Dhoni’s men have made a lot of noise in going down time and again, writes Nirmal Shekar
This much can be said as a matter of great pride: India is better than Zimbabwe when it comes to winning Test matches away from home.
Yes, Zimbabwe, the little African nation of considerable natural wealth that has been turned into a hell-on-earth by an ageing despot; that little corner of the world where the only claim to civilisation, today, is that they still play cricket, a culturally richly-adorned sport to which very few nations of the world owe allegiance.
But India’s charismatic, self-assured and reputedly talismanic leader, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, seems to have an unembarrassed appetite for unadulterated denialism.
If you had been around at Dhoni’s post-match presser at Wellington, on Tuesday, at a time when most of us had just plunged headlong into the day’s work at office, you’d have thought that his team has done swimmingly well as travellers — and as the lone repository of all our hopes in a country of 1.2 billion.
Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are not the defining characteristics of Indian cricket captains alone. But Dhoni, lately, has made an art out of interpreting things to suit his own idea of how things are going. And this has done nothing to raise Captain Cool’s cool quotient.
Statistics, dull statistics, stark statistics, damned lies as they might often be seen by spin doctors, may, now and again, reveal more than they conceal.
There was a time — particularly after the abrasive yet adorable Sourav Ganguly took over the reins — when Indian cricketers shed the tag of home-turf bullies and poor travellers like a sorry skin, and Dhoni himself contributed quite a bit to build on that legacy.
But in the world of sport, fantasies unravel faster than a Usain Bolt 100m sprint. And the old nemesis has come back to haunt Indian cricket all over again.
If Brendon McCullum’s epic triple hundred did as much damage to the Indian team’s morale as a devastating stake through the heart, denying the team a near-certain victory at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, then we’d do well to remember that what happened in Kiwi-land merges seamlessly with the script of the recent past.
Parents of children born around the time Dhoni’s team last won a Test match abroad would now be busy seeking school admission for their little ones. It was a time, too, when the U.S. dollar fetched less than Rs. 45.
In that time, India has played 14 Test matches outside the country, losing ten and drawing the rest. The last taste of success was against the West Indians in June 2011.
“We are trying. It is not like making food where you say, okay, salt is missing, that is why it is not good. Where we are lacking, that is a difficult question to answer,” said Dhoni on Tuesday, attempting a bit of post-hoc rationalisation.
Actually, it may not be all that difficult to figure out the reason if you are not seated in his perch. For, in sport as in life, the meaning lies in the minutiae.
However felicitous the captain’s choice of words may be, the truth is this Indian team is not skilful enough to finish off the adversary when the opportunity presents itself — as it did in quite a few Tests, most of all in Johannesburg and Wellington.
The story of blighted dreams and broken promises may — in the minds of a few experts — have to do with the team’s unflattering bowling resources. But, at the end of the day, it is down to how hungry the men are collectively and what their body language tells us when a pair of doughty opponents offers resistance.
“Defeat has a dignity which noisy victory does not deserve,” wrote the great Argentine, Jose Luis Borges.
Then again, ‘noisy’ defeats do not perhaps deserve as much dignity. And Dhoni’s men have made a lot of noise in going down time and again, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Through all this, the inspirational leader himself seems to have changed, aged visibly and appears prone to dishing out feel-good balderdash in hard times.
There was a time when Dhoni could be counted on to arrive at judgments as soberly and as objectively as possible. And one was unfailingly struck by his humility and feet-on-the ground attitude when the heavens showered their blessings on him.
Dhoni was unremittingly affable and responded to challenges with typical vibrant emotional intensity. There was an unaffected openness about him.
But then, being the captain of the Indian cricket team during a testing period of transition is not the easiest job on the planet.
What the job — inarguably one of the most thankless and toughest in the world of sport — has done is to de-divinise Dhoni.
There he is, warts and all; and so is the team that tags along with him; and so are the powerful men who call the shots in Indian cricket, the ones who have always equated money with value and got carried away by the zeitgeisty allure of limited-overs cricket.
Who cares if India has not won a Test match abroad in three long years.