Dhoni, the captain who can’t catch a break

Dhoni, the captain who can’t catch a break

Target of criticism for matters on and off the field, the Indian skipper is tackling the challenges, as calm as ever

By Dileep Premachandran

Published: Mon 9 Feb 2015, 6:59 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 7:43 PM

Indian Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni - AP photo

MS Dhoni can’t win. And we don’t mean on the field. Last Friday, his first child, a baby daughter, was born. He obviously wasn’t in India for the birth, and there has been no sign that he’ll be flying back midway through the World Cup campaign for a first real glimpse of her.

There was a fortnight between India’s last game in the tri-series in Perth (January 30) and their World Cup opener against Pakistan in Adelaide – easily enough time to head to India and come back without suffering the effects of jet lag.

But imagine the situation if Dhoni had done so. After a winless tour of Australia, the rat-deserts-sinking-ship headlines would have been the least of it. And there are certainly enough TV channels and print publications back home capable of such nastiness.

You can also picture the media scrum outside the hospital if he had gone for a visit. Those that think nothing of sticking a camera in the face of N Srinivasan’s wife – as if she has anything to do with cricket or the IPL – would hardly leave a man alone to spend some time with his wife and baby.

By not going though, Dhoni has opened himself up to accusations of being a 20th century Neanderthal. “It’s just a game of cricket. How could you not be there to see your first child?” asked one gentleman in the old settlement of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills.

He was referring to Dhoni’s statement the day after the birth. “As of now, I'm on national duty, so I think everything else can wait,” he had said. “The World Cup is a very important campaign, and everything can wait as of now.”

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

On the field, things are no less confusing. For years now, India’s strategy for ODI success has been to restrict opponents with the ball, while unleashing the full might of a talented batting line-up. But as we’ve seen on this tour so far, the tourniquet options are just not there, certainly not in these conditions.

On Sunday (February 8), in the warm-up game against Australia, Umesh Yadav was the only pace bowler to exert a measure of control until Glenn Maxwell ruined his figures late on. Of the spinners, R Ashwin escaped heavy punishment, but Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja got a pasting.

Dhoni, though, will not panic. That is not his way. He may not be a great tactician, especially away from the subcontinent, but he’s especially good at managing expectations within the group. Even if India win against Pakistan, you can be sure Dhoni won’t be ripping his shirt off or making grandiose pronouncements about the trophy ‘coming home’.

“That's something that we have dealt with in the last World Cup, and we constantly have to deal with it, the expectation levels of the fans of India, and what's important for us is to think and concentrate more about what our plans are, how we need to execute our plans, and how we quickly need to assess the situation,” said Dhoni at his pre-tournament briefing.

“Those will be the key factors, so we are not thinking too much about what the fans are expecting out of us. We know what needs to be done and we'll be concentrating more on that.”

In a sense, he probably appreciates the fact that the first game is the most hyped one. Win or lose, India can get that out of the way and focus on what they need to do to get the best possible draw in the last eight.

“The moment you start thinking about a traditional rivalry and all of that, you're just adding pressure to yourself,” said Dhoni. “Also, what we have successfully done in the last three to four years, we have mellowed down the things that happen on the field, apart from cricket. We have stuck to good, aggressive cricket on the field, but what we have minimised is the warble, things that often happen between the cricketers.

“I feel that's really good for the game because you want to play it as a sport. You want to play it hard, but you still have to maintain the spirit of the game. That's one thing that both sides [India and Pakistan] have done really well.”

The strident criticism of Dhoni’s Test leadership – now a thing of the past – has often obscured just how successful he has been in coloured clothes. It’s nearly impossible to imagine another captain, especially given the current itineraries, who will be around long enough to win a World Cup, a Champions Trophy and the World Twenty20.

Yet, when it was put to Dhoni that he hadn’t perhaps got the respect that those achievements deserved, he just shrugged it off. “I think what's important is not the respect,” he said. “The capability of the team is more important, and what has really happened for us is even when we were playing the Champions Trophy (in England in June 2013, which India won), we were going through a patch where we were not doing really well. The guys stepped up during that tournament, and we played very consistently.”

One warm-up match remains, against Afghanistan at the Adelaide Oval on February 10, before Dhoni starts his bid to emulate Clive Lloyd (1975 and ’79) and Ricky Ponting (2003 and ’07) by retaining the trophy. India have had their turmoil and their injury woes on this tour, but they’ve also had a break that should stand them in good stead for what is a six-week marathon and not a sprint.

One man who certainly won’t be writing off Dhoni and India is Michael Clarke, Australia’s captain, who was on the losing side in the Ahmedabad quarterfinal in 2011. “I think MS Dhoni and the Indian team have always been successful, especially under his leadership,” he said. “I think he's done a fantastic job. He's a wonderful player and a match-winner.

“I think they'll see it as a fresh start. They've had success in major tournaments, and they'll certainly take confidence from that. So yeah, I have no doubt that India are going to be one of the toughest teams in this competition to beat, that's for sure. I think their time in Australia, actually playing in these conditions, will certainly help them.”

The man who has gone from Captain Cool to Captain Can’t Catch a Break will certainly hope that’s the case.

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