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Waiting for Dhoni

“I want to go to war with this guy,” proclaimed the former India coach Gary Kirsten on June 11 during the heady days just after India had won the ICC World Cup 2011. For those who came in really late, the ‘this guy’ Kirsten was referring to was the Indian captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Well, of course, the rest of India would have wholeheartedly agreed with Kirsten back then. But now, a little under a year loss after loss after loss after loss later, more than a few people aren’t so sure about Dhoni’s abilities as a capable leader of men.

Since winning the World Cup in a blaze of glory, Dhoni’s team has lost almost everything. For starters, the England tour, which his still confident supporters insisted was just an aberration. Then, the disastrous Test series in Australia happened. ‘No worries, we’ll win the CB Series Australia,’ chirped his now somewhat nervous fans. Sadly for them, India didn’t even qualify for the finals.

What’s more, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, the two main contenders (in the eyes of some) for the captaincy, mustered up the moxie to openly take pot shots at Dhoni. Fortunately for Dhoni, the selection panel of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) backed their man to the hilt and swiftly ‘cut’ Sehwag and Gambhir down to size. Unfortunately for the BCCI and Dhoni, the Indian team didn’t cover itself in glory in the Asia Cup either. Fortunately for Dhoni’s fans, India were not scheduled to play immediately after and with the Indian Premier League (IPL) coming up next, they were sure their ‘ultra-cool’ captain would be back at his best. It hasn’t been so.

Dhoni’s magic touch hasn’t returned. His ‘go-to’ team and get-out-of-jail card, Chennai Super Kings (CSK), haven’t played like the defending champions they are and, shockingly for Dhoni’s fans, their captain hasn’t been able to inspire his team to turn things around or himself deliver the sort of hell-raising cameos the world has come to expect from him. In fact, many an expert is of the considered view that Dhoni looks a touch too cool for his own good, like he doesn’t care enough, and, most worryingly, as if he’d rather be someplace else.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni needs to get his engine started now. AP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni needs to get his engine started now. AP

His supposed arch rivals for the Indian captaincy, Sehwag (and to a lesser extent, Gambhir), on the other hand, seems lean, mean, hungry, and driven. From the looks of it, both Sehwag and Gambhir communicate the air of men with something to prove. Crucially, in the Indian scheme of things, they have led from the front and inspired their respective teams to perform better in this edition of the IPL.

For what it’s worth (not very much in the eyes of this author, at least), the wisdom of the crowds ordains that Sehwag and Gambhir have demonstrated superior leadership qualities during the IPL. If either of them does end up bagging the BCCI’s most prestigious trophy, will Krishnamachari Srikkanth and Co. have the conviction to stick with Dhoni?

More importantly, will a Dhoni, who has pretty much lost everything since June 2011, be in a position of strength to call the shots as captain of an Indian side comprising a revitalised Sehwag and Gambhir in the ICC Twenty20 World Cup coming up next? Readers with a good memory will recall the farcical scenes during the 2009 edition of the same championship when rumblings of a rift in the team (particularly between Sehwag and Dhoni) provoked the Indian captain to bring the whole side (including the support staff) out for an audience with the press to demonstrate to the media that the team was ‘united.’

Obviously, these are tough times for Indian cricket’s second most popular commander-in-chief (CIC). And much like another CIC, President Barack Obama, who has had to endure a torrid year, or two, on account of reasons not entirely within his control, Dhoni, too, is in the middle of a great fall after a euphoric first few years at the top.

Time is running out for Dhoni. There’s no better occasion than now for the ‘Obama of cricket,’ as Praveen Kumar once famously called his captain, to stand up and be counted. If he wants to secure his place as the Indian skipper for the big bash in Sri Lanka, Dhoni must win IPL 5 for CSK, preferably with a nonchalant six.