At the recent Bahrain Grand Prix, former British racing driver Johnny Herbert suggested that former Formula One champion Fernando Alonso should retire. Soon after, the Spanish driver found Herbert in the paddock, while he was speaking on air with Sky Sports, and said, "I will not retire, mate. I was world champion. You ended up as a commentator because you were not a world champion."
A couple days before this incident, another sporting great had taken similar offence to what was a simple question. "You've achieved pretty much everything in cricket, are you keen to continue playing on after this tournament?" asked an unsuspecting Australian journalist to MS Dhoni, after India had lost to the West Indies in the 2016 World T20 semi-final.
What followed was an insane moment even by Dhoni's unpredictable press conference standards. He almost never answers questions in a simple manner, opting to leave the media bewildered with his chain of thought. Round and round you go, until you find that one sentence that makes some sense. Often he uses humour, sarcasm even to hide what he is thinking.
On this particular night, he raised that a notch higher: Calling the concerned journalist up to the podium, putting him on live television, asking him counter-questions about fitness, running between the wickets and the 2019 World Cup, he stumped everyone.
What stood out though was this sentence: "I wish it was an Indian media person. Then I would have asked if he has a son who is a wicket-keeper and ready to play. He would have said no, then I would have said maybe a brother who is a wicket-keeper and is ready to play."
His remarks went viral, of course, but also caused outrage among the covering and non-covering media over the past few days. Those words continue to be a topic of heated contention, during cigarette-breaks between filing copies, at coffee tables at airports, even at IPL's season-opening press conferences.
There is a similarity here with the F1 incident where Alonso's rebuttal also sparked debates across different platforms. A two-time world champion, winner of 32 F1 races, belittling someone with only three race wins on international television.
Then there was the Indian captain, perhaps the greatest finisher of all-time in limited overs cricket, leaving a bunch of reporters perplexed and indeed, some of them frothing in anger.
It makes for some wonderment. Was Alonso wrong in defending himself? Was Dhoni's retort a step too bold? Hold on though. Are these even the right questions to ask at this juncture?
What is the bottom-line here? Is it about the "retirement" question, or the implied slur on the ones asking? Could it be about the very "right" to ask questions?
Let us talk about retirement first. It is a word that every sportsperson dreads. For opinion-makers, it is an easy one to throw around. Herbert, too, would have found it tough to comprehend when he quit F1 in 2000. His simple opinion though did not take into account Alonso's burning desire to become champion one more time.
The common argument here is that it impedes on their legacy. In terms of race craft alone, Alonso is one of the best F1 drivers of all time, but is now loitering around in a McLaren-Honda, hoping for glory. The same can be said of Roger Federer. He is struggling to match Novak Djokovic, and tennis fans all over the world want him to give up than burn out as an also-ran.
Who has the right to tell them though? What has been anybody's contribution to their hard work, blood and toil to get to where they are at this point in their careers? For, this is all they have known their entire lives. Alonso has been racing since age 10, Federer has only ever known to perform magic with a tennis racquet. How do you ask them to stop? Shouldn't this call come from within? Hasn't every athlete — irrespective of his degree of success — earned this?
Dhoni's case is slightly different in that cricket is a team-sport. From a strategic point of view, India would like to sort out their plans for the 2019 World Cup early.
Clearly, the keeper-batsman sees himself reaching that point, for he is an active, competitive sportsperson who wants to keep the competition at bay.
Meanwhile, those reporting on the game may disagree. Even so, is retirement a valid question to ask him? Is team selection under his purview? Shouldn't the question be directed towards chairman of selectors Sandeep Patil at their next meeting?
A lot of players quit cricket after their playing time on the international scale has come to an end. Dhoni, with all the T20 leagues in the world to play for, could be an addition to that list. As such, the relevancy of the retirement question is diminished.
And therein lies the insinuation. His answers in Mumbai are an add-on to a situation that has been dragging for too long.
Sample this. Ever since he announced retirement from the Test format, Dhoni has been plagued with the same question over and over again. He was asked immediately when he returned to the Indian team for the tri-series last January. He refused to answer, as is his right.
When India were knocked out of the 2015 ODI World Cup in the semi-final at Sydney, the first question in the post-match press conference was about his future. "I didn't expect this to be the first question," said a surprised Dhoni, and then didn't give a definitive answer. From there onwards, almost every time he attended a press conference in the home season against South Africa in 2015, he was asked this question repeatedly.
The selectors tried their best to deflect it. In December last year, they named him captain until the World T20. But, upon landing in Australia, Dhoni once again faced the same question. He was asked at the start of the tour, then at the end of the five-match ODI series, and then again at the end of the three-match T20I series.
Two days after returning to India, when he attended an event to start his association with the Rising Pune Super Giants, he was asked about retirement four times in the same press conference. Then, another two days later, at another press conference to launch his new sports apparel brand, Dhoni was asked about retirement yet again.
Three days later, in Kolkata, during the pre-departure press conference for the Asia Cup, once more the same question was repeated and, yet again, in the pre-tournament press conference for the World T20. Finally, the Indian skipper's gasket blew with that mocking outburst in Mumbai.
"MS recently told me that he has become a temple bell. Everyone comes and rings him up at will. And there is a lot of controversy created whenever he answers in a sarcastic tone. If anyone applies logic to his answers, it can be easily understood that he is holding up a mirror for the media," said Arun Pandey, his close friend, confidant and manager.
Since December 31, 2014, it would be an understatement to say that Dhoni has been hounded by the retirement question, let alone other topics. In this inane repetition, the Indian media (leave aside the foreign media) has acted like that neighbouring aunt who desperately wants to see you married, for no rhyme or reason.
You answer her politely for a couple days, deflect it on the third, and perhaps avoid contact from there on. She keeps asking though. How long before you snap and ask her to mind her business?
Now try putting yourself in the Indian captain's shoes, extrapolating the aunt to a few thousand cricket-reporters and the overbearing spotlight on your every movement. Is it any surprise that Dhoni acted in that manner?
Here's the pickle. Sitting on the fence of this media storm, one wonders if there is any thought given to his point of view. In this fast-paced world of gaining eyeballs, does anybody stop and wonder if the question should be asked. Or, is it just about getting that one answer that shoots atop the TRP rankings? Until then, keep asking, and every time his answer needs to be in a respectful manner, adhering to the unwritten rules of the media ethics of convenience.
Putting up a poker mask, he responds by never letting anyone know what goes in his head, playing all queries with a dead bat. It is a tug of war — the media reeling him in with its ungainly attempts, Dhoni pulling out with cynicism writ large on his face, and his weird remarks do not suit the media's narrative. This mutual distrust has now become the source of much disrespect, and it is a relationship that broke down long ago.
"No one stops and considers for a moment why MS doesn't give interviews. He is the only player to not do so after India won the 2011 World Cup, all the other players in the squad spoke to different media outlets. It has been almost five years. Yet, there is no self-evaluation from the media in the manner they approach a subject as sensitive as Indian cricket or the lives of the players associated. How many even do try?" Pandey said.
Surely, introspection is the need of the hour. Who will take the first step though? Who will resist the urge to ask that tough, yet valid question, and let go of the TRPs? More importantly, how long must a valid question be repeated before it becomes a silly one?