I think India’s captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni played one of the most expressive innings ever played in cricket. I think it was a piece of classic agitprop (OK, let me make it simpler: it was a public act of protest, plea, rebellion, whatever, add your words).
I think Dhoni is responsible for a lot of what is wrong with the Indian cricket team. But I love him for what he did. He hung a big FU sign on his neck and he asked some questions. I haven’t seen anyone answer.
When Ishant Sharma walked in to join Dhoni at the Eden Gardens on the evening of 3 January, India’s captain had made 31 off 58 deliveries. He had come in to bat in the 19th over, after Yuvraj Singh had tied himself into knots and finally departed, to the relief of everyone, for 9 runs off 19 balls. He had then watched Suresh Raina (18 off 42), Ashwin (3 off 22), Jadeja (13 off 23), Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Ashok Dinda (both zero off 2 balls) go back to the pavilion. It was the end of the 40th over, and India were 132 for the loss of 9 wickets, 118 runs behind Pakistan’s total, 119 to win, from 60 balls, required run rate 11.9.
What he did was the following. He did not try to win the match, he did everything to make sure that he got his 50, and if anything more came his way, good for it. He simply told his team that he hates them for what they promise and never deliver, for their selfishness and failures. He played the most selfish and pointless innings possible, patting back harmless deliveries, refusing to take any single that would expose Sharma to the Pakistani bowlers, got his 50 not out and walked away. FU, everyone.
Dhoni is certainly one of the best men in the world to have on your side when the chips are down. If he is not the best finisher of the game in limited-over cricket history, he is at least the second best, after Australia’s Michael Bevan. And here he was, the captain of a battered and bruised Indian team, a man whose hair has turned almost entirely grey in the last 18 months, facing a task that was, well, plain ridiculous.
In the game before this one, he had come in when all seemed lost, and had played surely one of the greatest innings in one-day cricket. He had defended dourly, denying himself every little pleasure for dozens of overs, before he decided that it was time. It was a magnificent innings, a true test of character and responsibility, with the special meaning and resonance of captaincy that only cricket has. He played like a captain, and no captain could have served his team better.
India still lost. And in the next game, Dhoni played this extraordinary innings. I listened to the Dhoni-Ishant partnership on the car radio as I drove back from a long way from home. The commentators were at a loss for words.
If ever a cricket captain held up a big sign saying “FU!” to his teammates ever in the history of cricket, it was Dhoni. He made no effort to force the pace, no effort to win—it would have been stupid and pointless anyway—but he made it clear that he had no faith in the glorious uncertainties. He played so he would get his 50, remain not out, improve his average, and the message thereby he sent to his team mates cannot be expressed (at least by me) in any words that are fit to print in mainstream media.
He batted as if he was playing to draw a Test match. He played the most selfish innings that I can remember watching—the team has lost, get your 50, stay not out, walk away. And this, a captain.
Is this big fluorescent FU a good captaincy move? I think we have to view it as the response of a man who is at the end of his tether. This does not mean in any way that he should be let off the hook. But I admire him totally for that. He has been a man that most of our India captains have not been. He could not have sent a clearer message to his team. I think there would not have been much conversation in the Indian dressing room last night. Yet it is now for the team to respond.