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By Suresh Menon
Dr. Mahendra Singh Dhoni – the honorific thanks to a university in Leicester - turned 30 this year. An international sportsman at that age is the equivalent of an accountant or a candlestick maker at 50. There is a good chunk of career remaining, but its quality will depend on how well the mind and body are trained to cope. Matches not played will have a bearing on matches played.
Dhoni is one of the most over-worked cricketers in the world. In Manchester recently, he admitted his players are tired and called for a rotation policy. After the first one-dayer he suggested taking 18 players on tour. Dhoni has stood up to the strain remarkably well, although former England wicket keeper Paul Nixon has spoken of the Indian captain’s “sore hands” and general air of fatigue on tour.
The question we should be asking ourselves – and by ‘we’, I mean the selectors, the coach, the player himself, the sponsors, the fans, the media, everybody with a stake in the success of the player (not always financial) – is: How do we protect Dhoni?
Protect him from the excessive physical and mental demands so that he is at the top of his game for longer than his workload might indicate? To keep wickets is a full-time, nerve-wracking job; to lead a side, ditto; to be one of the main batsmen with responsibilities to control the innings, ditto. And Dhoni does the job of three men in three different formats of the game while maintaining one of the coolest responses to victory and defeat by any captain.
He didn’t burst into tears when India were thrashed in England (at least one international captain in recent memory walked off centre stage in tears), he didn’t suggest it was the end of the world. Such self-control is both awe-inspiring and frankly, a bit worrying. How does this man let off steam?
The pressures are incredible, yet Dhoni never complains. Apart from the playing and the touring and the public relations, there is the matter of IPL and the Champions League which swells the number of playing days by a significant percentage every year. Now that the boss at his IPL franchise is set to take over as the President of the cricket board, chances are that if Dhoni has to take a break, it will not be from the shortest format. India might let him take a break, but Chennai Super Kings will not.
Yet it need not be all doom and gloom if Dhoni’s career is handled with care and sensitivity. If, like Tendulkar and Dravid, Dhoni hopes to play into the late 30s, steps have to be taken now. Periods of rest and a careful policy of rotation will keep a player in the game for much longer than the existing arbitrary play-everything policy.
Dhoni has played 61 Tests, 186 ODIs and 27 T20 internationals. It took Polly Umrigar – India’s batting record-holder in the pre-Gavaskar period – nearly 14 years to play 59 Tests. It has taken Dhoni just five years.
England’s three-captain policy is beginning to look attractive. A specialist T20 captain will reduce the strain on Dhoni who can sit out the games or play without the added responsibility.
For the moment, there is no call to shift Dhoni in the one-day matches. He is the captain of the reigning World champions, after all. When the Indian team returns, there will be post-mortems, finger-pointing, blame-avoiding, responsibility-spreading and all those other exercises so beloved of the fraternity in India.
In the midst of all this, two important issues have to be tackled. The question of easing the next generation of players in, and the matter (and manner) of stretching career of the captain. I am not sure how successful the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign has been in India. But the ‘Save the Captain’ campaign must aim at greater success.