We should be talking cricket here. But for a moment, let’s take a walk in the boxing ring and talk about the sweet science instead.
Through the history of the sport, there have always been boxers who had it all – the perfect jab, the powerful straight, the brutal uppercut, the quick feet, the strong legs, the brains. They were good, so good that many of them weren’t beaten for years. But then one punch – sometimes from a no name opponent – would get through their defence and hit them squarely on the chin.
They would get knocked out. Suddenly, their world would turn dark.
Some boxers refer to it as time lost. It could 10 seconds or 20; it could even be 10 minutes. You just don’t know. When you come around, all you see are the flashing lights of ringside doctors peering into his eyes.
The knockout does two things: it makes you aware of your mortality and your weakness. And it changes the way you fight – you worry about your defence, you lose your attacking instinct, you think about losing, you think about your reputation. That’s what a knockout can do.
And right now, that’s what Dhoni must be feeling. He’s been knocked out. In many ways, Dhoni has had a privileged time with the India – when he came into the team in 2005, India were on the upward curve. They had the right men in place and the 2007 World Cup defeat was in the eyes of many simply an aberration.
His captaincy was even better – the 2007 World T20 title gave him clout, the rise to world no 1 in the Test rankings made him a great and the 2011 World Cup title made him a legend. Through this all, he never got knocked out. Yes, there was the odd defeat but there was no knockout. There was no lying on your back and staring at the lights.
But the 4-0 Test defeats in England and Australia took him to the brink and then the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman dealt the knockout blows. It’s almost as if overnight, the world changed.
In this world, Australia lose at home; England can play spin; South Africa don’t choke and Mahendra Singh Dhoni loses.
Of course, someone might turn around and say that Dhoni got a fifty today and helped India past the 300 mark. But this isn’t about him as a batsman or a wicket-keeper. This is about him as a captain; as a leader of men.
There are certain things that a captain brings to a side and intensity is just one of them. So when one sees the bowlers just running in and bowling with any real intensity, who should be blamed? When one sees the field being spread out as early as the 10th over in the innings, who should be blamed? When Pragyan Ojha, your best bowler in the series, isn’t brought into the attack till the 25th over, who should be blamed?
It might be easy to say India’s bowlers are bad, the batting is fragile but in reality it all starts at the top. When the captain looks disinterested, the rest simply go their own way. He might bemoan his lack of options but this is the same skipper who didn’t think twice about employing an 8-1 field against Australia at Nagpur with the series on the line. Where has that sense of adventurism gone? Is he still worried about the punch that will come in from the blind side and knock him out?
The Indian team wants to win this series make no mistake about that. They want to win this badly but right now they are just a bunch of lone wolves trying to do their own thing. There is no strength because they just aren’t hunting together. In many ways, it’s like the Indian team from the 90s – the odd good performance interspersed with plenty of failures in between.
Dhoni has never been a great ‘Test’ skipper but he has always been very good in ODIs and T20s. But previously, he didn’t really need to go up to the players and tell them what to do. His skills as a captain simply weren’t tested. Now, that they are, he’s coming up short.
A great American coach Vince Lombardi once said, ‘The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory.’
But it doesn’t seem like Dhoni is interested in glory. He is interested in winning easy, he is also interested in the pitch. The interest in captaincy though, seems to be slipping away. ‘It’s just an added responsibility,’ you see. It’s not what he wants, remember: ‘If there is a better replacement, he can come in.’
So it’s about time, the Indian selectors take a leap of faith. For how long can they hide behind the ‘there’s no one else’ excuse. Honestly, given India’s performances in the recent past, it’s hard to imagine Gautam Gambhir or Virat Kohli do any worse.
Every captain has a shelf life and whether we like it or not, Dhoni has reached the end of his.