Slimmer, fitter Dhoni raring to resume international grind
It has been some time since you last saw MS Dhoni with jet-black hair. While the greying of hairs around the temples can be masked by cosmetic methods, the more striking sighting is a visibly trimmer, fresher Dhoni. It was the Dhoni you saw during the seven matches he turned out for Jharkhand in the recent Vijay Hazare Trophy.
Dhoni has relished the mini-breaks he has earned in the past, often speaking of how they have helped heal niggles which would have otherwise developed into more serious injuries. But 2015 was the only year in recent memory where he had a substantial break without any cricket in between. Dhoni played 22 limited-overs games last year - he played 28 international matches, including nine Tests, in 2014 - but the real difference was the three-odd months of downtime after June.
"Ideally I should lie so much that I should just talk about how much hard work I have been putting in to look a bit slimmer," Dhoni began with a Dhoni-esque wisecrack before letting on what he had been up to. "Now with no more Test cricket, it gives me that extra time because what happens is when you are continuously playing cricket what you do is mostly top up your fitness and keep working, but now you can actually look to extend your fitness level."
By "top up", Dhoni refers to the pastiche of quick fixes and not a comprehensive overhaul, which is what the chunky break afforded him. "You get that break, you know five, 10 or 15 days you can take completely off and slowly you can get into a mould, a routine. I feel that the break has helped me."
Dhoni, by his own admission in the past, has never been big on gym work. That side of him, he said, had changed over time, and that was part of a concerted fitness plan. "You have to do a few changes as you spend more and more time in international cricket," he said. "I have been doing a bit of planning when it comes to my body and my fitness, but I look slimmer I am not lightweight. I have been 86, 87, 88 [kilograms] for the last 15 years. I have not lost weight. It's just that I have tried to tone down myself, and I have enjoyed doing it."
He later told ESPNcricinfo that he had spent a lot of time playing "alternate sports", including badminton, a sport he has always fancied playing.
Dhoni said the break had helped him mentally as well when it came to detaching himself from the grind and revisiting his plans. "I feel switching on and switching off is very important in cricket and this break actually gives me ample time to do that. No point switching off for two days and straight away getting back. This break helped me get back into the groove with the one-day domestic tournament."
Looking ahead to the Australia series, Dhoni revisited one of his favourite themes - the need for quality seam-bowling all-rounders. "When it comes to performances at the international level they [other teams] have got good seam-bowling allrounders," he said. "That is something we are lacking to some extent."
He was, however, happy with the competition in the spin-bowling department between the recalled Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. He reckoned that their batting abilities would eventually determine which one would feature in the playing XI. "You will have different criteria for judging performance when it comes to the players performing outside the subcontinent, and in India because the spinners will get a lot more assistance here.
"I think Jadeja has been bowling really well, Ashwin has been our premier spinner irrespective of where we have played. We have two spinning allrounders who are competing for a spot which I feel will be very good for the team. It's an open opportunity for both of them."
Dhoni typically played down speculations surrounding his retirement, opting to channel his energies towards the immediate challenges of the Australian series and the World T20. "I am somebody who has always believed in the present," he said. "You won't get answers regarding the future that's too far ahead. As of now the Australia series is important and after that once we get in T20 groove we need to move in one direction as to what we need to do as a team so as to have the best chance of winning the WC. So those are the primary concerns as of now.
"There are a lot of things you need to think about, and I don't think this is the right time. All the energy needs to go there. It's a very important three months and after that we will see what happens."
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo