They say power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is true. No matter how good one is, no one is immune to the malaise commonly known as ‘the swollen head.’ Give a man carte blanche, and he will invariably end up misusing it. Speaking of which, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the new Sourav Ganguly — in this case, for the wrong reasons. The parallels between two of the greatest captains in the history of Indian cricket are striking. Here are the most relevant ones for your consideration.
During his glory days, Sourav Ganguly had the unconditional backing of the then President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Jagmohan Dalmiya, which allowed the former to do as he pleased without fear of reprisal. This was good a thing, until Sourav actually began to do as he pleased. It was the beginning of the end of his glory days as captain. During the past four years, Dhoni and the current President of the BCCI, Mr N Srinivasan, have forged a similar partnership. Under Srinivasan’s reign, Dhoni has gradually attained the status of an ‘Untouchable.’ Anyone who goes up against him is either dismissed or cut down to size. It has happened to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, to name two of the most high profile cases. Both of them have been ruthlessly dealt with for questioning Dhoni’s ways. Along the way, a ‘man-boy,’ who is too young and inexperienced to threaten Dhoni’s position as numero uno, has been elevated to the vice-captaincy.
For the good of Indian cricket, this concentration of power in the hands of this unlikely pair must be stopped. Perhaps the new selection committee will do something about it. Then again, considering the fate that befell Mohinder Amarnath for not toeing the ‘Srinivasan-line,’ it seems unlikely that Dhoni’s hold on the Indian captaincy is in any danger of being loosened by the new lot of puppets. At least, not until Srinivasan is in charge of things … everything.
In a long-ish email exchange I once had with veteran journalist Sandipan Deb, he likened Dhoni to an extremely shrewd politician. The more I think of it, the more sense it begins to make. For what we have seen during the past eight months is exactly what astute politicians (‘Dhoni Srinivasan’) would mastermind in order to tighten their grip on their constituencies or fiefdoms. Put simply, the ‘Chanakyan-leaders’ find a way to cunningly marginalise anyone who threatens them and swiftly appoint deputies and generals who are either too inexperienced (or too faithful) to mount a revolt of any kind.
Fortunately for Sourav, he had in Rahul Dravid an understudy who was too nice to even consider undermining him. That apart, Dravid, much like Sachin Tendulkar, was too obsessed with batting to spend his precious time plotting Sourav’s downfall. Dhoni hasn’t been as lucky with his deputies. This is why, in a move to snuff out any challenges to his leadership, Virat Kohli was, handed the post of Dhoni’s second-in-command. Worryingly for Dhoni and Srinivasan, even that hasn’t quieted the calls for Dhoni’s ouster. This might have something to do with the current mood in an India that is crying itself hoarse for change.
The young and the restless millions that form a massive part of India’s population want their voices to be heard and are tired of being asked to live with an underperforming system. The Indian cricket team, in recent times, has become a microcosm of this second-rate, corrupt, and self-serving organism. Its fans are hurting from being taken for granted. But most of all, they don’t want their beloved team to regress into the 90s. After the spineless performances in England and Australia, they fear that this might happen if something is not done to arrest the slide quickly. One of the things this generation of Indians frets about, besides EMIs and corruption, is a cricket team that will once again be perceived as a minnow on foreign shores. Dhoni’s seeming willingness to settle for a good home record and a mediocre one overseas has not gone down well with a fan-base that has grown used to seeing a team that is capable of holding its own on overseas tours. In Virat Kohli, these demanding, discontented, idealistic fans see a man who is hungry (and angry) enough to keep India going for more than just the bare minimum. But will the steadily building groundswell of opinion against the powers-that-be yield any results? Only time will tell. In the meantime, here’s what I think.
The general view is that Dhoni needs to be shaken out of his self-satisfied ways. It’s quite clear, at least to people who can see, that his usual methods have stopped working and that it’s time he is forced out of his comfort zone. Greg Chappell, when he was in charge of the Indian team, believed in making his players less secure as a way to shake them out their settled ways and perform better. The intelligent, thinking cricketer that Dravid was, he saw the merit in Chappell’s methods and the problem in the usual way easily-satisfied Indians go about doing their thing. Sadly, the rest of the Indian team didn’t buy into Chappell’s philosophy, mostly because it came from an outsider and partly on account of the way it was dished out. Fact is that every few years there arises a pressing need to break established patterns in order to scale new peaks. From the looks of it, going after new highs is not something Dhoni is hungry for. He seems more intent on self-preservation and playing safe. This will hurt Indian cricket ... no, make that this is beginning to hurt Indian cricket. Taking away some of all the power that vests in Dhoni is the way to rejuvenate him. But which of the three forms of the game should Kohli be handed charge of?
Most people are advocating Kohli be made captain of the ODI side. This is the easy option, and a common mistake. The second shortest format of the game is the one Dhoni enjoys most and is extraordinarily skilled at. There is no reason he should be removed as the captain of the ODI team so soon after India has won the World Cup. It’s the other two versions that Dhoni is having most trouble coming to grips with as a player and leader. For instance, his batting record in Twenty20s for India is unimpressive. As a matter of fact, he may not be good enough to hold his place in the T20 Indian eleven. The same goes, to a lesser extent, in Tests. These are the two areas of Dhoni’s job that need relooking at. The radical option would be to make Kohli captain of both these teams.
Come to think of it, it is a route that is a tried and tested one. Graeme Smith, today one of cricket’s finest captains, was only 22 when he was handed the captaincy of the South African national side after he had played only 8 Test matches and 22 ODIs. Kohli, by comparison, has two more Tests in the bag than Smith, 68 more ODIs, 16 more T20s, and is almost two years older than the South African was in 2003 (the year he became captain). All this, however, means nothing in the Indian scheme of things. India is not as proactive as South Africa was in 2003. Kohli is not Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi (at 21, the youngest man to captain India, which had much to do with the fact that he was from a royal family). He has no godfather championing his cause. And he was made Dhoni’s deputy only to send a message out to Sehwag and Gambhir.
Nope. As long as Srinivasan is in charge of the BCCI, Dhoni will continue to lead India in all three forms of the game. What’s more, don’t be too surprised if once the clamour for Kohli grows he loses the vice-captaincy and it is handed to someone less threatening like Ravichandran Ashwin.
The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.