Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a legend. Like him, George Foreman is a boxing legend too. The latter is considered to be the eighth greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. ‘Big George’, as he was known, competed between 1967 and 1977 and then made a comeback in 1987 only to retire at the age of 48, ten years later. Once when a reporter asked him when he would retire, Foreman replied, “The question isn’t at what age I’ll retire; it’s at what income.”
‘At what age will Dhoni retire?’ is a question most followers of the game are now asking. Or would it be more appropriate to ask him at what income – like Foreman – he’ll consider hanging up his cricketing boots? Don’t get me wrong; whether it’s Dhoni or anybody else, money plays an important role in all sporting career decisions these days.
Despite Virat Kohli’s taking over, in recent years, as the highest paid Indian sportsperson, ‘Brand Dhoni’ is still very popular and it sells. Is it therefore the extrinsic aim of more wealth that is keeping the legendary 'keeper-batsman from calling it a day, or is it the intrinsic goal of one more World Cup – the T20 one in Australia in 2020 – under his belt that is keeping him motivated to continue playing for India?
Dhoni, who received the prestigious Padma Bhushan last year, is 38. Despite possessing the fastest hands in the business and the fitness of a high calibre athlete, he has for some reason not been able to get on with the scoring rate he is known for, especially in the final few overs. In the last couple of years, therefore, his reputation as one of the greatest ‘finishers’ in the game has somewhat been dented. ‘Dhoni haters’ – a rather coarse social-media created term – have hence been campaigning fervently for his ouster post India’s failed World Cup 2019 campaign.
Dhoni gave up playing Tests in December 2014. By then he had played 90 Test matches, scored 4,876 runs @ 38.09, picked 256 catches and effected 38 stumpings. In one-day internationals (ODIs), he has scored 10,773 runs @ 50.57 and has 321 catches and 123 stumpings; in 98 T20 internationals he has scored 1,617 runs @ 37.60 and has 57 catches and 34 stumpings. Dhoni continues to play white-ball matches for India; his last ODI was against New Zealand in July 2019, while his last T20 international was against Australia in February 2019. Though he has made himself unavailable for a few recent series, he hasn’t really expressed his desire to give up the game, thus keeping the selectors and his followers on tenterhooks.
India skipper Kohli has stated in various forums that Dhoni brings value to the table. He believes that the experienced stumper’s inputs, from behind the stumps, are gold standard as far as he and his young bowlers are concerned. For a long time, DRS for the Indian team meant ‘Dhoni Review System’. Though Dhoni has slowed down a bit as a batsman, he can still play the anchor role and blast the odd ball a long way out of the park.
After MSK Prasad took over as chairman of selectors, he had said in a press meet, probably in 2017, that he would be monitoring Dhoni’s performances to decide whether he would be picked for the World Cup of 2019. That may have motivated the star stumper to keep playing. Prasad perhaps later realised that legendary sportspersons do not need monitoring; they need to be respected for what they have achieved and consulted on their future plans. Dhoni therefore played in World Cup 19 and probably plans to be a part of the T20 World Cup of 2020 too.
Sourav Ganguly, former India skipper and now BCCI president, a legend himself, has now assured the media – and cricket followers – that he will be speaking to the chief of selectors about Dhoni’s future in the game on 24 October, the day the Indian team is to be selected for the Bangladesh series. Ganguly has often gone on record to say that Dhoni is streets ahead of any ‘keeper-batsman in India, especially in the shorter formats. He believes that even Rishabh Pant will require quite some time to reach Dhoni’s standards. What will probably come out of the Ganguly-Prasad meeting is that they may both agree to consult Dhoni on his future plans.
While Dhoni’s closest followers won’t grudge the legend his extrinsic objective – if at all – of cashing in on his brand image, they will really be bothered about his intrinsic goal: that of playing in the T20 World Cup of 2020. Will he be able to get back his top game, and fitness, for that event? Will he be able to perform at the highest levels, in the fastest form of the game, neither playing domestic cricket nor turning up for India’s matches in the interim? These are questions that only Dhoni will have answers for.
Dhoni has been taking time off, now and again, over the last few months to be with his family and to look after his varied business interests. There are a host of T20 matches that India will play in the coming months, including fixtures against Bangladesh, the West Indies and Sri Lanka at home and then some in New Zealand, in January-February 2020. It remains to be seen if he makes his services available for any of these matches. His intentions of carrying on till the T20 World Cup will then be clear.
Besides, he will play for the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL of 2020 in order to gauge his form. If he does well, and finds his touch, he may find his name in the squad for the T20 World Cup to be played Down Under in October-November 2020. Or else, he may just decide to call it quits.
“You have to keep your goal in mind and never lose sight of it. I envisioned myself winning the heavyweight title for ten years before I actually captured it,” says Foreman. Dhoni had perhaps envisioned one more World Cup win before retiring. It didn’t happen in 2019; he’s probably hoping it will happen in 2020.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes in calling a spade a spade
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