It is arguably the hardest thing for a sportsman to know when he must walk away from the field, when he must wave goodbye to the adoring crowds, when he must change his jersey for a suit and segue into a career in team management or commentary.
Most international sportsmen, irrespective of the game they play, stay too long.
What is “too long” in the context of a game that has been their life, supported their lifestyles and kept them away from families, a sport that has lifted them from sometimes penurious circumstances to international stardom and given them a steady stream of income from endorsements? And what are endorsements but brands putting a figure to the trust and admiration these sportsmen inspire in their fans?
It has been exactly four years since India lost to the West Indies in a cliff-hanger at the Wankhede Stadium, one match away from what could have been their first-ever T20 World Cup final at home.
India had posted 192/2, a decent total that appeared mammoth once the West Indies lost their openers cheaply. But having whittled down 73 needed off the last 6 overs to 8 needed off the last 6 balls, they found themselves facing the man who had scored 89 from 47 balls for India: Virat Kohli. Kohli had performed magnificently throughout the tournament, provoking excited comparisons to Sachin Tendulkar.
And commentators took it to a crescendo when he took the ball for the last over, almost as if Kohli had already won this match and the next for India.
Cricketers have always been suckers for superstition. And this was a hark back to 1993, when Sachin Tendulkar was sent in to bowl against South Africa, to defend 5 runs with Brian McMillan in the middle and an over left in the game. Kapil Dev had two overs to spare, but Mohammad Azharuddin tossed the ball to Tendulkar. The latter kept South Africa down to 3 runs, and India won the match and tournament.
There was no repeat when Dhoni tossed the ball to Kohli.
Kohli hung his head.
The West Indians celebrated.
Dhoni had an uncharacteristic outburst at the press conference. When asked about his retirement plans by an Australian journalist, he demanded whether he appeared unfit and whether the journalist thought he could survive until the 2019 World Cup.
West Indies needed 73 runs from the last six overs against India #OnThisDay in 2016, in order to secure a spot in the #T20WorldCup final.— ICC (@ICC) March 31, 2020
Watch how @Russell12A and @54simmo finished it with two balls to spare pic.twitter.com/I5ZAvdhiYJ
The 2019 World Cup – and particularly India’s last match in the tournament – would be a forgettable one for Dhoni.
If it is his last international game, the final memory cricket audiences will have of Dhoni is of him nudging the ball around awkwardly, taking nearly 70 balls to make 43, before hitting a six and then getting run out in an attempt to retain the strike. Ravindra Jadeja, who was at the other end, would be the almost-hero of the game. In a match where India’s first three batsmen were back in the dressing room within 20 deliveries, and for 5 runs, there was really nothing to lose. Dhoni’s biding time at a crucial juncture did contribute to costing India the match.
After the tournament, Dhoni made himself unavailable for selection in the Indian team. Head coach of the Indian cricket team, Ravi Shastri, said in November 2019 that Dhoni’s selection for the T20 World Cup in Australia, scheduled for October 2020, would depend on his performance in the IPL.
When asked for a reaction by the press, Dhoni said he could only answer in January. True to his word, he began training, first at Ranchi and then with the Chennai Super Kings squad for the IPL which was scheduled to begin in March 2020.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the tournament – which authorities were considering playing behind closed doors – will at best be postponed; at worst, it will be cancelled.
Even if Dhoni were to play in the IPL and do well, we must remember that for the past several years, his performances in the international arena haven’t quite paralleled his feats in the IPL.
One cannot expect to be selected for a crucial international tournament after having missed a whole year of cricket, and that too after being on the downturn for some time.
AB de Villiers, considered by many to have been the best batsman in the world for his entire playing career, came out of retirement once. He then made himself unavailable for selection until he suddenly announced he was willing to play in the 2019 World Cup. The South African selectors decided not to make an exception. De Villiers had done spectacularly well after his re-entry. Yet, to accommodate him would have been to deny someone else. It would also have signalled that a legend could get away with anything.
It is evident that Dhoni is past his prime.
It is also evident that there are several others in the team who can replicate what Dhoni was most famous for: changing the course of a game with a lightning knock.
In India, some cricketers are considered gods. They are often the childhood heroes of their captains, as Tendulkar was Dhoni’s.
They are guaranteed a spot in the playing eleven for as long as they wish, irrespective of whether that is the best thing for the team. Some presences are considered more important than their performances.
Chances are that Dhoni might be able to squeeze his way into the T20 side for the 2020 World Cup, whenever it is held.
But one of the greatest tragedies of sport is players overstaying their welcome.
They are judged, and judge themselves, by past merit until the situation becomes untenable, and then their exit is humiliating rather than heartbreaking. An era must end with a flourish, not peter out.
Must Dhoni feel compelled to erase the memories of one bad tournament when he has already won a World Cup for his country?
Wouldn’t it be more graceful to retire quietly as Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman did, and focus on what the game has to offer him rather than what he has left to give the game?
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Virat Kohli, a poor ambassador for the spirit of cricket
Bumrah, a tragedy that must be averted
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com