About 15 minutes after the MS Dhoni captaincy retirement earthquake hit an unsuspecting cricket world, the man who would now be known as the former Indian captain was playing FIFA on the PlayStation with the Jharkhand team.
Without a care in the world, as involved as ever in these games, with plenty of noise and hoopla that could be heard several doors down from the room in which a sizeable number of people had gathered.
That Dhoni’s decision to quit the captaincy of the One-Day International and Twenty20 International sides on Wednesday (January 4) took the world by surprise is a given. But it also caught the Jharkhand side completely unawares. One moment they were all sitting around and talking, some dissecting the aftermath of their Ranji Trophy 2016-17 semifinal loss against Gujarat, and the next someone looked up and said, “Bhaiyya ne captaincy chhod di?” [He has quit captaincy?]
Dhoni’s reaction was the quiet smile that audiences the world over will recognise he wears after a game is over. Inscrutable. A bit of a distant cousin to the Cheshire cat. A hint of the Mona Lisa enigma. And all the time seemingly saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll play your game but you can’t play mine.’
He merely confirmed to his state-mates that he had indeed quit as captain of India’s white-ball sides, saying that the time had come to make that decision. He indicated that he had considered giving up captaincy earlier too, but things kept getting in the way. Apparently, this was the best time to make the decision.
You can’t fault Dhoni’s logic. True, the Indian team has only three ODIs before defending their ICC Champions Trophy title in June. But the core of the team has been together for a while now. Moreover, Virat Kohli has grown in stature as a leader of men with every Test and series win India have racked up, and the handover ought to be seamless. Plus it’s not as if Dhoni has upped and quit altogether. He’s still there as a player and wicketkeeper, still around to offer advice if needed.
Did the fact that Kohli seems more than ready to take over as leader play a part? Did Dhoni just decide that if he wants to carry on till the 2019 World Cup, he was better off giving up the cares of leadership and focusing on his dual batting and wicketkeeping skills? Is it a part of his plan for eventual retirement, so that when he goes India only need to find a ’keeper-batsman and not a captain?
As ever, the answers to these questions remained elusive. All that the Jharkhand boys got was the smile and the short speech, and then it was time to FIFA, the most regular activity that’s taken place among the team in the last three days.
Dhoni arrived in Nagpur via a chartered jet from Pune at lunch-time on New Year’s Day, the opening day of Jharkhand’s first-ever Ranji Trophy semifinal. His arrival immediately caused a stir – not so much among the Jharkhand team but all around the Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground.
From Monday, till the match finished on Wednesday, he followed more or less the same routine. He stayed at the same hotel his state-mates were put up at, not going in for more fancy digs and was very much a part of the unit. Though of course, considering his profile, he was always part of the unit yet apart from it. He would arrive with the team, be a part of the morning fielding sessions. Occasionally, he had some tips to impart, like telling Ishan Kishan the subtleties of collecting the ball. The opening session would find him seated beside the coach, Rajiv Kumar, or one of the others in the Jharkhand camp who were not playing or in the dressing room. At lunch time, mobile nets would be wheeled out and Dhoni would have a hit against a smattering of bowlers.
In the middle of all this, the one stand where spectators were allowed – free of cost since this was the Ranji Trophy – was always full, with the most regular chant being, “Dho-ni… Dho-ni”. Sometimes there was variety. “Arre Dhoni bhaiyya, ek baar idhar bhi dekh lo.” [Brother Dhoni, look here too.] Stumps being drawn meant there was a general congregation of the teams on the edge of the boundary. Dhoni would be among them, sometimes he would walk up to the pitch. On Tuesday, a whole bunch of VCA officials and groundsmen got their photos clicked with the man who was still India’s limited-overs captain, with Dhoni in an obliging mood. One second, one click, on to the next. At the end he said, “Chalo, beheti Ganga mein sab ne haath dho liya.” It’s impossible to translate that in English, but it’s roughly the same as everyone made hay while the sun shone.
On Wednesday just before tea, Dhoni was deep in conversation with MSK Prasad, the chairman of the selectors. Not a single soul who witnessed it suspected it was anything other than an informal discussion on whom to pick for the England series. By end of play, with Jharkhand having lost, Dhoni decided to have a hit on the pitch. The most powerful arms in world cricket were freed and had those on the boundary lines, and much beyond, ducking for cover. He wasn’t facing the best bowlers, but it had been a while since one had seen Dhoni standing in the middle of the ground and sending every ball coming his way soaring.
We didn’t know it then, but perhaps he was practising his swings with a great load lifted off his mind.
If a freed up Dhoni is the result of today’s decision, then there’s going to be a lot more boundaries being peppered and a lot more bowlers who are worried. The ‘Dho-niiii… Dho-ni’ chants will only increase in volume.