The roof of the indoor nets at the SCG resembles that of a ballroom, with brightly-lit bulbs hanging like chandeliers. The eye-blinking brightness irritated MS Dhoni. Whenever the bowling machine spat out flighted deliveries, he would back away, rub his eyes and look grudgingly at the bulbs. Skipper Virat Kohli, who was batting at the adjoining nets, suggested that his predecessor bat from the other end, but Dhoni had a better idea. He asked the steward to switch off the bulbs over his nets, then turned back and quipped: "Abhi chai peene ka time hain!"
It was the ideal weather for a cup of piping-hot chai - outside the nets, a drizzle was streaming, a chilly breeze was brewing. A cup of chai, though, was far away. Dhoni’s eyes veered to his kitbag, all he could see were a pair of shoes, a neatly-folded sweater and a few bottles of energy drinks scattered around. He barked out instructions at the bowling-machine operator: "Leg-spin on leg-stump." To most deliveries, Dhoni would step out, clamp his back foot away and lofted the ball inside out. He mistimed or miscued most of the shots. Rustiness perhaps, he hasn't played any cricket since November. It was a strange stroke - very un-Dhoni. Such deliveries, these days, he would bunt through mid-on, or slog-sweep like he did so exuberantly in his youthful pomp. But these are stranger times for him, maybe not so much for the man himself as for those around him. But inescapable is Dhoni's struggle with his batting, the batting of a diminished, ageing Dhoni. Relieving him of the short-form captaincy was considered a career-restoring elixir towards a twilight flourish.
Initially, the decision, or the motive behind the decision, seemed intuitive. A week after the relinquishing, he smacked the last of his 10 ODI hundreds against England in Cuttack, suggesting that he had rekindled his elusive batting mojo, before it began to go pear-shaped since the stroke of last year. There were sporadic bursts of his heyday rampage, but more often than not Dhoni looked his age, sometimes more than his age. His outings in the middle have resembled the symptoms of a man fighting the body and the unavoidable wearing of the eye-sight and reflexes.
It's an existential tussle of sportsmen in their twilight. Sharp as his brain is and tough as his resolve is, Dhoni is fighting the ravages of time. But if only his body listened. It revolted, and its responses were inversely proportional to the effort he was putting. He strove harder in the nets, he slogged heavier in the gym. But the reflexes only dawdled, the hand-eye coordination only deteriorated.
It's like Goran Ivanisevic can't hit an ace any more, or David Beckham can't bend a free-kick at all, a mathematician can't solve equations. Since his dramatic entry into international cricket, no other season has been as fallow as his last. In 20 matches, he rolled out only 275 runs at an average of 25, didn't post a single century and strung together un-Dhoni like knocks more than ever before. He changed bats, batting position - he has come at 4, 5, 6 and 7 in this span - but the fortunes didn't turn around. Dhoni's failures are all the more magnified with the team's unstable Nos 4, 5, 6 and 7. It's a crisis partly deflected by a top three that has been in otherworldly form, nearly 60 per cent of the team's totals being shared by Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli.
The unsettled spots meant that Dhoni was afforded a shot in every spot. Back in the time, he could seamlessly float in the order, but most of the spots were locked. But when there are so many vacancies, Dhoni can't fit into any. In Powerplay, with fielders in the 30-yard circle, he couldn't rotate strike, in the death overs he couldn't wield the willow like a bludgeon any longer. Last year, he struck only 19 fours and two sixes. The middle overs seemed the most comfortable period for him, when he could hoard the singles and twos and occasionally clear the ropes. Maybe, it's time to changed perceptions about him - it's time Dhoni should no longer be looked at as a finisher, but more as a wicketkeeper-batsman than a batsman-wicketkeeper. Maybe, he would surprise his critics, as he has throughout his life and career, and smile impishly at them. But his current form is what it is.
But the paradox of the situation is that Dhoni is undroppable. It's beyond the ambit of numbers. For India needs Dhoni, the leader. Any given match, one can see the influence he still wields; he controls the bowlers, sometimes sets their fields and continuously yells out tactics, strategies, encouragement, admonishment. He's the man Kohli turns to at the slightest sniff of trouble, bowlers flock for clarity, and even when batting his worldly wisdom is sought. To paraphrase vice-captain Rohit Sharma, he's the guiding light of the team. "Over the years, we have seen what sort of presence he (Dhoni) has in the dressing room and on the field. With him being around, there is a sense of calmness in the group, which is very important, and also a bit of help to the captain because he stands behind the stumps," Rohit says.
Both Rohit and Kohli are canny leaders themselves, but Dhoni is still the figurehead. "His calmness and advice, what he thinks about the game and what we should do right now is very important."
Such glowing tributes make him an automatic for the World Cup - despite the escalating clamour for drafting in Rishabh Pant, who scored fewer runs than only Cheteshwar Pujara in the recent Test series. But the foreboding is that Dhoni would quit sooner rather than later after the World Cup. Most of all, he wouldn't want to consider himself as a burden. And when such a moment arises, he would quietly slip away, without any fuss or flummery. Like he quit Test cricket, like he forsook limited-overs captaincy. With a tightly-worded press release. But until then, he would fight his revolting reflexes and wearing hand-eye coordination as resolutely as only he can. And pamper himself with numerous cups of steaming chai.
Explained: How Dhoni's new role triggers a change
Between December 2004 and 2011 World Cup, MS Dhoni was averaging 50.92 and his strike rate was 83.45 in chases. It was the third-best in ODIs during that period. That was also the time when Dhoni mostly batted between No.5 to 7 slot. Back then Dhoni batted behind the big strikers and known finishers Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina. He would always be the last specialist batsman with Ravindra Jadeja following him. Even when Yuvraj and Raina stayed with him till the final overs, it was Dhoni would dictated the chase. Of late, the 37 year- old's role has changed. He is now seen as an accumulator. He still continues to play in the No. 5 to 7 slot but the profile and roles of those who bat around him has changed. He is no longer the last specialist and he isn't even expected to be the big hitter in the tight chases. In recent matches, Kedar Jadhav follows Dhoni and he along with Hardik Pandya and Ambati Rayudu take on the bowlers when run rate climbs.