Mahendra Singh Dhoni has begun to represent the triumph of hope over reason, promise over ability and past over the present. Our foolhardy faith in the Dhoni we want instead of the Dhoni we have could cost India the World Cup.
We have learned, in fact, re-learned what 2018 was trying to tell us. Dhoni is way past his prime as a batsman. Since it is, as Sherlock Holmes said, a capital mistake to theorise without adequate data, let’s revisit data from 2018. That year, with 252 runs in 18 matches, at an average of 25.20 and a strike rate of 68.10, we were given adequate hints about the onset of winter in his career.
Hope, that beautiful, terrible, source of both joy and heartbreak, unfortunately, didn’t allow us to let go of him. We thought, in spite of growing evidence and failing strike rates, Dhoni will rediscover his big hitting, the flourish at the finish. We told ourselves, he is much more than his failing batting. That his wicket-keeping, experience, field-setting, the 'Dhoni Review System' made him bigger than the sum of these parts. We thought, he will rewind the clock, we assumed his grey whiskers would once again turn into those locks that General Pervez Musharraf wanted Dhoni to retain.
But, as Mad Max says, hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane. Ergo, Pakistan — who prayed for him to succeed against England — have already gone insane. India are on the verge of it. Because we just can’t fix Dhoni’s game. Time has chipped away at it like a colony of termites, its foundations have become weak. It’s all but broken.
In this World Cup, he has been unable to rotate the strike, looked daft in front of spinners, failed to dominate bowlers and has shown an inclination for hitting, for some reason, only in the last over. His innings against England, where he batted like a modern version of Sunil Gavaskar in the opening edition of the World Cup — 36 not out in 60 overs — trying, as if, to draw a Test match, is a loud and clear call for paying attention to his decline. The man who once propelled helicopters with his arms has now become a rather pedestrian accumulator of dot balls and doubts.
Glory, ask Kapil Dev, Javed Miandad, Yuvraj Singh, is a cruel deity. When you demand it, even if unintentionally, as an entitlement for your past, it sometimes punishes you to go out in a blaze of ignominy and failure, turns you into a villain within a short span. Kapil overstayed his welcome and became a butt of jokes in his final years, Miandad walked out to bat in the 1996 world cup against India as a pale shadow of himself and generated much mirth and merriment in the crowd that once feared him.
But, it is Yuvraj’s poignant World Cup finale that’s the bigger lesson here. In the 2014 World T20 final against Sri Lanka, Yuvraj got stuck on the crease. His mind propelled him forward, his body pulled him back. His past forced him to heave, hit, dance down the track, but his present, like a tether, pulled him back. He scored just 11 from 21 balls, denied Virat Kohli the strike and made India hobble to just 130 after a good start. On that day, the hero of two Indian World Cup triumphs, gave back one of those victories to his rivals.
Dhoni, unfortunately, appears just a game away from this denouement. In his present form, in the prevailing mindset, he is — unless destiny intervenes with a miracle — set to walk the same lonely path to a tame end, turn into a symbol of momentary anger, frustration, and helplessness.
Only if we are blinded by hope, even bhakti, can we not see that Dhoni is doing two things to the Indian team. One, by blocking, getting stuck at one end, he is forcing others to take risks to make up for his dot balls. Two, by surrendering early in the innings, like against England, he is signalling to others that the battle is already lost. The fight is over. Cut your losses.
If we want reason to triumph over hope, Kohli should do what, ironically, Kapil did to the great Gavaskar in the 1983 world cup: Bench him for a game, try some alternatives. If destiny forces him to bring back Dhoni, we’ll all enjoy the return of hope. Even if it makes us go insane.