Over the weekend, I was in conversation with a few friends of mine about M. S. Dhoni’s captaincy. We agreed that in the T20 World Championship he was doing exceedingly well. He appeared to have confidence in his players and also had their confidence. There was a sense of an environment of trust and enjoyment in the team. He also appeared to get them to give off their best for themselves as well as their team members.
Ian Chappell observed that this was a team that was playing fear-free cricket in the spirit of their captain.
At this point in time, perhaps justifiably, most fans, observers and commentators are completely enamoured by Dhoni’s freshness, approach, acumen and style. If sceptics needed more convincing, apparently he and Sreesanth had an early night after the T20 finals with Dhoni saying that there was still much to do in the Australia ODI series and there was no need to get carried away. He is reported to have said to his teammates, “Sab kuch normal rakhne ka (keep everything normal). Just live in the present, keep your feet on the ground, enjoy your success but don’t get carried away by success.”
These are good days for Dhoni and his team. These are honeymoon days for Dhoni. They are happy days too, for his team has won when no one expected it to do so.
However, there are some stark realities of captaining India and if he is not aware of it already, I am sure it will hit Dhoni most when he contends with three evils in Indian cricket which are, in no particular order, (a) ‘the system’, (b) the dressing-room-egos, and (c) unsurpassed expectations.
This is euphemism for the BCCI and its machinations. Harsha Bhogle, writing in the Indian Express, says in the context of Rahul Dravid’s resignation: “Ideally, a captain should be free to think about the game and his players. If matters outside the playing field begin to occupy his mind more than those on it then there is a problem in the system that is causing it to happen. If a captain has to keep thinking about contracts, coaches, schedules and such other matters that really should be someone else’s responsibility, it is taking away time from his primary activity. Nasser Hussain quit as captain in 2003 because he was being forced to think more about Robert Mugabe than about the opposition. If Dravid has left the job for similar reasons, then all we will have is a new face with the same worries.”
And that is essentially what Dhoni will face too.
Subsequent to my conversation over the weekend with my friends, I was reminded of this lovely article I read by Rohit Brijnath — in my view, one of the best writers on Indian cricket — just before Rahul Dravid and his team departed for England in June 2007. He wrote of the BCCI: “On 23 March, India’s World Cup challenge ended. In July, India opens its tour of England. Ample time existed to find a new coach. The BCCI’s inability to do so is further confirmation that no one in the Indian board knows, or seems to care, how to build a world-class team. As a group they remain unfamiliar with excellence.”
Dhoni will be faced with a similar inept system that has no commitment to excellence. As I have said before, I doubt that this mob would be able to plan a booze party in a brewery even if their lives depended on it. They would, however, organise it in a hurried manner as though their backsides were on fire if and only if they smelt money.
Sourav Ganguly was able to manipulate this system to his — and his teams’ advantage. But then he was a master politician and moreover, he had Dalmiya on his side. It will be interesting to see how Dhoni copes with this single major challenge that he faces to his tenure as captain.
Dressing room egos:
If one were to accept the scuttlebutt , there may have been a blip in the dressing-room temperature in the game against South Africa with Yuvraj Singh being one of the culprits. Harsha Bhogle gave the impression on air that the “tendonitis of the elbow” explanation was a bit of a furphy. He follows that up with the following lines in this article: “India should have been rocked by the withdrawal of a champion batsman, but the captain let him sit out and didn’t bother persuading him to play. That is the way to go and in doing so he made a statement on what he thought the rest were capable of. Only Yuvraj will know how bad the pain was but it must have been excruciating enough to warrant missing a game a day after playing the innings of his life.”
If there were any tensions subsequent to that game, Dhoni appeared to have smoothed them over, given Yuvraj Singh the ego-stroke that he was possibly looking for — if indeed, the scuttlebutt was to be believed — and then gotten on with the job.
But this is just the start. As Rohit Brijnath comments eloquently, “Indian cricket is alive, constantly, with a dozen mutinies and a captain must deftly quell them. Some insurrections are quelled by a quiet word at dinner or a friendly pat to an uneasy bowler. Dravid’s toughness has reportedly made him intimidating to men who are not on his wave length. Of course he must not pander to indolent fellows, yet must convince men to a common cause. A fellow at ease with words must communicate more ably.”
What Brijnath writes about Dravid applies equally to Dhoni with a few exceptions. The problems are the same — there are always a “dozen mutinies” to quell — but the approaches will be crafted by the leader. Where Dravid was seen as “intimidating”, Dhoni may be more “approachable”. And Dravid’s “toughness” may make way for Dhoni’s “tough love” approach.
Dressing-room-mutiny-quelling is a necessary skill that any Indian captain must possess. Sourav Ganguly had this in spades, in my view and that made him more able to curtail the inevitable “slow leak of spirit from the team”. Ironically, in Ganguly’s reign — and so also in Dravid’s reign — this “slow leak” occurred most when the team was winning! Somehow, when effigies were being burnt and when houses were being stoned whenever the team lost, team spirit was at its highest! These events seemed to spur the team to band together and play for each other! Dhoni will face the same challenges, particularly as the team has started on a winning note. The more the wins, the greater the dressing-room-egos! He needs to manage that and the mutinies that could result and this is certainly not a job for the faint-hearted!
The most telling paragraph in Brijnath’s wonderful piece is this one: “No doubt there are players in the team who complain about the imperfections of Indian cricket (selection, too much cricket, etc), yet never strive for their own personal perfection. There are fading elders around, too, of varying utility. Yet for better or worse these are Dravid’s men, this is his team. A great leader finds a way to unite the most rag-tag bunch, rousing them to play harder for him and each other.”
And as Dhoni sits down on the flight back to Mumbai and as he charts out his own roadmap, it would do him good to have the above paragraph — with Dhoni instead of Dravid — in front of him. His task will be one of managing egos, stopping the slow-spirit-leak and uniting a rag-tag-bunch that is not high on self-discipline and extremely short on consistency!
This was one area where neither Ganguly nor Dravid managed well. These expectations come from the media and the fans.
Dravid always talked about the lack of proportion. In an interview with Mike Atherton midway through the England series, when asked about whether captaincy was a “burden”, Dravid perhaps gave an insight into the resignation that was to follow when he said, “Burden is too strong a word and people say that because of how I look. I’m not naturally a cheery-looking soul on the field. I do enjoy it but there are aspects I find tough. What I find hardest is the absolute lack of proportion. It makes it very hard to build a team when two or three bad games provoke such an extreme reaction. The media in India have been changing rapidly. I actually enjoy reading the papers over here because I’ll get criticised for how I actually captain the team, the bowling changes I make and the field placings I set, rather than, for example, how many times I clap my hands and something equally irrelevant.”
And seriously, the braying mediocrity of Indian cricket — its media — must cop a lot of the blame for setting and moderating the expectations of fans. Media people will tell you that they are merely reflecting the pulse of the nation. And that may well be right. However, the quality of commentary is more often than not, based only on opinion and completely devoid and bereft of analysis and “proportion”. There are TV programs that regularly tease out and hang-to-dry “culprits” of losses that the team endures! There is too much banality, too much opinion-driven hysteria, too much drama and too much sensationalism — just in the name of filling up column-space or air-time. There is very little deep-analysis. And the real danger is that those that do indulge in analytical pieces are dumbed down as boring and irrelevant.
Dravid had to battle the system that did not provide him with support. He had to fight the egos in the dressing room. But the public couldn’t care less! Joe Public wants to see achievements. And achievement, for almost every Indian fan, is thrashing the living daylights out of the opposition. Nothing else will do, thank you very much!
These are the realities and challenges that Dhoni will face once the honeymoon period is over. Will he overcome these to make an imprint on Indian cricket?
I sure do hope so.