Even though the absence of Mahendra Singh Dhoni from the list of Board of Control for Cricket’s central contracts was not a surprise – he hasn’t played any cricket, not just international cricket, since turning out for India at the World Cup in July 2019 – his future as an international cricketer remains hotly debated and shrouded in mystery.
Plenty of others have chimed in, including the Indian coach Ravi Shastri, who has left the door open for Dhoni to play in the T20 World Cup later this year if he does well in the Indian Premier League. But the man himself has said hardly anything at all. Perhaps he revealed his plans to the selectors when they called him to let him know he wasn’t getting a contract, but then again perhaps not. One of the few things we know about Dhoni is that he plays his metaphorical cards so close to his chest that you imagine them being hidden under his shirt.
So the lack of a contact doesn’t actually change any of the facts, as Sidharth Monga points out on ESPNcricinfo. It simply reminded us that Dhoni ‘s international career currently exists in a sort of limbo. That none of the players picked as his replacement have been convincing has contributed to the intrigue. Had Rishabh Pant or KL Rahul or any of the other hopefuls nailed down their spot in the side, perhaps Dhoni would have made an announcement about his future by now.
The way the situation has dragged out stands in stark contrast to the way Dhoni retired from Test cricket back in 2014. At the time, there was much debate in the media about whether Virat Kohli should take over as Test captain, but not whether Dhoni should be part of the team. And yet, when Dhoni made his announcement after the second Test, it was not only a complete surprise, but he chose to walk away from Tests altogether.
In doing so he chose a different path from the other great cricketers of the same era. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman all ended their careers as Test cricketers having either retired from limited-overs cricket or been dropped from the team.
In keeping mum on his future now, he is again separating himself from the rest. While Tendulkar got a farewell series, Kumble retired on the last day of his final Test. Dravid retired a month after his last Test, while Laxman retired a week before a series he was selected to play in, though his place in the team was being questioned in the media. None of them dragged out the uncertainty around their careers to this extent and you knew all of them still wanted to play international cricket if they could. With Dhoni, it’s unclear if he even still wants to play for India.
The only possible comparison is Sehwag, who retired three years after his last international match, but Sehwag talked often about his desire to play for India, and had hoped to get a farewell Test.
To be sure, Dhoni has no obligation to reveal his plans or his thinking. It is not his job to pick the team, that’s the role of the selectors. But Dhoni has never been one to let others dictate what he does, on or off the field. He gave up the Test captaincy before it could be taken from him, and he did the same in limited overs cricket.
Moreover, his approach as captain was to take as much uncertainty out of the game as he could. He was always calculating the odds and assessing the situation. It was the foundation of his take-it-to-the-last-over approach in limited-overs cricket. He figured the odds were in his favour in those situations and that he would get the best of the bowler, which he almost always did.
Which raises the question of whether Dhoni’s silence is a sign that he is still calculating the odds of making a return to international cricket? He knows the selectors value his experience and leadership qualities. If he makes runs in the IPL, there’s a good chance his name rises to the top of the pecking order.
The other variables are his body, his skills, and the competition. So far the latter have failed to handle the pressure, which tilts the odds a little bit in his favour. The IPL will reveal whether his skills and fitness are up to the task. The time away from the game is likely to have done his body some good, though rust will be a factor if he doesn’t play any competitive cricket between now and the start of the IPL in March.
Absent an announcement between now and the IPL, if the results are not what he expects, it will be out of character for Dhoni to wait for the selectors to decide his future. Then again, the only person who knows what Dhoni will do is Dhoni. The rest of us have no choice but to wait and watch.