Mahendra Singh Dhoni is still one of India’s top cricketers. He has a Grade A contract [worth Rs 5 crore], his glovework is the envy of many, his match smarts are legendary and his batting still has a certain [if irregular] charm about it. But over the last year or so, there is a feeling that he has run into a wall; a wall that refuses to break down; a wall that has been reinforced by his increasing age.
So the question of when the 38-year-old is going to retire has been asked several times over the past few months – gently, rudely and repeatedly. The selectors have been asked the question, India skipper Virat Kohli has been asked the question, India coach Ravi Shastri has been asked the question and while they have always jumped to Dhoni’s defence, the core question has always remained unanswered.
On Sunday, as Dhoni made himself unavailable for the tour of West Indies, the question cropped up once again. But chief selector MSK Prasad had no definite answers – just a vague, up-in-the-air kind which will give rise to even more speculation.
“He’s [Dhoni] unavailable for this series but we had certain roadmaps and plans till the World Cup. Subsequently, post World Cup, we’ve laid down a few more plans and thought of giving as many opportunities to Pant and to see he is groomed [for the future]. This is our plan right now. That’s it.”
Prasad added: “Retirement is a purely individual [decision] and a legendary cricketer like MS Dhoni knows when to retire but what is the future course of action, what is the roadmap that we [India] have to look at… is in the hands of the selection committee.”
So while Dhoni and Prasad have had a conversation, the retirement plan remains shrouded in mystery. No one quite knows what the former skipper has on his mind and what that means for Team India.
A few questions that immediately arise: Would Dhoni have been picked for the tour if he was available? Would Rishabh Pant be asked to step aside each time Dhoni makes himself available for India? How will the selectors judge Dhoni’s current form? Does Kohli still want Dhoni in the team ahead of Pant?
There are probably many more questions that will come to mind as time goes by but prime among them is the one about his retirement. In a way, the two-month training with the Territorial Army might give Dhoni the time and space to make up his mind about his future path. He’s always been a calculative cricketer – but for him to not even let the selectors know his plans only makes it more difficult to plan for his eventual absence. It suddenly puts an uncompiled variable into the scheme of things and that can never end well.
Part of the problem is that while some see Dhoni as old, washed up and gray, others, including Dhoni himself, think the numbers and the fitness are still up there with the best.
Over the last two years, Dhoni has scored 1,277 runs in 54 matches at an average of 45.60. In the last one year alone, he has scored 727 runs at 42.76 in 29 matches. These numbers are pretty good but they still represent a significant decline over his career average of 50.57. His strike-rate in the last one year of 80.42 has also been lower than his career strike-rate of 87.56.
There is no denying that Dhoni, without even getting age into the equation, is a cricketer in decline and he isn’t going to miraculously get better by the time the T20 World Cup comes along next year.
So why can’t India just plan this better? Do we need constant speculation? Having a retirement plan is not an admission of weakness. Rather, it is a sign of a player putting the team’s needs before his own and isn’t that what one needs in a team sport?
In the past, we have seen Kapil Dev and even Sachin Tendulkar really struggle towards the end of their careers. Dhoni should be smarter than that, he should learn from that. It also showed us that legendary cricketers can get things wrong too – they have been so good for so long that their belief in themselves never quite goes away.
Maybe Dhoni still seeks to go out on a high and the run-out against New Zealand clearly wasn’t that moment. But perhaps setting a retirement goal might just allow him to take things deep, as he always does, and finish with a six rather than a whimper.