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By Suresh Menon
“It has to be a process, not an event,” skipper M S Dhoni has said of the retirement plans, forced or otherwise, of his senior players after the disasters in England and Australia. There is much wisdom in what he says. Unfortunately, however, it will be an event because neither he nor the cricket board had the foresight to prepare for it.
When you have played over 125 Tests – the stage at which Sunil Gavaskar decided to call it a day – it is fair to assume that you will recognise signs of diminishing powers earlier than anybody else. Self-awareness comes with experience, and you don’t need critics or opposing bowlers to point out the obvious.
It will be a sad day when the Tendulkars, Laxmans and Dravids bid goodbye. But sadder are the days when they carry on beyond their sell-by date. A great sportsman struggling in the twilight of his career is one of the saddest sights in sport; the best get out before adoration turns into pity and awe becomes irritation in the eyes of the fans.
If Indian cricket is at the crossroads, it is due as much to individuals not reading the signs right as the cricket board not planning the transition with sense and sensitivity. Rahul Dravid in England and Sachin Tendulkar in Australia looked head and shoulders above everybody else. But V V S Laxman has looked out of place and Virender Sehwag continues to suggest that he is not all there. Whether it was a personal decision to carry on that bit too long in the IPL with a dodgy shoulder or whether it was the influence of his paymasters, Test cricket has never been the same for him since.
A captain who could do no wrong till recently is now undergoing the unhappy experience of friends and foes alike asking for his head on a platter. Dhoni’s Kiplinguesque response to victory and defeat, his demeanour as Captain Cool, all those attributes that endeared him to a nation are now seen as weaknesses and indicators of an inability to communicate. He was cool because he wasn’t bothered, goes the cry. Fandom in India is not known for being fair.
Had Virat Kohli established himself in the middle order on the tours of the West Indies, England and Australia in the past year, he would have been a leading candidate to replace Dhoni as the captain. He turned 23 in November, and could bring to the job the aggression and freshness of youth if he is allowed to grow. He hasn’t done his case any favours by his middle-finger-waving at the crowd, but he is obviously captaincy material if only he secures his place.
When South Africa were in the pits, they chose a 22-year-old Graeme Smith to lead and that turned out to be an inspired decision.
Perhaps the recent defeats have not been such a bad thing after all, whatever their impact in the short-term. They will force the cricket board to turn its focus from counting money and making marketing deals to the actual game itself and decide where priorities ought to be.
Sometimes a crisis inspires creative solutions; usually it hastens the process of change that is often postponed for sentimental or unprofessional reasons. The only danger is that a board, till now lethargic, might suddenly swing to the other extreme and start a process of sacking and reorganising.
The classical reaction in sport is to sack the coach – and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start with Duncan Fletcher who in his brief tenure has not suggested he has a plan in either the short or the long term.