Indians, like the rest of the world, like to fuss about their past, which explains the sentiment and hope that MS Dhoni keeps on playing ODIs. After all, he has been a champion player for more than a decade, the man who led India with such calm and poise earning the respect of team-mates and opponents alike.
But international careers cannot run on sentiment. With the ODI series against the Windies locked at 1-1 with two matches to go, the arguments for Dhoni to stay are looking a bit stale now. For the last year and a half, his whispers and urgings from behind the stumps to the young spinners have been talked about as a key example of how his experience has helped. No doubt it has, but even after 18 months, if the youngsters still need guidance, there is something wrong. It’s time for them to stand on their own feet and find themselves.
Now, with runs drying up, it’s almost painful to watch Dhoni stir sympathy and gratitude. Not that he has triggered them on purpose, but it’s a byproduct of being a sporting legend. They are well-earned achievements but aren’t the essential yardstick for a sportsman. It’s performance — everything else is a mere detail. It would be an injustice to him — and what he has stood for as an eerily calm leader who phased out seniors in his time — if we are sympathetic towards him now.
A man who selflessly quit Test captaincy, and was quick to relinquish ODI leadership isn’t the type of man who will run on such sentimentalism. Even if the ageing years has induced some vulnerability in his mind, it’s time for Indian cricket to remind him what he was. He was the person who helped ease out the seniors with grace, and it’s time we extend him the same courtesy.
For many, like Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar before, Dhoni is a nostalgia machine. The numerous triumphant moments, the breathtaking batting finishes, World Cup wins, and the ultra-cool — almost un-Indian way — in which he went about his captaincy, was awe-inspiring. So, understandably, it’s difficult to let go.
Indian cricket doesn’t do goodbyes well. Who can forget Kapil’s slow fall in his last two years? A man who should have retired after a fabulous tour of Australia in 1992 was reduced to a pale shadow of himself in the last year or so. Still, those were different times and the world record of Test wickets meant something to a nation who kept praying for him to continue. Then came Tendulkar, who too should have gone after the 2011 World Cup but played on for a while. A cricketing nation had turned protective of its great superstar: oh what he would do after retirement, cricket is all he knows… and they couldn’t get enough of him. Until Sandeep Patil, as chairman of selectors, made the tough call to let him know that time was up. Not many grumbled when Rahul Dravid slipped away (relatively) quietly into the sunset after one horror series in Australia. VVS Laxman’s departure was even quieter. Sourav Ganguly too was nudged away in the end. As difficult as they were, all those decisions had to be taken.
It also raises the other question about superstardom. Is Dhoni as big a star as Tendulkar and Kapil were? The answer seems to be yes, considering the passion he whips among the fans. There hasn’t been a greater captain than him in ODIs. He wasn’t that good in Tests, often letting things drift and lacked imagination overseas. The frenetic nature of limited-overs cricket where he could control the variables, where he knew the endgame, where he was aware of all the little crisis and challenge points — the Powerplays, the death overs, the middle overs — suited him. The more open-ended Tests left him stumbling a bit. But one-day cricket and T20s still rule the hearts, and Dhoni the captain and the batsman was so sensational that a whole generation of Indian cricket and its fans feel they owe it to him.
With Dhoni, it’s understandable to see why. For some, his career would capture the sidelights of their own growing-up years. When a long-haired Dhoni won the ICC World T20 and invested in youth when the short-haired Dhoni lifted the 50-over World Cup and allowed Tendulkar and a nation quench a long-lasting thirst.
But now, the time has come to let the next generation take the baton and run with it. Dhoni has done everything that could possibly have been asked of him since the time he relinquished ODI captaincy. He has helped the youngsters, has been a confidence-serum for the likes of Ambati Rayudu and has also shown Kohli how to lead in crunch situations.
There is another reason that some board sources told this newspaper. Even sillier. That it frees Virat Kohli to field in the deep and let Dhoni take over the leadership in crunch situations. Seriously? You might as well make Dhoni the captain then? It would be surprising if Kohli sees the situation this way.
A tougher, but after, tribute to Dhoni’s legacy is to allow him to go without much fuss. He wasn’t a sentimental man on the field, wasn’t prone to wild celebrations, didn’t let defeat or victory overwhelm him, charted his own legacy, was a man who broke through from a small town to achieve superstardom without a trace of emotionalism and doesn’t deserve misplaced sympathy or gratitude.
Of all the modern-day Indian cricketing legends, Dhoni is the one who we have to fret the least about how he will lead the life after cricket. He isn’t likely to linger around the cricketing world, isn’t likely to be seen sitting in TV studios, waiting for advertisement breaks and shouting at hosts to allow him a chance to squeeze in a meaningless sound byte. He will just walk away — that’s the impression at least his career has given us. It’s time to let him go to do his thing. Don’t worry, he will be all right. So will be Indian cricket.