When Sunil Gavaskar refused to tour the West Indies (fatigue was a reason but there was a story that it was because of his politically incorrect writings about the players and spectators there), there was a national outcry.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has emerged as some kind of a hero following his decision not to tour with the national team because he is tired and needs a break. Not so long ago, a player who made such a call was dubbed 'unpatriotic' - that most damning of criticisms. You could be untalented or outspoken or money-mad or quiet - and you would be forgiven. But lack of patriotism was never acceptable.
When Sunil Gavaskar refused to tour the West Indies (fatigue was a reason but there was a story that it was because of his politically incorrect writings about the players and spectators there), there was a national outcry. A Board official reminded the player that there were five thousand players willing and ready to take his place - but the tour was called off anyway.
In recent years, a combination of insecurity and financial loss has ensured that players have hidden injuries, kept quiet about fatigue and dared not risk being called unpatriotic. By being open about it, Dhoni has divorced patriotism from sport - and we must thank him for that. For too long the concept of "dying for the country" on the sports field - a romantic, convenient, popular, but ridiculous notion has been allowed to grow roots in the minds and hearts of all who play a sport or follow one.
Past cricketers are fond of saying how they played the game "for the sheer love of it and for the love of the country," since they earned a mere 250 rupees or whatever. But those were days when 250 rupees meant something. That, however, was conveniently forgotten, and the modern player was painted as a mercenary. Yet, there were mercenaries in the past, just as there are 'patriots' now.
But we have matured. The Board certainly has, in this case. Sportsmen carry enough burden as it is - they have to be ambassadors of the country, they have to be ambassadors of their sport, they have to be god-like in their judgments and angel-like in their attitudes. And they have to be patriots, above all. This is both unreal and unnecessary.
If a lawyer takes a month's vacation to clear his head or an architect takes a fortnight off to rest and recuperate, neither is accused of being unpatriotic. Our politicians are not expected to be patriotic. So why should our sportsmen be? Especially since sport is a minor activity in the human scale, and despite our pouring into it so much emotion remains outside the pale of crucial human endeavour. The IPL has already shown how easily 'patriotism' can be bought - let us get real and tell ourselves that sportsmen are professionals who do a professional job, and are subject to the pulls and pressures of professionals. Perhaps more than others because they perform in the public eye and because their lifespan at the top is so short.
If by taking breaks when it matters a professional is able to extend his career, then he should be allowed the freedom. Dhoni has been brave. He has taken an awful chance - for the man who replaces him could establish himself in the team in a short time. Then the selectors will have to choose the team based on balance and the needs at the time. Dhoni clearly has the confidence to take the chance of being left out in the future - not because of any perceived lack of patriotism but because someone else is performing better.
But by de-linking patriotism from sport he has already rendered a signal service to Indian sport.