Jeffrey Archer’s novels tend to revolve around passionate entrepreneurs seizing the moment. And making their own fortunes and writing their own destinies.
Mahendra Dhoni could well have been a protagonist straight out of one of Archer’s paperbacks. At least, in the early stages of his international cricket career.
A cricketer from the state of Jharkhand – the apocryphal small town boy who made it big in the big bad city. The success purchased using the currency of good solid hard work, innate cricketing talent, and an uncanny seemingly born-with-it ability to quickly analyse a situation and grasp it by the horns– and change adversity into success - indeed smote adversity almost literally out of the reckoning.
In a cricket-mad country which places a premium on individual performances, and especially big hits (vis-à-vis over team performance/ effectiveness) the cricket viewing population went madder still. Does one dare say some even spoke of him as the new Tendulkar? (Or the Tendulkar of old? – a discussion in itself for another day).
Add to this boiling hot cauldron, the ingredient of roguish-good looks and long flowing tresses, which if one is allowed a little hyperbole - may even have been the envy of the odd Bollywood starlet!
As with any major sport, money followed - indeed, stalked and hunted him down. Big businesses smell an investment prey a mile away. And with Dhoni, one didn’t need to be an MBA from an IIM to conclude that he sold. And sold big.
Captaincy followed – and in hindsight, seemed destined. As far as the little matter of Team India goes, it appeared that finally India seemed to be playing as a team - winning more often than losing (with due regard to the Ganguly era where the seeds of change were clearly sown, and even flourished to an extent). The young kids on the block seemed to be playing some fearless cricket. Uncluttered by the thoughts of the past, or of failure. Armed with a realization that the only way to succeed was to play unburdened and free sport – and shift the demons in the mind to alternative residences – to the opponents mind. All of this shepherded in an easy way by the instinctive captain.
The fairy tale was complete.
As Peter Roebuck might have said, hereabouts, a strange thing happened.
In fact, it might be no major exaggeration to say the ‘strange thing’ happened almost overnight. Dhoni, one fine day, seemed to have turned his game on its head. It was as if on that day, Dhoni woke up from the other side of the bed, and said to himself – today is the day of my metamorphosis. The birth of a new me. This day onwards, I shall be the bearer of the cross. The sole bearer.
And the cross was a Herculean one – the cross of responsibility.
His reading seemed to be that here he was – a leader of a team of aggressive free-spirited young men (of the likes of Gambhir, Raina, Karthick, Yuvraj, Sehwag, Sharma) – men who seemed to have the ability to make pussycats out of the most hardened of criminals - put the fear of God into them. By the mere expediency of wielding their rapier blades of wood. One could almost hear Dhoni say to himself – how does it not make sense to have someone in the team who plays percentages? Assures certainty? Brings calmness?
Without a doubt, this made sense back then. As it does today, and one daresay, will continue to do so in times to come.
Dhoni the demolisher, the stone-man killer, who till then regularly bludgeoned the opposition into submission, seemed overnight to have put on a white coat and a mask, and traded in his stone-like ‘club’/ bat, for a sterilized scalpel. Dhoni the stone-man killer seemed to metamorphose into Dhoni, the calm and clinical Surgeon.
Where earlier his trade-mark shot was deliciously scooping out near-toe-crushing yorkers through long on/ mid wicket, he now slit the field with clinical twos. Where earlier he rattled along, counting in even numbers – fours and sixes, he now added the odd numbers to his abacus – by stealing singles. Where earlier he threatened to put a few species of migratory birds into the endangered species list by regularly aiming cricket balls at them, he now looked to threaten earthworms out to get some sun, by wristily burning shots straight along the carpet past the bowler. Welcome to the ‘New-Improved Dhoni’ – Ver.2. Bug and Error Free.
Make no mistake - the new ‘career choice’ was not a misguided one. Nor in the context of a team game, unwelcome. It clearly served its purpose – give a safety net to the trapeze artists / rapier swingers , swinging merrily and with gay abandon at the top of the batting order.
The artists seemed to ply their trade with utmost confidence – secure in the knowledge that if their rapier blades missed on a given day, and they got hurt, the Surgeon operating at number six with his scalpel would stem the flow of blood. And ensured that they came out alive – to fight another day.
The Surgeon thus ensured regular success for India.
But somewhere along the line, a strange thing seems to have happened. Dhoni seemed to take his Surgeon’s role too seriously. By almost treating his initial days as something one grew out of, and only looked back nostalgically. That as captain, it was almost sinful to ‘enjoy’ free-spirited batting.
The awe-inspiring, fear-inducing batsman of yore seemed to have turned into a responsible, boring, clinical patriarch of the family.
While this was evident over the past couple of years or so, the glaring extent and effects of it was shown up in stark relief in situations where letting go was the need of the hour. Like in the free-spirited T20 matches.
It is now quite apparent that the Dhoni as we know today is struggling to put the ball out of the park - even when he decides that he wants to shrug off the Surgeon’s mask and play, ironically, as the situation demands.
Why the struggle?
Are the demons of the mind to be blamed? Or is it on account of the fear of losing his wicket, and of failure – failure of self and consequently the team? Or is it the Herculean weight of the cliched billion expectations bearing him down?
Or could it just be something as simple as having played in one ‘style’ for a long time, that is who ‘he has become’? And reverting ‘back to type’ is now a huge change for him? That the current ‘style’ itslef is ‘type’ for him? That his ‘natural game’ now means getting a risk-free 40 off 46 balls?
Is the Dhoni, the stone-man-killer, the demolisher of the yore lost forever?
I believe not.
Let us make no mistake. This man is a man of exceptional ability and intellect. And one should have no doubts about that. For we have all seen over the past few years what this man is capable of. The mere fact that Dhoni chose to become a grafter (in a sense) in a land where ‘master-blasters’ are worshipped, in itself, says that the man is special.
I think the time has come for Dhoni use that exceptional ability and intellect to change again. Consciously, and on a few chosen occasions. Change, for that occasion, if only for the sake of change.
I do not for a moment believe Dhoni should be putting away the Surgeon’s mask forever – for all said and done, it is a tremendously fine way of batting in itself.
But it is important that Dhoni re-discovers that he can choose to be either one on a given day – the stone-man killer. Or the Surgeon. And then his effectiveness would be enhanced vastly. For if not anything, the opposing bowlers would also be wondering which one has turned up before them on that day. And the demons in their mind would be stirred. (And anyways, getting a 65 ball 90 on an odd day surely cannot be a bad thing for the team on that day).
For that, I believe Dhoni should pick the odd match to re-discover himself. To wake up on the other side of the bed. Wake up and say to himself - today, I shall not wear the Surgeon’s mask. Today, I shall be what I can be. A player who can single-handedly change the course of the match. Today, I shall make the opposing team’s bowlers contemplate alternative careers.
Today, I shall come in at number three. And be free. Free from the weight of responsibility. I shall believe today, in my players ability and willingness to play Surgeon. Believe in their ability to do that, like I believed in their ability to play rapier-wielding swordsmen. Today, I shall believe that they too can be grown-up men. Believe that if their captain falls, they are capable - and willing - to carry the burden of the cross. The Cross that I am passing to them. If only for today.
Today, I will be.