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News Analysis

IPL's soft signal on Dhoni is a chance put down

The game's most high-profile league and its most successful player came up against each other. Here was a chance to set a fitting precedent; in the end the league blinked

"He gave a no-ball! He gave a no-ball!"
It's an extraordinary sight. MS Dhoni, dismissed the previous ball, has marched back onto the field and is addressing these words to the square-leg umpire while pointing towards his bowler's-end colleague.
It happens every day at the base of cricket's pyramid, in unruly contests officiated by umpires sourced from the batting team. It's hard to think of an equivalent situation from a match this high-profile.
It was a boundary-blurring act, quite literally. Within the boundary, the umpires' word is law, but what happens when that boundary - which protects the closed system of the sporting contest and its rules - turns porous?
For a parallel, let's turn to the greatest TV show of them all, The Wire, and to the Eastside versus Westside basketball game in season one, the moment when Avon Barksdale storms onto the court to harangue the referee when a decision goes against his team.
"Yo ref, yo ref, yo ref... what the f***?" Barksdale screams in the referee's face. "The boy was fouled, clear, straight up... how you going to not call that?"
This isn't just any coach of any basketball team. This is Avon Barksdale, kingpin of the West Baltimore drug trade.
"Look," the referee says, backing away from Barksdale, his face frozen in fear. "If you want I can put time back on the clock and replay it..."
Cue outrage from Barksdale. "Are you talking about a do-over, baby? Are you talking about a f*****g do-over? That's not how the game is played. You can't do that!"
Then he tells the referee how to do his job.
"Man, you supposed to be the ref, right? Why don't you stand up for your f****** self, you p***y! You can't just let any ol' m************ n**** get in your face... understand? Now walk away. Walk away."
It's a terrific scene, capturing among other things the absurdity of sport's arbitrary, inflexible rules and the indisputable authority figure of the referee existing within a universe of lawlessness and moral ambiguity. The entrance of a figure as powerful as Barksdale threatens the very existence of the referee, and of that basketball match as a meaningful contest.
Dhoni isn't Barksdale, but few wield the influence he does in Indian cricket, at a time when player power is rampant - take the last days of Anil Kumble as India's coach, if you need an example - and when the BCCI is a considerably weakened force.
For umpires Ulhas Gandhe and Bruce Oxenford, Dhoni crossing the boundary line and striding towards them, gesticulating aggressively, must have presented a far more intimidating sight than if it had been, say, Delhi Capitals captain Shreyas Iyer in his place. Umpires are human, and while this line is usually invoked while talking about the errors they occasionally make, players must also remember it in their dealings with them.
Dhoni's actions in Jaipur publicly undermined the umpires, as did Virat Kohli's tirade after that contentious no-ball non-call in Royal Challengers Bangalore's match against Mumbai Indians.
Kohli got away unscathed, and Dhoni copped tge gentlest of penalties - 50% of his match fee, the minimum sanction for a Level 2 offence under the IPL's code of conduct. It will hardly make a dent in Dhoni's wallet, and it sets a precedent of utmost leniency.
The game's most high-profile league and its most successful player came up against each other. Here was a chance to set a fitting precedent; in the end the league blinked.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo