any inspiration, there are the fantastic examples of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid who went on to excel—as stalwarts in the middle and mentors in the dressing room—after giving up the captaincy.
Meanwhile, Kohli has to recast his own role too. He’s had a glorious run as captain so far, but his horizon has widened and inevitably, the onus on him has increased. It’s not just his own form (which is important) but also how the team fares that will now reflect on him.
For, given the body of work and titles won, Dhoni leaves behind mighty boots to fill.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.