Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Law of Appreciations

Cricket is a funny game. Famous quote that ‘the game is a great leveller’ isn’t an understatement. Statistics play a vital role in the game, probably more than they do in any other sport. Sooner or later, the perennial ‘law of averages’ catches up with the best of the best in the sport. No one is spared, ironically, not even the greatest of them all, Sir Don Bradman. And along with these averages, the age of a player also catches up with him. The skills don’t leave a sportsperson, but his reflexes, agility and physical and mental strength definitely become weaker with time. It is unrealistic and foolhardy not to expect that. The case of Mahendra Singh Dhoni is also not any different.

After the T20I series loss to South Africa, all the pressure was on Team India, even more on its already burdened captain. His bat has not fired in recent times the way we are used to it. The team’s performance has also been not too good in the limited overs format under him since the World Cup. On top of that, the historic series win in Sri Lanka under young gun Kohli has put Dhoni under more scrutiny, which is kind of implausible rather than sardonic, given the simple fact that we are talking about arguably one of India’s greatest captain, at least statistically (given that I am also a die hard dada fan). The point is not to compare Sourav’s and MSD’s captaincy records or any other captain’s for that matter, it is about the incredible and often improbable set of expectations that we have from our players. 
The stage was set for MSD at Kanpur in the 1st ODI. Last over, 11 runs to get, and a relatively new fast bowler in front of him. It all seemed far too familiar. Flashback to 2013, MSD scored 15 runs off the last over against Sri Lanka in the tri-series in West Indies, that too with 2 balls to spare. The various seasons of IPL had made us to react nonchalantly in such situations. Such has been the prowess of the master of the helicopter shot. But not this time. Rabada bowled a super over, Dhoni’s helicopter didn’t take off and India lost by 5 runs. Suddenly all that everyone could remember were those close losses to New Zealand and England in the T20 games in previous seasons.

The news channels were ready with their bites of India’s so called ‘shameful defeat’ of 5 runs and Dhoni copped all the flack for it. Even the commentators were at it. Whether Dhoni’s age is catching up with him, whether his reflexes are waning, whether India needs to find a new finisher and all those things. That is the funny thing in India. It is all a matter of 1 hit. We all can only speculate how prolonged would have been Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s career, had he not hit the winning shot against Pakistan in the Independence cup final in 1998. Had Dhoni connected a hit for a six and India had won, nothing would have been wrong with the world. But unfortunately for him, it was not to be.

I am glad that Sunil Gavaskar brought up the important topic of comparing a player with the same player in his prime. There is no way Dhoni of 2015 can be compared with the swashbuckling, carefree boy with a long mane of 10 years ago. Dhoni had started his role as finisher in ODI cricket back in 2006, with his scintillating knocks in Pakistan. His knocks of 72*(46) at Lahore and 77*(56) at Karachi were instrumental in helping India chase down those big totals and win the series. Since then, it has been a routine for him to finish off matches for India. Not only that, he had to don the hat of the captain as well as take the role of the wicketkeeper also. And more often than not, Dhoni has come out on the winning side of such tight situations.

According to me, the worst part for him is to face the questions after each such defeat and answer a barrage of questions, when all he can answer is to improve the death bowling and not to lose wickets in a heap while batting. Being the captain of India is just like having a crown full of thorns on your head. I am sure it must be really frustrating for him to hear that he is unable to deliver the goods any longer, when he has done it for past so many years and matches. He is counted in the same league as Michael Bevan for being the best finisher in the world for a reason.

Let’s face it – all days will not be the same. Even the mighty Aussies have tasted defeats in recent times and it would be an even bitter pill for them to swallow, as they are not accustomed to it. I am not defending MSD here. Every player has a shelf life. His time will also be up, and he will be the wiser more than anyone to know it. But the fact also remains that he has taken the maximum load, been in the most pressure situations and come out on top more often than not. We should be happy that here is a captain who is willing to create an able replacement for himself before he hangs up his boots. It is not about whether Dhoni should play at number four or remain as a finisher; it is about do we have a better replacement than him to be a finisher. Dhoni took to the finisher role like a fish takes to water, and did more than a good job all these years. As Ravi Shastri also said, now it is time, we let him enjoy his cricket. And one cannot argue that there is any lack of commitment or fitness on part of Dhoni. I come from Kanpur and am fully aware of the energy sapping heat there. Dhoni hit just one four in his innings of 31 in the first ODI. One could see him giving it his all, huffing and puffing after running those twos and quick singles, despite being concerned with his hamstring. I doubt if any other player would have had that stamina after keeping the stumps also in the first innings.

Sometimes I feel have I lost my love for cricket, because around me, I still see those casual fans, who criticise every loss that India takes and come up with their own analysis and reasons for the loss. In recent times, I have stopped having that feeling of anguish and frustration that I used to have when I used to watch the match the full day and India would lose such close encounters. I asked myself – has my love for the game dwindled just like Dhoni’s reflexes? Pat came the reply – no, I have evolved as a cricket lover than being an ardent Team India supporter! Sure, still feel tad bad for our team when it is an off day for us, but the joy of watching some exciting cricket and appreciating the skills of the players on display is something which was not there in my younger days. And I don’t blame those who don’t feel like I do now, many of them might not have had the chance to play in scorching heat, give it their best and still end up on the losing side. It’s days like those, which make you appreciate the game even more and enjoy each and every win with more satisfaction. I believe we should enjoy each and every remaining contribution of MSD with the same joy.

DHCF Nishant Raizaday for diehardcricketfans

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