June 9, 2008

A bold withdrawal

Dhoni pulling out of the Sri Lanka Test series is significant for a number of reasons

I'll sit this one out: Dhoni has been honest about wanting a break, aware of the risks his decision entails © AFP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's decision to volunteer out of India's Test series against Sri Lanka - it is understood that he will be back to lead India in the one-dayers that follow - will raise an obvious question. Why the Test series? Could he have not skipped the Asia Cup and the tri-series in Bangladesh instead? Is this a sign of the times?

Seen in another light, it's a decision that can be hailed as pragmatic and brave. As the captain of a young team, Dhoni is the most important member of the one-day side. He is more dispensable in India's Test team, which has the world's most experienced batting line-up.

Having said that, he needed the rest. He has been running on empty for a few months, though he's shown little sign of it, and it's a wonder he has carried on for as long as he has without buckling. It's been a 18-month streak that's included 14 Tests, 56 ODIs, eight Twenty20 internationals, and a high-voltage IPL.

Everyone acknowledges the threat posed by player burnout but solutions are rarely offered. Players complain of too much cricket, administrators cram the schedules with cricket, players push their bodies to the limit, administrators cram schedules, players break down, and administrators continue to cram schedules. "The only time we get rest is when we get injured," chuckled an Indian fast bowler recently.

In the last 15 years, opting out of a series has been the sole preserve of only one Indian cricketer. And he always had the comfort of knowing he could walk back into the side at any point. If Sachin Tendulkar says he's fit - irrespective of what the physio thinks - he plays. Dhoni's Test future isn't set in stone, not by a long way. He is yet to play a match-winning knock and he has thus far been more a sidekick backing up the superheroes ahead of him. As a wicketkeeper he's probably just a shade better than the competition. His Test form has been scratchy recently, and it can be argued that he is taking a risk by allowing another wicketkeeper the chance to show his wares.

And yet, at a time when cricketers dread being away from the limelight, in a country where public memory is terribly short, Dhoni is sitting out. Instead of flogging his body and risking a major injury, he's chosen to stop and recharge. Most importantly, he has been honest. He wasn't going to play the IPL and discover an injury immediately after; he wasn't going to suddenly develop a "personal problem"; he wasn't going to be part of the side and allow his fatigue to hamper his performance. In withdrawing, he has made a loud statement.

It's not been a bolt from the blue. In mid-March, a week before the home series against South Africa, Dhoni was genuinely contemplating sitting out. His back had taken a serious beating during the CB Series in Australia and his fingers were visibly bruised. It was also pretty apparent that the administrators weren't entirely convinced about his fitness - he was not in the initial list of players summoned to the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore but was asked to undertake a fitness test in the last minute.

Is Dhoni's decision an indicator of players' new priorities? Is there too much of a disparity between the rewards on offer for Twenty20 and Test cricket? Do cricketers need to start choosing which of the three formats they want to concentrate on?

Once he chose to play all three Tests, including the final one where he captained India to a series-levelling win, there was no way out. There was simply too much at stake in the IPL (especially after he was valued at US$1.5 million), and the selectors didn't see the need to name a replacement wicketkeeper for the two one-day series that followed. He could have probably chosen to sit out of one of them (if not both) but the challenge of captaincy may have prompted him to play on. Yet, throughout this period he, as well as Gary Kirsten, have talked about the demands on his body. He hasn't shirked the question in press conferences and even clearly hinted that he might pull out after the Asia Cup.

While there's a hope that other players will pick up the baton, and take time off judiciously in future, it is quite likely that this will be a one-off. Cricketers not possessed of Dhoni's stature can't quite risk taking such daring decisions. His future in the shorter formats is secure and so colossal is his brand that he can afford to stay away for a while. Had he not been one-day captain, it's tough to imagine him taking such a step. One only hopes the board and the selectors get the message and adopt a rotation policy in the future.

Apart from reaffirming the dangers of burnout, Dhoni's decision raises several questions. Is it an indicator of players' new priorities? Is there too much of a disparity between the rewards on offer for Twenty20 and Test cricket? Do cricketers need to start choosing which of the three formats they want to concentrate on? Shouldn't a Test series get precedence over a Future Cup in Madagascar? Dhoni might have opened a Pandora's box but he will be relieved that, for a few weeks at least, he won't need to live out of suitcases.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo