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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sachin on July 11, 2008, 19:24 GMT

    Only reason why Dhoni decided to opt out was because of his ego. After being the captain of the ODI team, it's really difficult for him to play under any other captain. Although he's a very talented player, he has no respect for the senior players, and he was the one who insisted in removing them from the ODI team.

  • Abhishek on July 11, 2008, 16:09 GMT

    Dhoni, like so times before, took a common sense driven and pragmatic decision. As SV points out, taking a break in ODIs would have meant withdrawing as a captain. Taking a break from the 15 days of test cricket makes more sense than ODIs/T-20s where one is the captain.

    And I'm particularly surprised at the criticism India's ODI/T-20 captain is receiving for- did I hear it right- his batting? He might not be the most elegant batsman around but he certainly is the most determined and pragmatic one-one who always puts a price to his wicket and plays as per the team's needs. His test average of about 34 is still the best for ANY Indian wicketkeeper and of course, his ODI average of 48 at a strike rate of 92, having played more than 100 matches, is nothing if not phenomenal.

  • gaurav on July 11, 2008, 11:04 GMT

    Why did he not take rest during the IPL??? show me the money honey!!! he's a star now, wants to pick and choose his games, how i wish Parthiv or Dinesh hit 3 centuries and i will love to see the selectors go blue....one century in 31 tests anyway doesn't speak of his skills in the most testing form of cricket. I frankly think Dinesh Karthick is much better player of Test cricket than him and he should cash in on this golden opportunity. Sri Lanka is a very strong team in their backyard or the subcontinent pitches and my take on the series is highly in favour of them. I dare Dhoni pulling out of club cricket (IPL) in October or April next year, which has more hectic schedule than the international cricket. And BCCI, what to talk of them... Bunch of jokers... each one having an ulterior and selfish motive to be where they are. I would really like ECB or CA to start a parallel league of their own with just not money at stake but the PRIDE... and that'll be the true test of CHARACTERS.

  • Krishna on July 11, 2008, 8:54 GMT

    Methinks too much is being made of MSD's decision. Dhoni is a shrewd and smooth operator. His first two targets from the ODI team have lost their places. Right now he is winning the war of ads and it is only a matter of time before he gets SRT out of ODIs. This provides him the confidence and the backing to sit out of what he considers unimportant.

    This is also a very poor time for him to be playing with senior players who have or will lose their places in the ODI team due to him. Hence he has opted out after making suitable noises about too much cricket and the like. While the seniors and some juniors are sweating it out under the Lankan sun, Dhoni can sit in comfort in India resting or earning through ads.

    This is one cricketer whom one dislikes for his singular lack of talent and an excess of political skills. But ten years from now he will be forgotten whereas SRT, SG and RD as also Anil Kumble will be remembered and revered.

  • nisheeth on July 11, 2008, 8:51 GMT

    Dhoni won't be missed in the Test series. His credentials as a Test player are quite poor. One century in 31 tests is not good enough. It's also an opportunity for another wicketkeeper to establish himself and provide India with another option. As a one day cricketer Dhoni has a long way to go before he is bracketed with players like Gilchrist and Hayden. He is no doubt an overrated player and he got the India captaincy even before he had proved himself fully as a player, largely because Dravid relinquished the captaincy abruptly and, to Dhoni's good luck, Sehwag who would have made an excellent captain was temporarily out of form.

  • Rajesh on July 11, 2008, 8:11 GMT

    Having played non-stop cricket for 18 months anyone needs and deserves a break but Dhoni could have thought better and given preference to a Test Series and opted out of the meaningless Bangladesh tri-series and the Asia Cup.

    Was it because he wanted to lead by example in the one-dayers being the Captain or because he didn't want to lose his ODI captaincy ?

    Would he have opted out of the SL Tests if he were the test captain too ?

    Is this a selfless, brave, bold and commendable decision to opt out knowing someone might snatch his Test place or was this a selfish decision by an over-rated cricketer ?

    Well.......... we would never know. Only Dhoni knows.....

  • Rajasekar on July 11, 2008, 7:01 GMT

    Is Dhoni trying to do "Gavaskar/Tendulker". He is a over rated player as for as test matches are concerned. There is nothing wrong with that but all powerful board should be having a guidelines to handle such situations.

  • Adrian on July 11, 2008, 4:56 GMT

    International cricket today is very professional, like a full time job. So why not treat it like a job?

    Each employee is employed for 52 weeks of the year but is allowed 4 weeks of holiday per year. If they want to take their leave they need approval from their boss (the selectors), and if other vital employees are on leave at the same time then they are knocked back. If it is an essential time of the year when they are urgently needed, they might also be knocked back. Special circumstances, such as injury, illness or special personal reasons such as the birth of a child or a sick relative may also be taken into consideration.

    Why not do much the same thing for cricketers? Why not allow them proportionally 4 weeks holiday per year, the same as everyone else? It would be better for the sport to have the team play all year round but individually some people miss ever so often.

    The concept is embraced to some extent by Australian cricket, so why not India and the rest?

  • Aaditya on July 11, 2008, 4:30 GMT

    To all die hard Dhoni fans who got infuriated at the very thought of his comparison to other keepers-In my last post I simply stated that DK,if he gets runs in Lanka(which he is very capable of) could put a bit of pressure on dhoni.Now,don't get me wrong, Dhoni is Dhoni & I'm a fan.I'm not saying chuck him out.He's mentally stronger than most international cricketers & the future Indian captain,but what I meant to say was that knowing our media,there would be questions asked in press conferences which he won't be able to avoid if the other keepers make runs.Those questions are bound to irritate & pressurize individuals.I'd pick him in my team,if I were test skipper,over the other guys.I also credited him & called this decision brave.I was pointing out the ramifications of such a move rather than compare him with other guys.Criticism of posts is alright as long as you read it first,OK??The BCCI doesn't forget easily,they might get back at him sometime.Again ,2 thumbs up for MS.

  • Aditya on July 10, 2008, 18:33 GMT

    I am unable to comprehend why Dhoni is being bashed by so people.....consider the example of sachin he opted out of the test matches against south africa as he was suffering from an injury..agreed but when he was not completely fit enough to play he played in the IPL (that was evident from the fact he didn't bowl and the uneasiness which was showing in some matches) then again he aggravates the injury due to which isnt able to play in the odi tournaments but he plays for lashings (of all clubs...i can understand that he is playing there for 'practice' but still he could do that in India as well)..and how he is busy going to various events (F1 races.Wimbledon) etc is it not putting something else before the country??It's quite natural for people to run after money and afterall cricketers are also human and they also do the same,but i feel dhoni had some injuries which would turn into serious ones(fingers,back,etc) hence its better he has taken a break and hpfly will come back stronger

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