The veteran looked pensive. He had seen it all, and then some. He burst on to the scene as a prodigy, he became his team’s lynchpin, he led the team to its biggest victories. There was even a Man of the Match performance in a World Cup final – the biggest stage of them all.
He had been a captain who saw great success. It was all fine when he was winning, but when the losses started piling up those who had praised his insight into the game questioned his leadership. Or more to the point, whether he had any. Was he just a lucky captain? Was he only capable of winning when the going was very good, and bereft of ideas when things started to go south? In his dealings with the public, he was stoic, or even graceful.
Then he went ahead and gave up captaincy. There was no prior warning, and it seemed likely that he could have continued to lead if he wanted to. But one day he was captain, the next day he wasn’t. And unusually, he would stay on as a player. The captaincy was being passed on to the man who had been his heir apparent for a long time, the brightest batsman in the team. The passing of the baton had the veteran’s endorsement too. It seemed in the natural order of things.
And now, the wheel had come a full circle. The veteran was, purely in terms of runs, not doing quite enough to justify a spot in the XI. The glory days that had once seemed routine were distant. It was years since his last significant stretch of unstoppable form. The odd good innings still came, but the conviction you got when he strode, flinty-eyed, to the crease had disappeared. The signature shot that sent the ball soaring into the midwicket area was no longer played with the pomp of old.
He had been a good team-mate since giving up the captaincy. An outstanding one perhaps. Offering advice when needed, still setting examples with his fitness levels and work ethic. Still electric on the field. And with a bank of international matches easily unrivalled in his own team, and matched by very few contemporaries still playing.
But all the nous, the inputs on field, the valuable presence in the dressing room bow to the altar of the Deity of Runs. There comes a time when all of them together cannot be enough to propitiate Fate if the Deity of Runs hasn’t been satisfied. Past heroics grant great champions longer ropes with the deity than most. They became champions after all, by believing that they were better than the rest and going out and proving it. And even champions face troughs of form. So when the decline starts, it’s the most natural thing in the world for everyone to believe it is just another trough that will be soared out of. And for the champion in question to believe it, to know it, more strongly than most. Knowledge is not always infallible, though. Only hindsight reveals that what you thought a bump in the road was a slope in steep descent.
There was also this to consider: the veteran was the last link remaining from the previous era. His departure would mean a considerable hole in the team’s off-field dynamic. His presence was reassuring in an ineffable way.
But all of these arguments, valuable in themselves, would not work in front of the Deity of Runs. Only runs could assuage her. And consistent runs was the ingredient missing in an otherwise still compelling package, even on the wrong side of 35.
And just before he turned 38, Ricky Ponting had called it a day on one of cricket’s most illustrious careers. His last four years in Test cricket brought 2681 runs, but at a considerably diminished average of 37.76. Until then it had been 57.20. The runs made a compelling argument that it was time for the soundtrack to fade away, but it’s interesting to note that within a few months of Ponting walking away, Australia had the homework-gate incident on their tour of India. Somehow, if Ponting had been around the group, it’s difficult to imagine things would have escalated to the point they did.
The parallels with MS Dhoni are striking. Every word of the paragraphs above could apply equally to both. But it’s not entirely a symmetric story being played out five years later. Being a legend in India is considerably different to being one in Australia. And Ponting was walking away from all international cricket. The questions over Dhoni loom only about his place in Twenty20 Internationals. In One-Day Internationals, he still commands a place in the XI on merit. And Dhoni has already been in the middle of an escalating crisis, but one that unravelled anyway – namely Virat Kohli’s fallout with Anil Kumble. When Kumble had called time on international cricket, it was Dhoni who hoisted the man from whom he would be taking over the full-time captaincy on his shoulders for a lap of honour around the Feroz Shah Kotla.
And then, too, when Ponting was struggling for runs and there were questions raised about his form, his team coach didn’t come out and say those who were criticising were ‘jealous’ or that they should ‘look back at their careers’ before commenting. Ravi Shastri is possibly the best man to have in your corner if you need boosting, but this time his arguments were way off the mark. You don’t have to be ‘jealous’ of Dhoni to reason whether it makes sense for the team to have him in T20Is or not, and if ‘looking at your own career’ was a qualification for any commentary, then Shastri himself ought to have not commented on any player once they crossed his Test runs or wickets tally. It’s an absurd argument that is made only when there is no argument to make.
But you suspect that these might be superficialities. Like Ponting, Dhoni is very much his own man. And maybe not as evidently as Ponting was, but Dhoni is no less a team man. His walking away from Test cricket and giving up the limited-overs captaincy when he could have easily continued in both capacities point to that. He might well catch the cricket world by surprise once again – either by walking away or with a resurgence that at present seems in the realms of the fantastical.
When he does leave, though, the hole will be gaping.