A quiet man leaves quietly

Mahendra Singh Dhoni alone can say as to why he quit the way he did, but for now he has retreated behind his polite wall of silence. At any rate, the ire he has drawn for leaving mid-series is wholly undeserved, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

And so it is that Test cap number 251 vanishes from Indian sights, without warning or farewell. M. S. Dhoni will not play Test cricket again, the decision made on his own terms, and in his familiar, curtained-off style — greeting the press at the gate one moment, tiptoeing out of the back door the next.

Who knows what made his mind up, three fixtures into a premier four-match series. That India had won one overseas Test of the last 22? That his bruised, aging body could not bear the strain of squatting, rising, catching, and diving (if occasionally) behind the wicket, and marshalling an inexperienced team at the same time? That he had had enough, playing all forms of the game all seasons of the year? That he simply felt it was time?

Dhoni alone can say, but for now he has retreated behind his polite wall of silence. At any rate, the ire he has drawn for leaving mid-series is wholly undeserved.

Perhaps Dhoni saw some merit in giving Virat Kohli — his young, firebrand successor — another Test in charge when the series was already lost; and none in hanging around. It may also be that saving himself for the World Cup took priority.

“It’s not about the timing of the retirement but it’s about his intentions,” says Javagal Srinath. “I completely understand his decision. Once you decide to go, your exit doesn’t have to be ceremonial. There’s nothing left in the series. He’s given Virat Kohli one more game’s experience and he’s given Wridhhiman Saha or whoever it may be another chance. One good Test can make his career, who knows. Nobody could’ve stopped Dhoni from playing on for another five years. It was a very selfless act to retire. He is very honest. To retire that way is absolutely his style.”

To Srinath, what is not debatable is Dhoni’s legacy. “He is the best captain India has ever produced,” he says. “We reached number one in the rankings, which had never happened before in the history of Indian cricket. When you muster all the numbers together, you’ll see what this man has achieved.”

On the basis of his numbers, Dhoni is India’s most successful captain, gloveman, and wicket-keeper- batsman: 27 wins (from 60 Tests as captain) 294 dismissals, and 4876 runs (from 90 Tests overall).

His period at the helm, though, can be split into two distinct phases. The golden age lasted till spring 2011, when he won 15 of the 27 Tests he led in. In July that year, India left for a long tour of England, where a 4-0 shellacking awaited. That was the beginning of the end of a side of unassailable cricketing behemoths.

Later that season, after the ill-fated year-end tour of Australia, Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman retired. Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan were never quite the same again. Post July 2011, Dhoni won 12 and lost 15 of his 33 Tests. Eighteen of them were played overseas, out of which India triumphed only once, when England's batsmen lost their heads at Lord’s. It makes for grim reading.

Dhoni’s retirement comes at a time when India’s next significant Test series is scheduled only for October, when South Africa arrives. Only the World Cup matters now and Dhoni’s credentials in one-day cricket cannot be questioned. “Look, it’s not easy to win Tests abroad,” says Srinath. “All of our captains have lost overseas. By retiring from Test cricket, Dhoni may have prolonged his one-day career by two or three years.”

It is unlikely, though, that he would want to stay that long. What all this means is that Kohli ought to prepare himself for a long run as captain. For a player who has skippered the U-19 team to a World Cup, and led his State and IPL sides, this must be no alien responsibility.

The demands of the India job, however, can seem more heavy and wearying than most imagine. Just ask Sachin Tendulkar.

Kohli is arguably India’s best batsman — across formats — and any drying up of his near-perennial run- flow is unthinkable. Not that he suffers from any dearth of confidence. “India is in safe hands with Virat,” says Srinath. “He’s a champion cricketer and no one can argue with the numbers he has racked up.”

In Dhoni’s first match as captain, when he stood in for Anil Kumble at Kanpur’s Green Park Stadium in 2008, India needed only three days to see South Africa off. It was a staggering, emphatic victory, but Dhoni had the grace and the humility to say: “It’s pretty hard to replace a man like Kumble, and especially on such a wicket. Had he been playing, I don’t think this would have lasted three days.”

Whether Kohli will grow to conduct himself with the same gravitas remains to be seen. The sheer weight of his runs will ensure that at least in the medium term, his authority will not weaken. The other thing to ponder is India’s style of play. If captains cast teams in their own image, the India Dhoni left behind will be remembered (if unfairly) as a reticent, passive unit unimpressed with Test cricket.

Kohli, it is evident, wishes to plot a different course. He envisions a snarling, intimidating India, flexing its muscles — and in public. But without an adequate army, even the best-intentioned general will flounder. Kohli will be aware that he does not have Test-match-ready professionals to simply sign and deploy.

It is here that he will face his greatest test: how to manage resources; how to inspire colleagues; and how, above all, to retain composure in the face of defeat. And it is here we will be able to judge how Dhoni actually fared.