Three weeks. That’s all it has taken for two temperamentally different 36-year-olds to traverse to different ends of the success spectrum.
Beyond being celebrated internationals who share the same year of birth and who both made 90s in India’s conquest of Sri Lanka in the World Cup final this month seven years back, there is little in common between Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir. Dhoni was destined to take the world by storm from the time he broke into international cricket in December 2004, never mind if he failed to tickle the scorers in his first outing. Gambhir was always going to find himself caught up in a storm of his own making, the angry little man who relied on the size of his heart to rouse himself up for made-up battles against a world he was convinced was against him.
Dhoni has forever been charismatic. The flowing locks might have made way for occasionally hidden grey but the arresting smile remains a constant companion. Gambhir has never been a big fan of the charm offensive; he is all business, rattling off words at the rate of hurtling knots, giving the impression that far more important things await his attention. At his best, Dhoni entertains and exhilarates like few others; Gambhir bats as if he has a point to prove. For Dhoni, cricket is a big part of life, but still only a part of life. With Gambhir, cricket until a couple of years back was all-consuming, the internal fire threatening from time to time to completely singe him.
As they started, sometime last month, to ramp up their preparations for IPL 2018, it is unlikely that neither the phlegmatic Dhoni nor the mercurial Gambhir wasn’t caught up in a tsunami of sentiment and nostalgia. After having spent two tumultuous years in Pune – with Supergiants first as captain, and then with Supergiant as ex-captain – Dhoni was back with the franchise that he loves as much as it loves him, in a city that is as in awe of him as he is fond of it. Chennai Super Kings without Dhoni is as unthinkable as Dhoni playing for another franchise. The latter had to happen after the indiscretions of a ‘team owner/enthusiast’ attracted telling sanctions; there was no danger of the former once the two-year suspension period was over.
Gambhir’s return to Delhi Daredevils wasn’t as celebrated, but that is understandable because he has seldom triggered the maelstrom of emotions that Dhoni has. After three years of playing for the franchise representing the city of his birth, the pugnacious left-hander travelled eastward to take charge of Kolkata Knight Riders. His perspicacity was one of the driving forces as the team surged to two titles even as Delhi languished in the bottom half season after season, under successive captains and celebrated coaches who simply couldn’t crack the puzzle.
Once Kolkata let him go ahead of the 2018 auction, it was almost a given that Gambhir would return to Delhi. That he would go that easily, without even a token bidding war and for only Rs 2.8 crore, was a little disturbing, perhaps the first early (in hindsight) sign of alarm bells primed to ring. It was, never mind the modest price-tag, a happy marriage. The combative Gambhir, the equally feisty Ricky Ponting as the head coach, a heady cocktail of explosive international superstars, a wonderful mix of exciting young Indians. Reason to hope, to believe that the magic wand Gambhir had waved so effectively in Kolkata would keep him good company at his old-new franchise.
Dhoni’s magic wand, of course, is the stuff of legend. It is invisible, yet omnipresent. More importantly, it is omnipotent, too. Dad’s Army raised eyebrows immediately after the auction. Today, nearly halfway through the league phase, Dad’s Army is perched atop the table with Big Daddy himself taking the tournament by storm. In an IPL replete with stirring deeds from the young and the not-so-young (Chris Gayle, anyone?!) alike, it is unsurprisingly the reincarnation of Dhoni that has been the most captivating story.
For over a year now, Dhoni’s efficacy as a Twenty20 batsman in international cricket has been a burning topic of debate. The Indian team management has been contemptuous of raised eyebrows despite the law of diminishing returns catching up with the acknowledged finisher with a bludgeon for a willow and a rapier for a mind. That they sent him in at No. 7 in an eight-over shootout against New Zealand in Thiruvananthapuram in the deciding game of a three-match series was not lost on anyone. His place in the 50-over squad has never come under question, but declining ball-striking skills and lack of ‘intent’ – the byword in the Kohli-Shastri era – justifiably triggered surprise at the unwillingness to look beyond the behemoth from Ranchi in the T20 version.
Teams seemed to have found multiple ways to stymie the Dhoni juggernaut. Full and just wide enough outside off for the bowler not to be wided. Short and into the body to prevent the freeing of arms and bringing the powerful levers into play. Spin of various kinds but especially of the variety that left him. For every day that Dhoni decimated these designs, there were a half-dozen where he was tied up in knots. What’s going on, MS?
It’s most certainly the question MS asked himself, too. As the IPL started and he pulled rabbits out of the heart, as is his wont, as captain, the batsman in him faced uncomfortable questions from Mayank Markande in game one, and from Sunil Narine, Piyush Chawla and Kuldeep Yadav in the next. Then, on a glorious night in Mohali, on an excellent batting track, with the spinners neutralised and bowled out, the pacers in operation and a near-impossible task staring him in the face, Dhoni took wing. And soared like he used to until a couple of years back. The hesitancy was gone, the musculature was back. The poking and prodding and nurdling disappeared as the big shoulders opened, the powerful forearms came into play, the stunning bat-speed made a glorious reappearance, the lengths of the boundaries repeatedly rendered insignificant.
There was no fairytale finish, but no one cared. MS was back. Mahi was nailing them, the smoking gun had not gone to rust. Fears that it might be a one-off have since been emphatically exploded. He has hammered the best bowling attack – Sunrisers Hyderabad – and the most under-achieving bowling group – Royal Challengers Bangalore – into submission, taking the bull by the horns straightaway and re-instilling the fear that was once his calling card.
Perhaps that’s why Kohli sported a wry smile at the end of the Chinnaswamy carnage the other night. Bangalore’s loss, maybe, but a massive gain for India if this is what we are going to get from Dhoni in the autumn of his career. Maybe (the Chennai) yellow is the new (India) blue.
For Gambhir, it is blues of a different kind. He has seen red at Delhi, his own form nosediving after a promising start and his team at the foot of the table, flat on its back – the cynical might say things are looking up. That he has opted to step down as skipper is no surprise, really, though I’d personally rather prefer he took the money that is his due. And used it for his foundation that is doing such stellar work, or hand it over to some other charity of his choosing. This is one instance where charity must not begin at home.