The legacy of MS Dhoni
It was a very normal and logical slice of cricket, though increasingly, that's an aspect that is rapidly going out of the game. Most batsmen just start walking in the direction of the dressing room the moment they put the ball up in the air for what would appear a straightforward catch.
As he launched Lonwabo Tsotsobe towards long-on, Mahendra Singh Dhoni exhorted non-striker Ravindra Jadeja to keep running towards the batting end. It wasn't because Dhoni foresaw Francois du Plessis - the batting duo's Chennai Super Kings teammate - dropping the catch. The Indian captain wanted Jadeja, who had already faced a few deliveries, to get on strike instead of the new man coming in.
It was a very normal and logical slice of cricket, though increasingly, that's an aspect that is rapidly going out of the game. Most batsmen just start walking in the direction of the dressing room the moment they put the ball up in the air for what would appear a straightforward catch. What Dhoni did wasn't something extraordinary. But what it did do was show that even in extenuating circumstances, Dhoni has the extraordinary ability to keep his wits about him.
Not even when he lost eight consecutive Tests overseas must Dhoni have found himself under as much scrutiny and pressure as he does now. A captain is only as good as his team, and Dhoni couldn't have done too much different, given that his exceptional batting unit came a collective cropper time after time, first in England and then in Australia. Dhoni's own form was less than spectacular, but how much could he be blamed when the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir went through those two series without even a single century between them?
This time around, the circumstances are vastly different. It isn't Dhoni the cricketer who is under the microscope. The integrity of Dhoni the human being is under question. All his life, Dhoni has played his cricket hard, but extremely fair. To be told now that this is not cricket must surely hurt the pride of one of India's most loved and respected sportspersons.
Dhoni's woes began not long after the arrest of Gurunath Meiyappan, the one-time Team Principal of Chennai Super Kings, and Vindoo Dara Singh, who is said to have close links with bookies and who - it has been established - watched an IPL match in Chennai sitting next to Dhoni's wife Sakshi in the VIP Box. Dhoni was initially pilloried for not addressing the media either on the eve of the final of IPL VI, or in the immediacy of Chennai's defeat at the hands of Mumbai Indians at Eden Gardens.
Three days after that defeat in which Dhoni stood tall with an unbeaten half-century, he refused to take questions on the betting and spot-fixing fiascos that have marred the Indian cricketing landscape at a Champions trophy pre-departure press conference in Mumbai. This time, the critics heaped ridicule and scorn on him, dismissing him as a puppet of N Srinivasan and pointing to his status as a vice-president of India Cements for his studied and continued silence on the most burning topic. Then, not long after the Indian team had landed in the United Kingdom to launch its Champions Trophy campaign, a campaign of another sort erupted in India.
Dhoni's association with Rhiti Sports, a player management firm run by his good friend Arun Pandey and whose clients, apart from Dhoni himself, include a few other active India cricketers, was dissected threadbare. That Dhoni once owned, if only briefly, 15% share in the company was enough to set off red flags. The critics pulled no punches, they didn't hide behind diplomacy. They accused Dhoni of including the Rhiti clients in the Indian team to boost their brand value and thereby boost his own financial resources.
A lesser man might have lost focus. He might have allowed his commitment to the cause to waver, he might have moped and cribbed and complained about how the entire world had turned against him. He might have pointed to the unfairness of it all. To be accused of being an ordinary cricketer or captain is one thing; to be accused of being an ordinary human being is an entirely different proposition altogether. But the manner in which Dhoni has conducted himself in these most difficult of circumstances has been little short of exemplary.
I must confess that I am a huge Dhoni fan - a fan of Dhoni the destructive batsman, a fan of Dhoni the street-smart stumper, and a fan of Dhoni the person blessed the rare equanimity of retaining his balance in good times and bad. It wasn't always so. Early in his captaincy days, I came away with the impression that Dhoni was cocky, flippant, perhaps even disrespectful. But over a period of time, those impressions changed. Not because Dhoni gave me interviews or smiled at me or made me feel important, but because I could see where Dhoni was going. Even today, I don't necessarily agree with the way he is going, but that's just my opinion. I am not privy to Dhoni's plans and visions, but then again, do I need to be? Dhoni has done a fantastic job as Indian captain, and that is good enough for me.
How much truth there is to these recent allegations against Dhoni - that his stakes in Rhiti and his position in India Cements are clouding his judgement - I don't know. But we are living in a dangerous era where everyone who is accused is first pronounced guilty, and the onus is therefore placed on the individual to prove his innocence. Cynicism, negativity and the desire to bring heroes down have all combined to assume alarming proportions and not even India's most successful captain - statistically and otherwise - has been immune to this modern trend.
Dhoni and India could have done without these distractions in the nation's first international assignment since the conclusion of the most forgettable of IPLs. It is to its great credit that despite the goings on, the team has found the character and the wherewithal to allow its on-field performances to remain unaffected. Just as it's the team that makes the captain look good or otherwise, in a lot of ways the team mirrors the attitude and approach of its leader. Dhoni's unflappability even in extreme duress is a character trait that has percolated deep into the Indian ranks. The ability to compartmentalise, to free the mind of clutter and to concentrate on the job at hand - which right now is to win cricket matches - is a Dhoni legacy which is shining through in these difficult times. Tested on the field and off it, Dhoni has held his own, refusing to buckle down and ensuring that his cricket, his thinking and his leadership skills have remained unaffected.
Dhoni is far from the perfect individual, which makes him as human as you and me. But it is important to remember that he is human. He already has, and will continue to, make mistakes - strategic, tactical, cricketing and judgmental - some graver than others. But in our constant desire to find new villains during this ongoing phase of turmoil, heartbreak and loss of faith, it is imperative to guard against getting carried away. Any which way you look at it, Indian cricket is fortunate that it has chanced upon Dhoni the leader, just as it did in late 2007, when it stumbled upon a captain-statesman in Anil Kumble ahead of the most dramatic tour of Australia.