Social media is having a field day, tea stalls are abuzz too, the real, the virtual, all universes have been taken over. There's just no escaping the trial of MS Dhoni if you live in India and haven't built your home under a rock. It is the country's worst-kept secret that Dhoni is the fall guy right now for India's defeat at the hands of England on Sunday, the one at whom a million arrows are being shot at simultaneously all through the last few games.
That's what it has come down to for the 37-year-old legend of Indian cricket as he slowly fades into the sporting horizon. Yes, the same man who gave India two World Cups as a captain; the same man who epitomized the new cool that still represents what the Indian team stands for, under current captain Virat Kohli.
Yes, that same man who launched Lasith Malinga into the Wankhede stands to fulfil, what seemed like, his destiny at the point of time. How times change.
"The finisher is finished", is a pit message doing the rounds on Monday morning post India's loss to England at Edgbaston on Sunday; he has overstayed his welcome, feels a venerable, old armchair cricket expert in his daily dose of Facebook wisdom.
We know cricket is a cruel sport, especially in India, and you are as good as your last game. The fame, adulation and money that comes with being a top cricketer here is inherently a deal with the Devil; you sign off all vestiges of normalcy in return for the glory. Dhoni, forever the stoic, knows this all too well.
But has he really become a part of this World Cup team resting on past laurels? Is he the white elephant that Kohli and Co. carry around with them out of humongous respect for his past achievements, not current value? Let's introspect.
Taking it slow
That's the primary complain against MSD, isn't it? Once the long-haired assassin of pace attacks around the world, the purveyor of the helicopter shot and an inexorable attacker, Dhoni has, ostensibly, found more grey hairs on his head than lofted drives over the fence in recent years.
It is a fact that he paces his innings differently nowadays; the last time India were in England, his similarly-slow starts faced the same critique. But is he just being made a convenient point of convergence of India's collective failure as a team against England yesterday?
A dispassionate look at the numbers, however, suggest that MSD is being singled out without a lot of basis in facts. India were chasing 338 for victory and fell short by a disquieting 31 runs in the final analysis. Rohit Sharma scored another well-made hundred and was ably assisted by Virat Kohli to help India get back in the game.
Dhoni remained not out at 42 off 31 deliveries, therein lies the genesis of the clamour against him. The former captain added 31 off 39 deliveries in an undoubtedly slow partnership with Kedar Jadav with India needing 71 off the last five overs and they do deserve some stick for failing to force the issue as they could only manage 40. But is the tone and pitch of the attack a bit outrageous.
Let's take also take a look at the strike rates of the Indian batsmen for comparison. Hardik Pandya, who was hailed by Twitterati as someone with intent last night, scored 45 off 33 at an S/R of 136.36, Dhoni was second, at 135.48!
Some slammed the Indian batsmen for only hitting one six while pursuing a gargantuan total. Guess who hit that? The nation's current favourite fall guy. India began with a princely 28/1 in their first 10 overs; a run rate of 2.8 while chasing a required rate of 6.76. It seemed like a scene from an absurd drama, no less than the single-taking spree of the last five overs.
Some could argue that the match was lost there itself. Yes, KL Rahul had failed and India's two best batsmen had to rebulid, but they seemed to have fallen behind the pace a bit too much when the field restrictions were in place. Even an extra 15 runs in the 1st powerplay could have kept India in the game.
Commentators, teammates differ
Legend Sourav Ganguly and former England captain Nasser Hussain didn't seem to think Dhoni tried enough and had felt India gave up on the chase much too early. They blasted the duo of Jadav and Dhoni for not showing any intent at chasing down the target. Every single that they took was like a dagger in the hearts of incensed Indian fans as well.
But his teammates, including steadfast supporter captain Kohli, defended him and Sharma said at the press conference that Dhoni tried his utmost to clear the boundary, the pitch was just too slow; the ball was not coming on to the bat anymore. The jury will always be out on this, the main argument of the prosecutors taking on MSD. We can never answer the question whether MSD tried his utmost last night, only he can; but it is a bit hard to believe that one of India's most decorated cricketers will flee the battlefield without trying.
Dhoni came into the World Cup in blinding form that he rediscovered in the Indian Premier League. He took Chennai to the finals and blasted his team home singlehandedly in many of the games. He even hit a swashbuckling century in a warm-up game before the familiar woe of slow starts began to haunt him with India's rickety middle order getting exposed in latter matches. Oh but he took India to a respectable total against West Indies in the last win, fans have a short memory. Some believe 290 all out would have been better than 306/5 as it would have meant India had tried and failed. What if they had tried their best and it was just too big a task in the end? What about net run rate?
Yes, it is indeed true that he has slowed down, it is inexorable with age, but the amount of flak he is facing is indeed bizarre. It is unbelievable to suggest that the man who has done it all in the past did not try, maybe he just failed. Kohli believes India still need Dhoni because of his ideas and experience, if not anything else. He still has a batting average of more than 50 in ODIs, lest we forget that.
Maybe MSD will rise like the Phoenix one last time in the twilight zone.
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