In the summer of 2009, India – defending champions and all that jazz -- were in England for the T20 World Cup. A half-fit Virender Sehwag was there too and so was a much younger, less battle-scarred Mahendra Singh Dhoni as skipper.
Sehwag had picked up a shoulder injury during the second edition of the Indian Premier League in South Africa and aggravated it soon after the team’s arrival in England.
The injury forced Dhoni to gamble with Rohit Sharma at the top of the order, along with the other regular opener, Gautam Gambhir, in the two warm-up matches against New Zealand and Pakistan before the tournament.
But even though Sehwag missed practice sessions due to the injury, he remained in the news because of constant media reports about a rift that was developing between the captain and the right-hander.
Dhoni’s comments on Sehwag’s injuries had been cryptic: “May be you should ask his physio to issue a press release.”
The BCCI hasn’t stepped in to soothe matters either. They didn’t issue a press release about Sehwag’s situation and the whole controversy went into overdrive.
But when things went overboard, Dhoni took a pretty drastic step. Just before the first match of the tournament against Bangladesh, the India skipper presented himself with his entire team before the media, strongly denied the rumours and read out a statement that stressed on the unity among the team members.
He even tossed a stack of printed copies of his statement at the reporters and said, ‘Here, otherwise you’ll misquote me on this as well [Nahin toh tum log isko bhi ulta likhonge].’
Two games into the tournament, Sehwag announced that he will need surgery on the shoulder and he will be returning to India. A few games later, India crashed out of the World T20. And that was the beginning of an uneasy relationship.
It’s faintly curious that in September that same year, Sehwag had renounced captaincy ambitions “to concentrate on his batting” and even promoted the cause of his Delhi mate Gautam Gambhir as the logical captain-in-waiting.
Things seemed to smooth over after that mainly because India kept winning. And problems usually never surface around that time. But even at the open media house just before the 2011 World Cup, the cracks were present and visible.
Dhoni was sitting with the media, having some fun, throwing a few questions at Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag. It was a calm atmosphere. When someone asked Sehwag a question about how he finds Dhoni as captain.
His reply was curt: “We are his seniors. He doesn’t need to tell us what to do. We know what we have to do.”
The smile on Dhoni’s face froze. He was trying very hard to keep it in place. It was then dismissed as Sehwag speaking his mind. But the uneasiness was apparent. It was almost an ‘I’ll stay out of your way, if you’ll stay out of mine’ attitude.
Then once again, India won. The problems ceased to exist – or so we thought.
Come the Australia tour, reports of a rift resurfaced. India had been losing Test after Test, Dhoni’s captaincy was being questioned in all quarters… the feeling was something had to give.
It started off with the ‘rotation’ policy for the ODIs. A tactic aimed at giving the juniors a go and resting the seniors.
“We want to give break to the top three batsmen, either Gautam (Gambhir) or Tendulkar will take a break and may be I can play,” Sehwag had said.
And Dhoni, in the press conference after the loss, explained that the policy may have more to do with the fielding prowess of Gambhir, Sehwag and Tendulkar.
“It might happen (they playing together, but) it would affect our fielding in a big way, it's not only these three, there are quite a few other players who are also slow on the field. If you really add it up, you would have only two or three good fielders.
“They are safe fielders on the slower side. The pressure would be on them. They would have to throw from positions where there would be pressure on them. There would be breakdowns. It’s not like India where the ball goes to a boundary and you just throw it back. Here, you can pull muscle or a hamstring.”
So what started off as a rotation policy is now actually a way to keep one of the three out of the team… the Sehwag-Dhoni rift, whether real or imagined, is hurting the team.
When John Wright was coach of India, he would often say that what goes on in the changing-room should stay in the changing-room.
“Sometimes as soon as things come into the public area they can take on a momentum all of their own,” he said.
And that's what is happening right now. It’s important for Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher, who continues to remain a mute spectator, to arrest this momentum as soon as they can. If that means parading the entire team in media as a show of unity then so be it.
The Indian team doesn't need a drama that never ends, it needs quick thinking and direction -- not contradictory statements. They are all still good players; still giving it their best shot every time they step on to the field but they all need to pull in the same direction or they aren't going to get anywhere soon.
Dhoni can't allows things to drift; he can't even look at slowing down the game as he often does. India have reached the tipping point. Another push and they might all fall down. Do Dhoni or Sehwag want that? Because even in a fight, one's guessing, someone has to win. But if India loses, then the both of them lose too.