We need to talk about our icons

A debate on Dhoni's numbers, fitness and the availability of youngsters to replace him should not be met with howling outrage BCCI

We are not quite there yet, but like it was with Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar, the cult of Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems to be coming in the way of clarity and honest discussion of team selection.

It's in our DNA in India, isn't it? We do not just make icons of our sporting heroes, we also give them God-like status. But since we already have one God in cricket, Dhoni, I guess, will have to be something else.

All this fanfare and worship is perhaps all right from a distance, but when they start influencing cricketing decisions, especially selection, it becomes a matter of concern.

Kapil Dev bowled at half his pace towards the end of his career, and though his bowling average was an impressive 27.15, his wicket-taking ability had gone down drastically: a mere 26 wickets in his last 25 innings. Undoubtedly his career dragged on longer than it should have.

Worse it deprived a young and fiery Javagal Srinath the opportunity to be on the big stage when he was ripe.

Sachin Tendulkar averaged 27 in his last 24 Test innings, but let alone questioning his place in the side, even a discussion about his future in the Indian team was sacrilege.

Indian cricket is the loser when such things happen.

This is a different age and I would have hoped that we had evolved from the Kapil and Tendulkar days.

If not then, at least now, where youth is forcing a change in our mindset. They are not as enamoured of stature as the generations before them, and like them, Indian cricket as a whole and its decision-makers must remain insulated from all the emotions outside.

Reputation or status of a player should never be a factor in selection. The criteria must be the same for each player. Of course, past performance and quality are factors because great players can do special things, but while picking players, I would consider, apart from skills and fitness, how good they are as team players, their potential to contribute consistently, and what they can grow into. When it comes to selection, no one has handled iconic players better than Australia.

"Dhoni is a public performer, and just his public performance, not his personal life, is under scrutiny here. Once you are a public performer, it does not matter what the critic's standing in society or cricket is"

Having said that, let's now address the current hot topic - Dhoni and his future in this Indian team. Firstly, it's very important that while dealing with great players' selection, they are not judged by their own past standards. On that account Dhoni has a stronger case for selection than, say, someone like Tendulkar.

If Tendulkar was averaging 45 in his last 25 innings, he would disappoint us with his falling standards, but he would still merit a place in the Indian team. Selectors would be over the moon if a young batsman they picked averaged 45 in his first 25 innings.

We will be unfair to a great if we dropped him because he is not living up to our great expectations.

As I said earlier, cricketing matters must be kept simple. It is often impossible to do this in politics, in governance, or in relationships, as those are complex issues, but in sport we can, and we must.

So how do you keep it simple? Well, when it gets tricky, forget opinions, look at numbers.

Inspect Dhoni's recent record. What does it tell you?

Let's look at his last 25 innings in ODIs and last ten in T20Is. (Just ten T20Is because not enough T20 internationals are played.)

In the last 25 ODIs Dhoni averages 56.75 and his strike rate is 81.94. In his last ten T20Is Dhoni averages 33.80 and his strike rate is 131.01.

Deeper scrutiny of these numbers and clinical observation of his performance on the field would reveal that he is not the game changer as often as he was in the past.

But the only change I see in his batting is that where earlier he could tonk four sixes off six balls at will, now he can hit only one. He now has to rely more on others to win games.

But again I make the same point: any new young player with Dhoni's recent numbers would be an automatic pick.

Dhoni is fit, he is keen, so his age should not matter. If there is someone outside the team showing potential to contribute more than Dhoni does in his current form, it's a matter to be discussed and debated, and without inviting angry and irrational responses. It's healthy for the game and must not be stifled.

But somehow in India, once a player achieves the status of an icon, only good things are allowed to be said about him, and people are crucified if what they say comes across as anything less than a compliment.

Dhoni is a public performer, and just his public performance, not his personal life, is under scrutiny here. Once you are a public performer, it does not matter what the critic's standing in society or cricket is. That's irrelevant.