A timely retreat is a victory, says Idris to his son Sinan in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's classic The Wild Pear Tree, a tale of a writer.
Minutes before MS Dhoni boarded his flight to Australia to take part in the three-match ODI series, two months after being rested/dropped from two T20I squads — against Australia and West Indies — an able successor of his was hitting a bowling attack consisting of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon out of the park, consistently. The 189-ball 159 made in first innings of the Sydney Test by Rishabh Pant made Dhoni critics come back into relevance. Why was he not part of the ODI team? The staunch criticism almost tore Dhoni's boarding pass into two halves.
Dhoni has the backing of selectors and the team management. But one cannot deny the fact that he was under a lot of stress. His calm face might not reveal the dilemma in his head but his bat was not doing the talking either. The numbers against his name on score-sheets shook hands with number beneath the age column and became his biggest enemies on the cricket field and outside of it as well.
The 96-ball 51 in first ODI hardly eased the burden off Dhoni's shoulders. It rather added a quintal more. When he was smashing Chaminda Vaas over the covers for maximums on his way to an unbeaten 183 on that winter afternoon of 31 October in 2005, nobody guessed that 14 years down the line, the same man will be criticised for playing a snail-paced innings. But has Dhoni ever let anyone guess anything about him in his career? He quit Test cricket midway through a tour, he stepped down from ODI and T20I captaincy suddenly one fine evening of January in 2017. He justified, on all these occasions, what Idris told Sinan. A timely retreat is a victory. And quite surprisingly, in a very non-Dhoni-like attitude, he has not yet decided to leave his favorite battle field — limited-overs cricket — despite series of low scores.
We can all sit and presume why Dhoni is sticking around. He quit Tests when after a lot of 'soul searching' and did not find himself playing the longer format further. He left captaincy because he thought Kohli was ready to lead the side across formats. There was logic and reason behind his decisions, which appeared sudden at first but proved to be fruitful in longer run. However, him sticking around despite continuous failures did not reveal the same side of Dhoni until he took that flight to Australia.
Did the former India captain think that there is no one better than him ready for the job in limited overs? And in thinking so, had not he replaced his best version with his worst one?
In the year 2018, Dhoni did not even score a fifty. His highest score was an unbeaten 42. His last fifty before the Australia ODIs came in late 2017. He bats at No 5 and 6, was the argument handed over but how many games has he won with his bat, asked his critics? Dhoni is important for the team, opined Ravi Shastri. He is very much part of the team, said Kohli. Why is Pant not in the team, asked critics. Pant is very much in the plan for the World Cup, said selectors. Amid all these talks, Dhoni was quiet.
And Dhoni's mouth will remain shut in the coming months.
He has decided to remain quiet. He is not very active on social media. No more does he attend press conferences where many journalists are ready with their questions, most of them pertaining to his future. He is not even answering his critics, like Kohli, on the field after a successful stint in the middle.
But despite him not facing the disparagers, the questions continue to ring in his ears whenever he enters the ground with a bat in hand. The second ODI was no different. India at 160 for 3 and needing 139 to win still. A situation tailor-made for Dhoni. Kohli on the other end. He must have sensed that this is the time to produce the Dhoni effect. But he started struggling again, scoring just 10 off the first 20 balls. Was he going to repeat the Sydney innings? He was not able to connect, was not able to find gaps. Soon Kohli was gone too. The Indian captain was frustrated of not middling the ball, hitting those boundaries. The required run-rate got better of him as at the other end, Dhoni was not at his fluent best.
In came Dinesh Karthik and started hitting boundaries. It took away pressure from Dhoni. He started to find gaps, ran singles, doubles for himself and his partner. Ran out of breath, almost collapsed on ground. The searing Adelaide heat had got better of Dhoni, but it was still cooler than the constant criticism that had been dropping on him for all the right reasons. This sight was similar to that of Andy Murray, who gave all his blood and sweat few days ago in Melbourne with one hip, in what turned out to be his last Australian Open game. Dhoni, however, was a different man. He had not announced his retirement. He wanted to be there. He was not middling the ball, yet not in his zone but he did not want to quit yet. He got up on his feet and started playing his shots. He was nearing his fifty but the job was not yet done. What more have you got, MS? His thoughts echoed all over at Adelaide Oval and across the TV sets around the world. He gathered all his energy and on that Jason Behrendorff delivery, first ball of the last over, smacked the ball over long-on. Fifty.
On the next ball, he completed the final single of the match. The decisive one. The match-winning single. The career saving one as well. Who could have predicted that a single will decide a man's fate, the same man who arrived in international cricket hitting sixes. By then however, he was a tired man. The single got India the match but it is important in other contexts as well. The ball was in the fielder's grasp and he threw it at the non-strikers' stumps but the ball missed the timber as Dhoni was still some distance away from the crease.
Here was a tired man, who ran an impossible single. The 22-yards during that single felt like his career post-resignation from captaincy. He stretched himself, like he has been since January 2017. He knew he would be out if the throw hit the stumps. He still gave himself a chance. Dhoni's travelled a long journey from those brisk singles to these tiring ones.
He has begun running the most difficult single of his career — trying to complete this impossible run to the World Cup. He is taking his chance and hoping that no such throw hits the stumps.
He followed up the tiring fifty with a better and perhaps his best ODI knock in years in the third and decisive game. On the very first ball, Dhoni cut it straight to Glenn Maxwell at point. Maxwell has played innumerable silly shots, having done himself no favour by not justifying his massive talent between the 22 yards. However, the catch that he dropped will pain him for years to come. For it was the simplest of them all and it was Dhoni's. For it gave the world's best finisher, a chance to play his luck. Dhoni becomes dangerous when he knows the luck is on his side.
This knock had similar shades to the one played at Adelaide. Kohli departed with India still some distance away from the target. However, this chase was done with more precision. Dhoni did not huff and puff in this one. He was there and he knew what he was doing. Yet again, those defensive strokes as the required run-rate kept climbing. Yet again that calm head as he played five dots on the trot in an over. He had the demeanour of a director who knows the script. He knows the climax. However, when you are watching him, you are like that audience which is irritated by the slow pace of the film.
The scoring rate did get better as the innings entered its last few overs, but even then no one was sure whether this would be over before the last ball is bowled. Commentators started questioning the strategy. Michael Clarke, who was on air, said maybe Kohli needs to send someone to tell Dhoni that he needed to rethink the plan. There were jitters in the dressing room and you could see it in Kohli's demeanour as he closely watched the match go to its end. However, Dhoni and Kedar managed to pull this off and when it was done, one felt as if all the tension and nervousness was a bluff we played with ourselves.
Dhoni has played many similar innings like these. These innings are very similar to his career as well. He gets irritatingly annoying to watch with his approach in the middle overs and more so when the last few overs are left but generally when the last five overs of the match are left, he picks up his game. More often than not, he finishes it in his side's favour.
Many may think Dhoni is back. They are not wrong. But this Dhoni gives a hint that this is his last hour and he wants to live every second. That this is his last chase. The knocks played in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne suggest that last five overs of his career have begun. Will he be successful in pulling this chase off is the biggest question?
Till then, questions will keep on spurring up every now and then, on him, by him and inside him.
In Adelaide, after taking India to a series-leveling win, Dhoni looked down, waving his left hand for a while.
— Adam Collins (@collinsadam) January 15, 2019
'That's all from me, says Dhoni' said Sanjay Manjrekar on air. This was a picture of significance. Dhoni was not surrounded by people in this picture but their shadows. Some of his able successors. Some of his critics. One of his own conscience. He tried to unsee them. However, he realises the constant presence of these shadows. These shadows will follow him on his return to India and possibly go with him to England as well.