Both times, in that period after lunch where gaspers have been taken, and there was a siesta-like feeling to work. Both times, two innocuous looking mails landed and had the effect of jack-rabbitting everyone back to the workstations.
In 2013, we got to know that the forthcoming two-Test series against West Indies would be Sachin Tendulkar’s last one as an international player. A somnolent day was immediately transformed into a beehive of activity, not just in the Wisden India offices but in newsrooms across the country. October is not a time to be making wholesale changes to the Wisden India Almanack, but that’s exactly what the team in charge of bringing the tome out had to do – because you can’t not have the man who has had cricket’s most remarkable career on the cover when he’s calling it quits. As the person whose phone first buzzed with that fateful email, the team still holds me responsible for those many hours of extra work crammed into the proverbial last-minute. [It came out looking, and reading, fantastic still.]
It was not such a sleepy time 14 months later, but it was still the after-lunch phase. India had just drawn a Test against Australia, and more crucially, MS Dhoni had just finished what would be his final press conference as the Indian Test captain, or player for that matter. Only, no one knew that the word ‘final’ was to be attached to that previous sentence then. A few minutes later, another innocuous looking press release landed. There was a similar flurry, but a tad more confusion. Had Dhoni announced his retirement at the press conference? If so, we could expect reams of copy on his thoughts, his captaincy, the works – because he would surely have been asked all that. It quickly became clear that the release had come only after Dhoni had answered the final question and put a safe distance between him and anyone else.
The Dhoni Test retirement was the biggest to hit Indian cricket journalists since the Tendulkar one. By comparison, his giving up of the limited-overs captaincy was rather tame. Sure, the no-warnings-no-leaks-no-idea press release style was the same, but it was much more easily digestible if you will, the idea that Dhoni would not be captain anymore.
A happy confluence of events helped. India have played a huge amount of Test cricket, and won a huge amount of Test cricket. And done it all under the leadership of Virat Kohli. When Dhoni quit Tests, Kohli was still a raw leader. He may have many things to learn still, but nobody can doubt that he’s matured into his role extremely well.
From a timing perspective it makes sense too. It gives Kohli the breather of the England limited-overs series to get his white-ball skipper bearings, and time as captain in England – the venue of the 2019 World Cup – when the Champions Trophy 2017 rolls around.
Why the disquiet then? After all, Dhoni had spent the days leading up to the decision with the Jharkhand side, and even they had no clue what was on his mind until the news broke.
Simply because Dhoni has done the vanishing act once again. It is Dhoni’s prerogative when he wants to quit – the game, the captaincy, or anything else. But because so many people are emotionally invested in the game, there is the feeling that some words of explanation behind the thinking would be welcome.
Personally, I did not find it gnawing that Dhoni quit the limited-overs leadership in the manner he did, for the reasons outlined above. It made perfect cricketing sense, which seemed explanation enough. And it wasn’t as if he was leaving the game altogether.
I will admit to feeling a bit cheated at the manner of his Test departure, though. Where that December 2014 announcement differed from the October 2013 Tendulkar one was in the space given to soak it in. And there were ample words from the player himself on the decision. With Dhoni, it was blink, and he’s gone. By any yardstick, Dhoni’s Test career was fascinating. It may not have hit the all-time-great heights that his one-day career has, but it was more intriguing in some ways.
How did he strategise when he had a limited bowling attack versus a potent one? What did he think of domestic cricket as the feeder system for the international team – was it producing robust enough players? Where did they lack? Was the perception that he felt more at home captaining in limited-overs than in days’ cricket correct? Why if yes, why if not? Did the man behind the poker face ever worry or wonder about the legacy he was building or leaving behind, from reaching No. 1 to losing 0-8? Did he really worry that India could have lost a Test in Dominica when he shook hands with 15 overs to go? And, you know, just why did he have that deep point so often so early?
By quitting in the manner he did, Dhoni deprived cricket fans of answers to these questions. Perhaps because of how different circumstances in Indian cricket are now, his leaving the 50-over and Twenty20 captaincy doesn’t give rise to questions with the same stridency. And there is the hope that when he finally does walk away, he won’t pull a third vanishing act, and one of the most astute minds of modern cricket will reveal something of itself.
The question that I’ve wrestled with is this: Does Dhoni ‘owe’ anyone an explanation for his actions? On balance, the answer I’ve arrived at is uniquely fitting to Dhoni. Yes and no.
Dhoni doesn’t owe anyone an answer if they are demanding an explanation for why he quit Test cricket or why he quit the limited-overs captaincy. It’s his career and his decisions, and he can choose as he sees fit. It would be nice to hear from him on what led to those choices, but if he doesn’t want to sit and answer questions, that’s his prerogative.
At the same time, if you see – as we’ll surely miss Dhoni saying post-match – cricket occupies a space in the hearts of millions of his countrymen that is somewhere between pilgrimage and well, orgasm. It is because there are so many Indians willing to sink so much of time and money in the game that the BCCI is the richest body in the world, that players like Dhoni are living the exalted lifestyle they do. The game may have given them everything, but it’s the fan that has given the game everything. To that fan, Dhoni owes some words. Not necessarily an explanation if he doesn’t want to delve into it, but words in the form of a farewell message that will help with closure.
As a fan, I know I would have appreciated those on December 30. I didn’t mind their absence on January 4. But when the day comes that Dhoni decides one of the greatest limited-overs careers in the world has ended, I’d certainly want to hear from him.