No sentimental farewell for a practical man
There will be no farewell Test for India's most successful Test captain, most successful wicketkeeper and most prolific keeper-batsman. No home series will be sold at exorbitant prices. No home association will be allowed to exploit the moment. There won't be farewell speeches. There wasn't even a farewell press conference. Without any fanfare, 44 minutes after MS Dhoni had finished his press conference post the Boxing Day Test, the BCCI sent a press release with the news. An hour after India had managed to draw an away Test, the first time in the last 14 Australia-India Tests that a team hasn't lost away from home. In the middle of a series. Just like that.
This was vintage Dhoni. Indian cricket's biggest outsider. India's most practical cricketer. He cared, we know, but not for numbers. He was 10 short of a 100 Tests, a landmark only 10 other Indians have reached. Nobody would have dropped him. We know what happened the last time a selector wanted to. He could have easily gone on. He could have easily rolled on for another Test or ruled himself out of the next one, and made the big announcement after the World Cup; there is a long way to go before India play a Test after this series.
But that's not Dhoni. Remember what he told us when asked to compare the two whitewashes in 2011 and 2011-12: you die, you die; you don't see which is a better way to die. You end your Test career, you end your Test career. You don't see which is a better way to end your Test career.
We all knew he would end it all one fine day without anyone knowing it. We knew he would just vanish. Boom. Gone. Off to the army or the air force or with his dogs or his bikes. He has never liked personal goals coming in the way of the team. He wouldn't have wanted the farewell to take the focus away from the actual cricket. He loves the game, but he is also detached from the other paraphernalia. He always gave you the impression this wasn't the life he loved or craved; this was just a job that was his responsibility for whatever few years he had. He managed the task of being the India captain while being an immensely private person. He was never going to make leaving an emotional act. All his cricketing life he has been obsessed with keeping the emotion out of it. He was not going to let it infiltrate his final Test.
We can use hindsight and look for signs all we want. Those two dives to his right to take catches on the fourth day. These are the ones he is infamous for not attempting. Was he teasing us? Telling us he could do it all along. Was he just freer in his mind, now not worried about injuring himself when going for those catches? The stump he took with him while walking back after securing the draw. But stumps he usually takes, even from inconsequential ODIs. Talking and laughing with David Warner when walking back. Did he know this was it? Was he relieved? Was he wistful? He'll never really let you know.
If Dhoni knew then that he was done, he didn't let it show. He did a normal post-match presentation interview, and came in for a normal press conference, where he was more statesmanlike than Virat Kohli, David Warner and Steven Smith have been. He saw Australia back off, wary of India's batting from the Adelaide chase, and painstakingly bat India out of the game before giving themselves too few overs to bowl the visitors out. Kohli would have driven in the screw in the press conference. Dhoni said he could give a spicy reply, but it wouldn't be right for him to analyse the opposition's moves in a press conference. Asked if he was surprised by Australia shaking hands four overs before the scheduled end, Dhoni said he was ready to bat four more overs. "I had batted so long, could have batted more. Now that's an Aussie answer." And everybody laughed. He had some charm in these matters.
The relations between the two teams in this series have been acrimonious. Dhoni says he believes the cricketers shouldn't behave in a manner they wouldn't want the kids to see. Some of the player behaviour in the series has not been appropriate for kids' viewing. He made the first mature comments about it. He said he has told his team-mates that abusing the opponents is unacceptable. He said he has even told the umpires to let him know if his players are up to no good, that appropriate action will be taken should that be the case. He asked for more tolerance and understanding from both sides should a player stray in the heat of the moment on the odd occasion.
Dhoni patiently explained why he promoted KL Rahul, keeping Cheteshwar Pujara as a fail-safe should some blocking be required. He also felt this would be a good test for Rahul, who he said had been batting well in the nets. Most importantly he said Rahul shouldn't be judged based on one Test alone. Dhoni doesn't seem the kind who frets over legacy, but that is his biggest legacy: that players got a decent run under him. Had he been as impatient with Kohli as the rest of the world had been on the previous tour of Australia, a replacement for Dhoni would not have been ready.
Now it is not for Dhoni to decide if Rahul should be judged based on this one Test or not. Just like Dhoni did from Anil Kumble, in the middle of another series against Australia, Kohli has taken over. It is his team to take forward. Our last real link with the recent golden era of Indian Test cricketers is gone. He has left us with a quote that can be added to the Big Fat Book of Dhoni Analogies. He was asked what is the solution for the disparity between India's Doberman-like and Australia's Hanuman-like tails. This was right up Dhoni's alley.
"Now even PETA has said you can't cosmetically remove the tail."
Batting out 39 nervous balls to save the match is not a bad last act at all, but beat that for last official words spoken as a Test captain.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo