Over the past week, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has played two starkly contrasting innings and I wonder if this reflects his existential dilemma in this troubling season in some way.
Dhoni’s century at Chennai in the first ODI was a tour de force: a brilliant effort worthy of being ranked alongside Kapil Dev’s 175 not out in the 1983 World Cup for its derring-do and optimism. A few days later, however, came the half-century at Kolkata at such a startlingly slow pace as to suggest complete hopelessness.
Both these innings don’t add up in defining Dhoni’s cricketing personality - unless the player is in a troubled state of mind. When you work on this premise, however, some reasons emerge why he would have played as he did.
Nevertheless, Dhoni’s overly cautious approach in Kolkata was baffling, to say the least. For long periods, he defended as if he was trying to draw a Test match, and with only a few overs remaining, unleashed some extraordinary shots to suggest what might have been.
This is not to suggest that India could have won the match after the main batsmen had fallen cheaply, and in the face of some inspired bowling by Pakistan. On the evidence of the two matches, Pakistan were simply the better side by far in every aspect.
But even in a lost cause, a show of defiance has value. The unkind explanation is that Dhoni, having resigned himself to defeat, wallowed in self-indulgence rather than heroics.
The kinder one is that this actually expressed his utter despair at the top order’s collapse yet again.
Not being cynical, I am more inclined to believe the second explanation, but disagree nonetheless that it was in any way right. In fact, it was an unedifying sight to see one of the finest one-day players in the world — and arguably the best finisher — exhibiting such pusillanimity.
Sport derives its beauty, flavour and richness of character best when a person or team is battling odds. The higher the difficulty quotient, greater is the achievement.
Heroism does not come by the wringing of hands but by do-or-die, as Dhoni himself had shown a few days earlier even though his century was in vain.
Looked at it baldly, in limited-overs cricket you either win or lose. Not trying to win — however insurmountable the target — goes against the grain of the sport. Given the current predicament India finds itself in, it also send out terrible signals.
For one, it tells fans that not only is the team being defeated, but has also become defeatist.
That is a sure way to drive them away. Secondly, the signal to the dressing room is uninspiring.
If he had to set an example — and revise the tenor for other matches to be played in the season — Dhoni should have been more positive and forthright.
It hardly needs labouring the point that he is skating on thin ice where captaincy is concerned.
If indeed he wants to keep the job, Dhoni will have to provide leadership through decisive action as he has done so superbly in the past.
For the most part this season, he has been reduced to saying how his batting or bowling has failed. This is quite out of character for him, and an indication that things are spinning out of his control.
That said, it must be accepted that India have been extremely badly served by batsmen and bowlers this season, making the captain’s task nightmarish.
Of the batsmen, Sehwag and Gambhir — of whom so much was expected — have been particularly disappointing.
Not only have they failed to pull their weight where runmaking is concerned, but have blundered in running between the wickets and fielding too. It’s reached a stage where their inclusion in the side has become questionable.
The problem is compounded by the failure of Raina and Rohit Sharma to come good either.
Yuvraj has been iffy and Kohli appears to have hit a roadblock too which means that the Indian batting — expected to provide a good buffer to make up for the weak bowling — has become the biggest problem.
The past few months have thrown Indian cricket into turmoil.
After a spate of defeats overseas, the Test series against England was lost, and now the ODI series against Pakistan too.
The home season had promised redemption. Instead it has brought even more ruin.
Is there a silver lining on the horizon anywhere? A good performance against Pakistan in Sunday’s game at the Kotla could provide a sliver of hope.
But clearly, there is need for deep introspection, regimented planning and some hard decisions.
1. When India had a chance to put the skids under Pakistan in Chennai, Dhoni brought on Virat Kohli. This put the new batsman Shoaib Malik at ease and the runs flowed. Bringing the in- form Bhuvneshwar Kumar could have got an all-important wicket.
2. With 251 to chase in Kolkata and the top order woefully out of form, Dhoni could have come higher up the order. Instead, he hid himself at No. 6 and the predictable collapse left the hosts with no chance. Batting at 3 or 4 could have prevented the Chennai collapse too.
3. Dhoni might have mistaken a bilateral contest for a tri-series. Nothing else can explain the skipper’s defensive batting when the need of the hour was to go for big shots, despite the heap of wickets that fell around him. The loss resulted in a series defeat.
4. India’s bowling line-up is an inexperienced one and needs constant guidance. In Chennai, Bhuvneshwar Kumar got the initial breakthroughs but later short, allowing Nasir Jamshed off the hook. R Ashwin was used as a run-stopper and the field was too defensive.
5. Despite Rohit Sharma repeatedly falling in single figures, the skipper played him in Chennai.
With the batting being so brittle, a technician like Ajinkya Rahane could have been more than useful. Instead, he continues to warm the bench despite one collapse after another.
(The writer is a seasoned journalist)