The Indian team is in Sri Lanka. The ODI skipper, Test wicket-keeper and explosive middle-order batsman is not in the party. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is said to be resting at home in Ranchi. It is a brave decision that Mahi has taken, perhaps a foolish one too.
As wicket-keeper batsman, Dhoni bears a workload greater than any others, except perhaps the fast bowlers. To keep wicket in Asia is probably a more demanding task because the ball is, on the average, gathered at much lower heights.
To don the gloves for session after session on some merciless Asian wickets is the closest to bringing out ant tendencies to masochism. Poor Dhoni must be suffering from an overdose of cricket as otherwise he would not have taken such a decision. The timing of his pullout is what makes it strange, even unpalatable to the Establishment.
Dhoni keeps off the Test team at a time that is too close to the IPL. Players can expect no public sympathy with regard to overcrowding of match fixtures when they voluntarily chose to play in IPL because of the bags of money on offer. Not one of them was heard complaining about the workload when they had to play 14 Twenty-20 league games in the space of 40 days.
The Asia Cup was something of an abomination because of the scheduling of back-to-back matches, particularly because the season in which it was played was one of high humidity and heat. But, apart from that, the programme is not so crowded that any player has to pull out of a Test tour that has enough gaps between five-day matches.
Dhoni's decision is a brave one because only players assured of their place in the team and confident of their future can afford to pick and choose where they will play. As the ODI captain, Dhoni's priorities may be slightly different than those of his colleagues who cannot be so choosy.
His choice is still questionable because Dhoni is such a valuable middle order batsman that he can make all the difference to the result of a match, sometimes even helping salvage a draw as he did famously at Lord's last year.
In the old days, Sunil Gavaskar could choose where and when to play. He did occasionally take a stand against playing as he did once on a tour of the West Indies in 1981 that anyway got cancelled due to lack of sponsors in the Caribbean. He refused to play at the Eden Gardens in 1987 because on a previous occasion the team bus had been stoned when he and his wife had lain on the floor to avoid the brickbats.
Any Indian cricketer playing abroad, like Farrokh Engineer used to at Lancashire, would come running to play domestic cricket if matches were declared as selection trials. There were not many who could pick their tours. But then in those days excessive cricket was not talked about and Fred Trueman would bowl more overs in one county season for Yorkshire than many modern bowlers do in five years of international cricket.
The burnout factor does worry the modern sportsmen more. They may earn more but they tend to have much shorter careers. One of the dangers of IPL is, by showering money, it offers choices to cricketers to skip international cricket that pays much less for far more work. Dhoni's is only a test case.
He may set a trend that modern cricket will have to learn to deal with. There is no denying scope exists for taking the players' point of view into consideration when drawing up tour and match schedules. Cricketers would not be human if they were not tempted by more money for less work and greater earnings in shorter careers. Cricket may do well to find the balance soon.
Republished with permission from The Asian Age