It's been a rough 15 months for MS Dhoni. The knives are out, captaincy obits have been penned and the character assassinations are ubiquitous. Not the ideal way to begin the sixth year of your stint as captain. 'Mute spectator', 'poor leader', 'negative tactician', 'detached', 'confused', 'unaffected' - just some of the rhetoric in the newspapers and the sports bulletins on the telly lately. From the man who could do no wrong, he is now the wrong man.
As someone who has reported on the game for over a decade, I can tell you that the Indian media is easily swayed by the access players offer journalists. Our opinions are often determined by how well we are treated by India's cricketing superstars, and this is especially true of field reporters who believe (sometimes with good reason) that their careers will be made by the quantity of interviews they manage, even if there is little substance to the three-minute television interview or the 'exclusive' throwaway quote from a player as he walks from the press conference to the practice nets.
If an interview is not possible, and interviews with Dhoni are especially rare (even for a news channel he may have a contract with), just being privy to confidential information or having the players stop for a quick chat is enough to ensure the plaudits and positive estimations are aplenty. But players are not obligated to make themselves available to the media, a tiny detail we are fairly unforgiving of. So it's really interesting to see how Dhoni's relationship with the media in the country, and its opinion of him, has evolved since he was appointed one-day captain in 2007.
Self-assured to a fault, Dhoni has been an exception from the start in that he never really made himself available to journalists, outside of obligatory press conferences and the occasional casual chat, unlike several players who are more affable and open to doing interviews particularly when they get to a milestone. In fact, even his family has been categorically instructed not to entertain the media, let alone do any interviews, a very rare approach in India given how often we see cricketers' parents, siblings and even spouses being interviewed.
This strategy worked well as long as India maintained its winning streak and his team notched up one achievement after another - the World Twenty20 title, the CB series win in Australia, the No.1 Test ranking and the World Cup being the notable ones. But the moment India started to lose, the lack of access has resulted in vicious attacks about his poor captaincy, his parochial attitude, his favouritism, and his uncomfortable equation with some of his team-mates who also harbour captaincy ambitions.
The very attributes that were celebrated - his calm, unaffected approach, his cool attitude, and his detached persona - acquired, almost overnight, negative connotations implying that he simply did not care enough that India were on the downslide and had suffered their most humiliating run in a long time. All reasons to now crucify him.
The case that is particularly representative of this attack is the story of his rift with Virender Sehwag that first appeared during the CB series in Australia in 2008. It has been making periodic appearances ever since, most recently during the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka last month. Why must a "difference in thinking" between two individuals or an "ego battle" be cause for such censure in the media? Isn't it perfectly natural that two strong-minded, independent-thinking, talented and ambitious cricketers will have differences of opinion and ego clashes? In fact, it would be bizarre if they didn't. But Dhoni, more than Sehwag, has been vilified for it.
This is not to say that Dhoni is above any criticism. Far from it. But given the extent of sensationalism in the print and television media, there is little room for constructive criticism and objective analysis of a cricketer's performance on the field. Errors of judgement and poor leadership decisions must be analysed, but a performance review after a series of losses or an early exit from a tournament often results in baseless stories, speculation that rests entirely on perception, and some very personal scores that journalists seem to want to settle for this very lack of access and information.
Perhaps, Dhoni too needs to adopt a better attitude and approach to the media. He seems increasingly jaded about the way cricket, and his role in it, is reported in this country. I've asked him a couple of times about this reluctance to discern between those who are out to sensationalise and those who are genuinely reporting on the game. From what I gather, he believes it's a battle he can never win, so he sees no point in making any effort. The atmosphere of mistrust continues.