It’s strange, this phenomenon. Hours and hours of watching my favorite sportsmen on the telly, and I begin to believe that I know them personally. That’s why I tuned in when Sachin was close to a century and become all emotional when Ganguly walked out that last time. Even though it is extremely silly, I become personally invested in the individual successes of these strangers, that goes above and beyond my team winning, just like I would do for my friends.
And just like I do for my friends, I make these little mental stereotypes.
The passionate. Sourav.
The gentleman. Dravid.
The self-absorbed geek. Sachin.
The guy who never gets his due. VVS.
The maverick. Sehwag.
The relentless. Kumble.
But what about Dhoni?
I don’t think I have that personal connect with him, not in the way I have for the names above. As Harsha Bhogle writes, in this beautiful piece, he could not figure out who he was and he is someone who actually knew Dhoni pretty well in real life.
Unlike my other sporting heroes, the sport was never Dhoni’s religion, never the be-all-and-end-all. It was a job, a job he did because he was very very good at it and because he made a lot of money from it, and he never showed it to be anything else, like a deep love for the sport or the country.
There was a fundamental honesty there and yet it was just too honest for the sports-fan in me.
The paradox, and some may say the hypocrisy, is that while I consider myself a pragmatist, I hero-worship those that are not, or perhaps do not appear to be.
That’s significant. This “appear to be”. I am sure that many of my heroes are cynical to the core, perhaps even dangerously two-faced, that their passion and devotion are only acts to be consumed by gullible people like me, and the truth of that was brought to me when Azharuddin was revealed to be doing what he was doing, a day of great personal trauma for me, because I remember actually crying, for he, not Sachin or Saurav, had been my biggest sporting hero.
For instance, I don’t know for sure if his commitment to India was more or less than his towards his IPL franchise, CSK, though I think that CSK came first, definitely over Test matches.
But wait. Why should it not? He never played for India, he played for BCCI, a club by their own admission, and if there are two clubs you play for, and one pays you a lot more than the other for doing a lot less, which one should one prioritize? If I worked two jobs and one paid many times more than the others, I would do exactly the same.
His relationship with Srini, much lampooned and hated, was also based on pragmatism. Sport, despite all the marketing soft-soap about how it is a higher calling, is big business for those who are in it, and any pragmatist would know that one can only persist by being part of a winning team, not just the eleven that walks out onto the playing arena, but a team that includes the big dogs in administration and advertising.
This pragmatic outlook, shorn of all the silly romanticism, defined his cricket also. He had a horrible bowling attack and an ageing batting line-up, so he set defensive fields and hoped the opponent had a brain-fade. If he knew opponent needed a win, he would pack massive defensive fields and hope they get out to that (it worked once). This made for boring cricket and even after that India got their asses handed to them. The alternative would have been the charge of the light brigade approach, and while that may have worked once and people remembered it for precisely that, the odds were never on, and hence Dhoni would never try. If choice A was an unspectacular bowler who, at best could take three wickets and at worst, hold down one end, and choice B was an unknown whose only strength was that he was unknown, but who, in the worst case, would be creamed all over the park, Dhoni would take choice A. That’s why Ashwin played in the Tests he captained, and Karn Sharma in the one that Kohli did.
The odds. Yes Dhoni played the odds. Not the heart.
Which is why I have always thought of him as this super-genius, legendary, fund-manager. He has managed three funds—Tests, ODIs, and IPL. Over the years, he has realized that the Test fund, given the resources at hand and given his own investment philosophy, is just not working out for him. The numbers are there. In red. They look even more horrible compared to the numbers on his other funds. He had been cutting his exposure for some time now, limiting dives because of his dodgy back, till he had come to the stage that five days of standing in the sun, mostly as opponents hit five-hundred-plus-scores, was simply not worth his investment. It reduced his value, there was too little reward, and the opportunity cost was too high.
All he was looking was for a time, just as he looks for that time, when he is pottering around in the 46th over and the required run rate is going up, to unleash the big shot.
So the time comes. He takes it.
He does not wait till the end of the series cause it would be the right thing to do. He does not play another Test and get the waterworks on.
He just picks up his hat and dissolves his fund.
Of course, used to I am to heroic narratives around commercial sport, this kind of mercenary pragmatism is disquieting, even though it is precisely because of this unsentimental odds-based approach that Dhoni has been such a successful fund-manager all his life, having brought back more trophies than any of my sporting heroes.
So that’s that.
Looking back, I wish though there had been some tears, some sentimentality, some faux-emotion, and even though it would have been dishonest and manipulative, I would have felt better. I wish he had shouted some gaalis when he batted, or gone nose-to-nose with Kamran Akmal, or made faces at Shane Watson. I wish he had given more soundbytes like “I love my India” and “Cricket is my life”.
I wish he had not appeared so detached. I wish he had been one of my hero fake-friends.
But he isn’t
And that, I suspect, is exactly how he would have wanted it to be.