The specks of grey in Dhoni's "fashionable" stubble and growing girth indicate how much the man has aged in the past two years. He is only 28, but the signs of wear and tear are clearly evident. Early last year, following the triumph in the CB Series Down Under, he was hailed as the new "messiah" of Indian cricket. Since then, life has changed dramatically for him.
He was a man with the Midas touch, and like the Queen, could do no wrong. He looked good when the honeymoon lasted, but the premature exit from the Champions Trophy has put him under scanner like never before.
Dhoni's lot is nothing new and like any of his peers, he would have realized that captaincy of Indian cricket team can indeed be a burden. Since the days of Azharuddin, no Indian captain, save perhaps Ganguly to a small extent, looked the part.
Initially, Dhoni raised high expectations with his rustic approach and nonchalance of a young man from the cricketing backwaters. Today, he enjoys an iconic status and even commands the biggest commercial bucks. Indeed, the innocent boy from Ranchi has not been spared from the rough and tumble of Indian cricket. It is to be hoped that he will emerge from this mess a stronger player and better captain.
Of course, it would be unfair to put the entire blame on his young shoulders, for he was saddled with a non-performing team that was also severely handicapped by the absence of three key players - Sehwag, Yuvraj and Zaheer.
However, you cannot trot this out as an excuse for the tepid performance in Champions Trophy where the team's inherent weakness, chiefly a toothless bowling attack, stood exposed.
To a large extent, Dhoni, though street smart, tends to get weighed down by his own theories. His stubbornness is another factor that has cost the teams he has led, whether India or the Chennai Super Kings.
It is all fine to back a player on the pretext of showing confidence, but as a captain, you need to know when and where to draw the line. It boils down to optimum utilization of the resources you have and in this context, I felt that leg-spinner Mishra, for some reason, has been spending more time on the bench than out in the middle.
Granted that the trio of absentees, Sehwag, Yuvraj and Zaheer, did blow a hole in the line-up, but the fact remains that the team went in without a quality all-rounder. I would have preferred Irfan Pathan to his brother Yusuf who has been surviving on the basis of a few big hits in the IPL, but never looked comfortable at the highest level. I feel that Irfan still has plenty to offer and at least on paper, he looked a better option.
Frankly, too much has been made of the ICC rankings that, at best, only reflect consistency in performance rather than accurately reflect the class and caliber of the teams. Further, the tri-series win in Sri Lanka last month only swept the cobwebs under the carpet. In that tournament, New Zealand looked out of depth while India and Sri Lanka progressed to the final at their expense. Yet, within a fortnight, we have the Kiwis in the semi-finals, and India along with Sri Lanka, are out of the competition.
I wouldn't put it down to the vagaries of one-day cricket. Rather, it is all about performing when it counts - the big tournaments. In this context, the Indian team, for all the hype, has been a huge let-down. If anything, the Champions Trophy has driven home the point that India is anything but the best in the business and presently, the flab is showing.
Apart from the fact that the Indian bowlers, Harbhajan included, fared miserably, the batsmen too contributed to the overall depressing scenario. If Pakistan outplayed us, then so did the Aussies before rains ended what was turning into a massacre. The weak West Indies played with pride, but had little else to show, and an Indian victory was not just expected, but in the end, totally inconsequential.
Looking ahead, it is a moot point whether the likes of Dravid, RP Singh and Yusuf would be retained. Dravid was used to mask certain deficiency while RP and Yusuf did little to enhance their credentials or worth. The much-talked about young guns haven't really found their feet at the senior level and to say the least, India will now have to prepare for a transitional period, just like the Aussies.
There has been too much talk about India's chances at the 2011 World Cup, but looking at the current situation, we might not come any closer to winning the trophy than we did in the West Indies three years ago. Perhaps, it is time to rest the tongue and put the pieces together.