Mahendra Singh Dhoni has a dangerous sense of humour. You can call him a smiling assassin. His reactions are sometimes complex in nature but behind a cool and beaming persona, lurks a man who can be highly critical of the establishment. Insiders call him the president's man. Dhoni has been captaining Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League and it is no secret that he is N. Srinivasan's blue-eyed boy. If former Test star and national selector Mohinder Amarnath is to be believed, it was Srinivasan who helped Dhoni keep his captaincy after India suffered eight Test defeats on-the-trot in 2011-12. With every world trophy under his belt, there is no denying that Dhoni is India's most successful captain. But the success or failure of a captain is not calculated by the proximity to influential officials but to his team's performance on the field and in challenging conditions. It's human nature to easily forget the good and magnify the bad. So when India lost the first ODI in Johannesburg by 141 runs on Thursday night, the knives were out and Dhoni had to do some defending in a post-match chat with reporters.
In recent days, a couple of Dhoni's comments have been rather critical in nature. Known for his peaceful demeanor and diplomatic ways, Dhoni surprised reporters during his pre-South Africa departure press conference in Mumbai by saying "Gautam Gambhir was India's No. 3 opener." If that was so, why didn't the selectors put Gambhir on the plane to South Africa? It defies cricketing logic not to have a third opener in a rather inexperienced squad. And when Dhoni openly brands the left-handed Delhi veteran as "our No. 3 opener," it is most likely that the captain and the selectors were not on the same page when the ODI and Test teams were picked.
After the Board of Control for Cricket in India officials refused to play a full tour comprising three Tests, seven ODIs and a couple of T20s over November and December, South Africa were clearly hurt in more ways than one. BCCI invited West Indies for an unscheduled series in November to give Sachin Tendulkar the luxury of an easy send-off at home. Effectively, it robbed cricket fans the mouth-watering opportunity of seeing the world's No. 1 Test team in action against the world's numero uno ODI outfit on fast and furious pitches of South Africa. The South African Board suffered financial damages and even had to cancel the traditional New Year's Day Test at Cape Town. The turn of events clearly indicated BCCI was upset with Haroon Lorgat's appointment as Cricket South Africa CEO. BCCI and Lorgat never shared a good relation when the latter was CEO of the ICC. Hence, this was BCCI's way of flexing its muscle.
In this backdrop, it was clear that India would get a 'hostile' reception once they landed in South Africa on December 2. So when Dhoni turned up for the conventional media conference on arrival in Johannesburg, there was more than cricket in the minds of the South African media. Dhoni had to fend off questions on the heavily curtailed tour and jokingly took another dig at the 'warring' officials. "We can arrange a match for the administrators and let them go at it," he suggested.
But it was not the Srinivasans or Sanjay Patels who were facing the 145 kmph thunderbolts from Steyn and Morkel at the Wanderers on Thursday night. The acute lack of acclimatization to the pace and bounce of the pitch was evident as Indian bowlers bowled the wrong line and length while the batsmen misjudged the pace and bounce of the track. With just two practice sessions behind them, Team India looked terribly uncomfortable in their opening game and the margin of defeat can be deflating for a team that has won six ODI series on-the-trot.
Dhoni understands the value of preparation and if BCCI agreed to the original schedule there would have been enough time to get ready for the big games. There would have been scope to recover from defeats and recharge mentally for the next game. In the current schedule, there is little chance. Dhoni is surely not amused and like the entire team, has resigned to the fact that he has no say in planning tour itineraries.
"It is difficult (to play without warm-up games) but at the same time, when you know the schedule, you have to mentally prepare yourself. If you ask some of the experienced players, they will say a lot of cricket is played mentally. We had two to two-and-a-half days, which gave us time to prepare ourselves mentally for the ODI," said Dhoni, trying his best to hide frustration at losing by such a massive margin.
"You'd love to come here, practise for a few days, play a few games, but nowadays the international schedule doesn't really permit that. We play throughout the year. If we need to get in those extra days, you don't know where they will come from. We played West Indies, had two or three days off, and came here. You have to adapt to conditions. Let us not complain about what is not there. Of course, it would be lovely to get a few practice games, but at the end of the day what is important is what is in your hand," said Dhoni, the resignation in his voice clearly indicating the lack of thought behind planning tours. While the calendar is tight, the ICC programme does allow enough breathing time between series. England travelled to Australia weeks ahead of their first Test in Brisbane. They played three tour games, two of them being four-day matches and yet lost the first Test by 381 runs. So it is difficult to buy Dhoni's argument that the international calendar is cruel to players. What Dhoni is not saying that BCCI is a law unto itself as it adds, subtracts and modifies the cricket calendar to suit itself. The ICC is happy as long as the FTP is not disturbed in a big way. BCCI is a superpower in terms of the amount of money it brings to world cricket. India is already asking for a larger slice of the revenue ICC earns. The cricket world knows who is the Boss!