Cricket is a traditionally exclusive sport. Not just in terms of the number of countries that have adopted the game, but also in the context of its competitive structure. When players take the field, their passion – for craft, for teamwork and triumph – is obliged to wear the mask of patriotism. Their identity is defined by where they come from. 11 athletes with almost nothing in common are required to make an art out of togetherness. They must co-exist despite one another. The sport is both crippled and enriched by the pressure of outlining their borders.
When a Test cricketer bats out an entire session with a strike-rate of 20, he does it under the burden of representing a people. It isn’t only because the pitch is tricky. It isn’t only because the situation is dire or the tail is fragile. He does it while knowing the larger consequences of failing to succeed. When an outfielder fluffs a catch in the dying stages of a tournament, it’s not just the game he’s thinking about. No matter how tense the circumstances are, or how raucous the crowds are, they pale in comparison to the noise in the players’ heads. The 'team' is just a physical metaphor for a culture. The scoreboard is rarely a symbol of pure skill.
This is perhaps both the beauty and bane of international sport. Cricketers perform – and fly – with shackles on the world stage. But we don’t always see the fullest and rawest version of their talent. Concepts like 'pacing the innings' and 'night watchman' are as political as they are personal. There’s simply too much at stake.
Perhaps this explains our inherent fascination for 'Dream Teams'. While growing up, what excited me the most wasn’t the prospect of an India-Pakistan cliffhanger or a World Cup final. It was the one-off World XI (or Asia XI) contest. It was the prospect of watching the best cricketers of an era – unrestrained by country, context, and cumulative legacy – unite for a personal essay against the best team of an era.
I still remember the buzz around the ICC Super Series in 2005. A near-invincible Australia, wounded by their Ashes defeat, demolished the World XI over three ODI matches and one Test. But just the sight of Dravid, Lara, Sangakkara, Kallis, Sehwag, Flintoff, Murali, and Inzy on the same side felt like a victory for individualism in a sport weighed down by pluralities. The result didn’t matter so much. Most of them failed because they weren’t used to a blank canvas.
The IPL, like the European football leagues, thrives on a diluted World XI template. When players take the field, their passion remains just that: passion. Their identity is defined by who they are. Ashes enemies Steve Smith and Buttler/Stokes/Archer become potent teammates. David Warner and Jonny Bairstow become a destructive opening pair. At one point, the gruesome foursome of Gayle, Starc, AB de Villiers, and Kohli turned RCB into the ultimate Dream Team. In many ways, this is the most primal form of cricket. The players aren’t bound by the bigger picture. Most of them get traded every other season, so loyalty is a utopian concept. Team spirit is a fleeting notion.
Some of them take time to embrace this clean slate. For instance, Kohli has long been someone who craves a sense of purpose. For the first few IPL seasons, he resembled the World XI bunch: bereft of motivation and tangible glory. He was nowhere near the Rainas and Rohits of the league. There was no pot of gold at the end of his rainbow. He only started piling up the runs half a decade into his RCB stint, once he realised that this was the only trophy missing from his cabinet.
We also see a lot of long-form, technically correct players spreading their wings – Ajinkya Rahane and Dravid for the Royals, Murali Vijay for CSK, Kallis for KKR, Kane Williamson for SRH – to become unlikely IPL stars. It’s not like they weren’t capable of unorthodox cricket. It’s just that they couldn’t afford to be 'reckless'; their cultural responsibilities constrained them to crucial one-note roles.
The prolific KL Rahul, too, started out as a Test specialist before showcasing his versatility in the IPL. His up-and-down international career is a classic example of his mind under matter. We see a more unadulterated version of him in the IPL – where technique meets a freer temperament. But the Rahul we’ve seen in IPL 2020 throws up a distinctly Indian conflict. His blazing 132 against RCB aside, Rahul’s three half-centuries – those of slow starts and mistimed chases – have revealed the burden of reputation.
As captain and opener of Kings XI Punjab, Rahul has somehow been both the best and worst batsman of this season. He looks to be playing for KXIP just as much as for a permanent spot in the Indian side. The role of a sheet anchor in T20 cricket often blurs the line between individualism and megalomania. But the fear of failure, rather than the pursuit of success, has been evident in Rahul’s approach so far. He seems to believe that the IPL is the only way to stay on the radar of the national selectors at the moment. As a result, his desire to occupy the crease has trumped his run-scoring – he has all the shots in the book, but he insists on turning those pages at his own pace. Consequently, the choke against KKR wasn’t random: Rahul was aspiring to a culture, and his blank canvas betrayed a tinge of blue to begin with.
Similarly, Dhoni’s approach this season has revealed another distinctly Indian problem: the burden of legacy. When Dhoni over-intellectualises a CSK chase, it’s not because his game has suddenly fallen apart. The noise in his head is deafening. It’s been almost one-and-a-half years since the last IPL, yet his post-retirement passion is still obliged to wear the mask of patriotism. Even if he plays a gully cricket match, there appears to be too much at stake. When he struggles to finish today, he does it as an Indian story: one that’s not battling an opponent so much as a decade of single-handedly reversing the script. Where he comes from is inextricably linked to who he is.
For better or worse, that’s the fullest and rawest version of MS Dhoni’s identity. One athlete – with almost nothing in common with the rest – is required to produce togetherness out of art. Consequently, Dhoni’s 'Dream Team' is destined to sound different: he humanises the Indian dream, but remains defined by the Indian team.
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