By Sanjay Jha
First Published in TEHELKA on February 27th 2012
Firstly, if we were expecting that MS Dhoni and Virender Sehwag would do a waltz together singing Yeh Dosti Ham Nahi Todenge ( we will never break this friendship) from the classic Sholay , we are living in a fool’s paradise. Cricketers spend nearly three-fourths of their active professional careers in 24×7 proximity, literally at arm’s length. They even indulge in the famous huddle, spend midnight hours confabulating strategy, and have breakfast together. Claustrophobia is frankly inevitable. This is sometimes accentuated by the microscopic scrutiny of every word uttered, gesture made, lingering wicked smile or a long pregnant pause before dazzling TV camera-lights reaching millions of satellite households. Believe me, it’s not easy being Dhoni. Or Sehwag. Or Gautam Gambhir. And certainly not Sachin Tendulkar. It is even tougher when those good old days of thumping victories is replaced by ignominious defeats. Things get slightly complicated.
To understand the Sehwag-Dhoni-Gambhir fracas, we have to rewind a wee bit. On April 2nd 2011 on a sultry summer day in Mumbai the Men in Blue could do no wrong . After 28 years of excruciating wait India had won the World Cup. Sehwag and Dhoni looke like inseparable twins, stocky, strong, athletic although differentiated by their lock of hair. The captain was prodigiously endowed, more hirsute than the Nawab who already had a receded hairline. Maybe that’s where the competition intensified . In the head.
We celebrate our great Indian diversity, and as Shashi Tharoor mentions in his lively, eminently enjoyable book The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell-Phone, we know 200 ways to make potatoes. But while there is a quaint charm in the esoteric differentiation of our eclectic mix, the fact is that it comes with its own bagful of challenges. Cricket folklore is full of mouth-watering gossip stories on the famous Dilli versus Bombay divide in the 1970-80s, mostly dictated by outrageous language differences. There are natural cross-cultural barriers within , we ignore them at our own peril. Ask Greg Chappell. Thus, the dapper sophisticated Sunil Gavaskar from St Xavier’s Mumbai had several confrontations with the country- bumpkin Jat , Kapil Dev who was fast acquiring expertise promoting Rapidex material, a quick- learning English language book for dummies. What appeared to be a typical ego-clash soon ballooned into a giant confrontation. Indian cricket suffered. Camps happened.
Television has the power to magnify even the mediocre; people appear larger than life on our LCD screens. We suddenly don’t see Dhoni as a young strapping man of 30, but a symbol of a national renaissance, infallible, unaffected by human vulnerabilities. A quasi-superhero. After his ruthless 219 Sehwag was expected to smash everything into smithereens, in his usual insouciant ways. Everytime. But they are finally human, and subject to multiple distractions and extra-constitutional influences. Ego clashes are inevitable. Dhoni became a captain abruptly when Rahul Dravid just abdicated the throne, and even more fortuitously became a World Cup T20 winning captain in his first outing. Sehwag who might have expected to be the first beneficiary of Dravid’ sudden magnanimity got irretrievably vanquished in the captaincy stakes. But now with India struggling, and everyone recommending different captains for different formats, Sehwag-Gambhir sniff some hopes that were considered hitherto impossible just a few weeks ago. An ill-advised Dhoni made some atrocious remarks himself about his future Test career, a suicidal utterance. The plot thickened.
Dhoni made some rather cheeky, even cheesy innuendos about the three grand old “seniors” ( Gambhir and Sehwag are just about his age, barring Sachin ) and their tardy movements on the field being uninspirational. In principle, a cardinal sin of leadership is disguised messaging, especially when ostensibly a billion people know the captain’s intent before the sacrificial lambs do. That would have hurt anyone, even those who are spiritually enlightened. The fact that Viru came out all blazing saddles was totally understandable. Dhoni’s subsequent subdued comments were damage-control. But then the damage had been done.
In calm waters, every ship has a good captain. It is really in troubled stormy weather that the real mettle of leadership is tested. After a reverberating thrashing in England and Australia ( in both Tests and ODI’s) the moment of truth for the Men in Blue has arrived. And they have been found wanting. But Dhoni , Sehwag and Gambhir clearly took things to a new Amazonian high with their petty bickering; nothing else can damage not just a sports team, but even a political formation or a corporate entity than ego clashes at the helm. The vice-captain, not the most glib talker, did what he knows best, made snide rebuttals to Dhoni’s comments peppered with belligerence, like the acrobatic catch he took of Mahela Jayawardene. . If anybody needed proof that at least there were some cracks if not dangerous fissures in their relationship, Sehwag’s statements corroborated our worst apprehensions. The coach ( Duncan Fletcher ) as the term implies is the one who ideally should be the trouble shooter, the light-house , but he has been spotted even less frequently than the Yeti. The BCCI is not a role model, by any stretch of imagination. If at all, they are a shining example of what not to be.
For some reason press interaction is treated cursorily, as a perfunctory constitutional that must be dispensed with. This is where the Indian team misses an opportunity to establish a better connect with their numerous fans and a curious media . Have the professional cricketers been trained in handling a modern communication super-engine that is perennially insatiable, and incorporates electronic media, vibrant press and social networking sites? We now the answer to that. The team management has through some preternatural forces of prudence sent rookie players to handle questions on acrimonious inner-fighting in the team; the results have been disastrous.
MSD must take a large part of the wretched flak flying his way at sputnik speed; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it syndrome does not work. Great teams change plans when on a bullish winning streak, not when left with zero-options. Sir Geoffrey Boycott once said that teams are as good as their administrators. But teams usually end up being more like their captain. The moment MSD lost momentum, stopped taking risks, so did the team; you could see the direct co-relationship. Dhoni removing his pads and bowling at Lord’s in London became symptomatic of the paltry resources at hand , broken and battered. For the rest of the England series we remained on the backfoot. Essentially the Indians did nothing different and inflexibility is a crippling disease. There was no sudden promotion of a pinch hitter ( since post-IPL everyone thinks he is one). Sehwag never batted in the middle despite his expressed predilection for the same. Bowling changes or field placements were pedestrian.
Somebody should have explained the “ broken windows” theory to Sehwag-Dhoni. It says that once you let things just remain the way they are , everyone will join in the party and break your broken window till there are no shreds of glass-panes left. Do not procrastinate conflict-resolution. The rotation policy was like walking in circles in a revolving door, we went nowhere in particular. From their sun-soaked watering holes the Men in Blue have fallen into the interminable abyss of a black hole. .
Indian cricket though needs to move fast forward, and quickly before there is widespread revulsion against its players image of being mere money-making mercenaries. To do that, MSD and team will need to breakthrough the depressing defeats in successive overseas tours; we will have to get out of this rowboat mentality where we only move forward when we look back, into the past. There is still hope.
But India does not travel abroad for some time so on turning home pitches we will soon be slaughtering timid lambs from abroad as a reciprocal gesture and BCCI President N Srinivasan will say— “ Indian cricket is resuscitated , the transition is over” . And then of course there is always the IPL.
Sanjay Jha is author and Founder, CricketNext.com. Follow him on Twitter@JhaSanjay