“Why should I have a chat with him? He is the captain, he is the leader; if he and the coach think we should give breaks to the top order, that’s fine, I am okay with that. I don’t have any issues with that.”
—Virender Sehwag on M.S. Dhoni
Virender Sehwag was never one to fashion the front-foot defensive into a statement of stylish batsmanship. What’s more, he doesn’t repose trust in that forward plod; his method is one of clean, blunt strokeplay. In speech, he’s equally unequivocal, speaking bitter truths with a straight face. But his lack of subtlety merits second thought: you know he’s being honest but you wonder, perhaps absurdly, if it is cleansed of other motives.
On February 19, after the loss to Australia in the one-day tri-series, Indian skipper M.S. Dhoni had said that he could not have the trio of Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir all together in the ODI team because “it would affect our fielding in a big way”.
Two days later, after the loss to Sri Lanka, Sehwag said that’s not what Dhoni had told the three. “No, we didn’t know that,” Sehwag said. “I didn’t know what he said and what’s going on in the media. But we decided, we had a meeting, he chatted with everyone, with Gautam and myself and Tendulkar. He explained that he wanted to give chances to youngsters so they can play all the matches here because the next World Cup is also here, so they’ll get an idea of how the pitches behave in Australia.”
Sehwag’s comment provided grist to the rumour mill, fat to the fire. He spoke an inconvenient truth and, in effect, stoked speculation about Dhoni’s honesty, motives and captaincy. It also resurrected the old Dhoni-Sehwag rift rumour, this time with the clearest facts and quotes to anchor it with.
By design or accident, Dhoni has placed in the public domain his view that Tendulkar, Gambhir and Sehwag are pretty much the worst fielders in the team. Even if it’s true, did it have to be said at the cost of hurting the pride of the trio? “Dhoni should not have said this publicly,” says former Indian coach Anshuman Gaekwad. “He should have let this remain in the dressing room.”
“Perhaps he was trying to be a bit diplomatic with the players,” reasons former India skipper Ajit Wadekar. “When I was captain, I’d try not to point out the flaws of senior players to them. I’d try to put it diplomatically. Maybe Dhoni was trying to do that too, by not telling them the real reasons for the rotation policy.”
But once the reasons were out, the rift theory took on a life of its own—so much so that BCCI president N. Srinivasan felt it was his duty to deny its existence. BCCI vice-president Rajiv Shukla said: “From what we have understood, Sehwag has been misquoted.” Shukla didn’t explain how someone could get misquoted after addressing a press conference to some 30 journalists, televised at that.
Dhoni is a resolute leader, with definite goals and motivations. Sehwag shows the same certitude in all matters. At a press conference just before the 2011 World Cup, Sehwag was asked what he thinks of Dhoni the captain. “We are his seniors,” Sehwag said, speaking facts. “He doesn’t need to tell us what to do. We know what we have to do.”
India won the World Cup and became Test cricket’s top team with these very men. Strong personalities will have their differences, but they hurt when the team is on a losing run, and reasons for defeat unearth embarrassment.
Dhoni does bear the burden of planning for the future, a task which the BCCI and the selectors seem to have left to providence. There’s one question few are willing to address—is it right of Tendulkar to choose his cricket? He played the IPL last year and opted out of the Test and ODI tour of the West Indies, putting club over country. Sourav Ganguly has said his sporadic return to the ODI team destabilises it. By rotating the three key players, is Dhoni conveying his unhappiness? The controversy also leaves the larger question unanswered—is rotating personnel in a beaten team wise?
No, say both Wadekar and Gaekwad. “Rotation should be for a time when we’re doing well, not when we’re not,” says Wadekar. “You plan for bad times when you’re doing well. When you’re in bad times, you play your best team. Playing young, inexperienced players in tough times puts pressure on them.”
That seems to be true for this tour. After six innings, Raina’s average was 22.33, Ravindra Jadeja’s 18.6; Rohit Sharma averages 15.8 from five innings. Gaekwad says when the seniors aren’t playing well, a team must play youngsters as it has nothing to lose. “If the young players aren’t doing well too, you can’t afford to experiment,” he adds.
The best Indian batsman has been Dhoni, much more at home in ODI cricket. His captaincy, though, has attracted a torrent of criticism, right from tactics to team selection. “I’ve never been a fan of his captaincy, for he’s defensive and lacks imagination,” former captain Bishan Singh Bedi says. “That became clear in the Tests, when he set defensive fields and let Australia take the initiative.”
Last year, Dhoni was a superhero—now he seems inept at times, a spent force. Surely, such a transformation is not possible? Perhaps the critics are too hasty in their judgement? “Absolutely, no one deteriorates so fast. It’s the fans and media who are at fault,” says Gaekwad. “We are so sentimental about cricket, we put them up in the sky, or we throw them in the dust. There is no balance.”
Dhoni’s ODI runs have led to his partial rehabilitation in the affections of fans—confirming the irrationality, and brevity, of public memory. But spare a thought for Dhoni—he’s not been given the team he wanted, he’s mentally and physically fatigued. He has spoken often about a tiring excess of cricket, that he might give up Test cricket. It’s a cry for help that the BCCI has refused to heed, with Srinivasan saying stoutly: “Unless he says it officially, I would not take that seriously.”
As the notes of disharmony from Australia get louder, will someone take things seriously? We all know the answer.