If brevity is the soul of wit, timing is its breath. Pity Mahendra Singh Dhoni often struggles with both.
At the press briefing on Thursday night after India’s loss to West Indies in the T20 World Cup semi-final, an Australian journalist asked the Indian captain about his retirement plans. Dhoni’s response was far from brief. He made an elaborate show of calling the journalist over to sit next to him and started a little Q&A of his own.
“Come here, let’s have some fun. Do you want me to retire?”
The journalist was to the point: “Not that I want, that’s what I want to ask.”
“Do you think I am unfit, looking at my running?” Dhoni continued.
“No, you are fast.”
“Do you think I can survive till the 2019 World Cup?”
“Yes, you should.”
“Then you have answered the question,” said Dhoni.
No, captain, he hadn’t. When did retirement become about fitness, or even ability? Many cricket players left the game with a triumphant show in their last game. The most recent example is New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum. But for the most telling instance, look no further than Sunil Gavaskar.
Gavaskar’s last Test innings, in which he scored 96 in a losing cause against Pakistan on a snake pit of a pitch, was a true masterclass -- a great affair with batting perfection, unlike the brief T20 flings that get talked up these days.
Till the end Gavaskar embodied unthinkable ability, temperament, concentration, technique, and understanding of the pitch, bowling, and match situation. Hell, he even mastered the one-day game at the end of his career, a format he abhorred in the beginning. Yet he kept his date with retirement.
Had Dhoni raised the same questions about Gavaskar that he did about himself, the answers would be the same, only more resounding. Gavaskar chose to exit the scene not because he wasn’t fast or no more capable. It’s just that he was done.
Cricketers, Don Bradman used to say, are temporary custodians of the game whose task is to leave it enhanced. Retirement is not a fight against age or fitness, it is about a battle with yourself. It’s time to retire when you have nothing more to offer, when you cannot better yourself, nor the game. But it will be difficult to make that argument at a time when a player’s presence in the national team has a great bearing on his fortunes.
Dhoni’s picking on the Australian journalist’s question about his retirement did not end with the fast and fitness point. The captain laboured it further. “I wish it was an Indian media guy who had asked me this question, because then I would have asked if he has a son who is old enough and who can play as wicketkeeper. If he would have said no, then maybe I would have said, OK, maybe a brother who can play and who is a wicketkeeper.”
Now, Dhoni has made it a habit of making unusual remarks. After Virat Kohli took India to victory against Australia, Dhoni said Kohli owed him money for running his runs. That might have worked, it was after a remarkable win. But it did not work when Dhoni went on and on talking about the importance of process over results when India were losing a Test series miserably in England.
And it certainly did not work after the loss to West Indies in Thursday’s semi-final. Had Dhoni come prepared with an answer? Why else would he be hoping that an Indian journalist would ask him about retirement? Had he come expecting to lose the game? That’s when questions about retirement generally arise, seldom after big wins.
In a way, Dhoni’s captaincy made sure India lost. This team hardly looks to be a tight ship. As the great Kapil Dev wrote in a newspaper column that appeared on Friday morning, how do you explain no balls at this level of cricket? “Don’t you practise not bowling no balls?”
Dev did not ask it, but how did Dhoni end up having Virat Kohli to bowl the last over? True, Kohli had taken a wicket with the first ball of his previous over. But as any follower of the game would tell you, it looked like a fluke. The ball was ordinary and did not deserve a wicket. And there is a reason flukes are called flukes -- they don’t happen regularly. If they did, then they would be called genius.
It was genius when Sachin Tendulkar bowled that famous last over against South Africa. But Tendulkar knew better than to take the last over regularly, though he was a regular ODI bowler for a long time. The last time Kohli bowled in international cricket before last night’s mach was.... well, when was it? Again, how did we end up with him bowling the last over? And did you see Jadeja’s long hops on the leg stump? What is he doing in this team? Why does Ashwin, the star spinner, get only two overs in crucial games? If he is good enough for four, give him those. He has nothing else to offer in T20 cricket – neither batting nor fielding.
When Dhoni was bantering with the Australian, the other journalists in the hall were laughing. They would, no sports journalist would want to be anything but nice to the formidable Indian captain. That’s why this piece had to be written by someone whose day job is to write on business and economy.