Dear MS: Wrong ammunition, wrong time
A letter to India's captain on that question and that answer
Due disclosure first: I enjoy your press conferences. I have groaned about transcribing your long-winded responses, but more often than not the takeaway has been plenty of wisdom, especially of the more unconventional variety. You once recounted advice your father gave you about last-minute cramming: "It doesn't matter whether you study or play a match with an exam tomorrow. If you have prepared well during the rest of the year, studying today or not won't matter. It's the same if you haven't touched your books during the rest of the year." Or your dark analogy when asked which whitewash hurt more - the one in England or Australia: "You die, you die. You don't see which is the better way to die."
Your interactions with the media have never lacked for humour either. Like the time you picked up a journalist's phone and answered the call when it rang in the middle of a press conference. You have a quick-witted, snarky style of meeting uneasy or controversial questions. You listen to questions intently and make unflinching eye contact when answering them. What's not to like?
At the same time, you have made no secret of your mistrust of sports journalists, even showing us how you remove the sports section of the newspaper before reading the rest of it. Very rarely have I seen you losing your cool, but lately questions - about your retirement and other issues - seem to annoy you. After India's heart-stopping win against Bangladesh you snapped at a reporter whose tone of questioning, you felt, suggested disappointment at the result. And when asked about retirement recently, you replied: "Just because somebody has the platform to ask questions, it does not mean that you keep on asking the same questions."
On Thursday night - after West Indies defeated India in the World T20 semi-final - you had probably decided to swat this pesky question out of the park for good. Rather surprisingly it was an Australian journalist, Sam Ferris, who asked it. Actually, not much of a surprise, given Indian journalists had by then anticipated the reaction such a question would evoke. When you wanted to "have some fun," you likely intended to use humour and sarcasm to end the speculation. It seemed funny initially when you called Ferris to the front and made him sit beside you. There was laughter in the room. But, by the time you were done taking the mickey out of Ferris, it was clear to everyone who the intended target was. "I wish it was an Indian media guy [who had asked the question] because I would have asked whether he has a son who is old enough to play and is a wicketkeeper to play. He would have said 'no,' then I would have said maybe a brother who can play and who is a wicketkeeper. You fired the wrong ammunition at the wrong time." As Ferris later wrote, he had taken "a bullet for my Indian colleagues."
Being asked about retirement all the time doesn't sound much fun - especially after a tough loss. But while I empathise with you, I think Ferris' question was legitimate. It isn't unusual to see careers end after a world event, and there have been a few cricketers who have made that call. You made that call too, in Test cricket, a little more than a year ago when nobody had a whiff of it.
Ferris' question was: "You have achieved virtually everything that a cricketer could. Are you keen to continue playing on?" It doesn't come across as a particularly offensive question to a 34-year-old who has led his team to two World titles and a Champions Trophy. Consider this: India play a glut of Test matches over the next 12 months, which means quite a bit of time away from the game. Surely, the future plans of a celebrated team's captain are worth asking about?
At worst it was a clichéd question - if it makes you feel better the media gets clichéd answers all the time - but not one that deserved the patronising response it got. All it needed was a straightforward answer - "I don't have plans to retire yet", or "I will make it public when I plan to", or even a "no comment," if you really didn't wish to answer it. You probably expected an Indian journalist to ask the question, because you trotted out the response anyway.
I don't speak on behalf of all the journalists; I speak merely as one of many. You are free to ascribe any intent to any question, but our job is about seeking answers and reporting on them just as yours is playing cricket. Some would accuse us journalists of taking ourselves too seriously. I am all for taking the mickey, pulling a leg or two - just so long as mutual respect and professionalism is a two-way street.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun