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MS Dhoni’s momentary outburst about IPL – what does it signify?

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Perhaps for the first time, chinks and crevices appeared beneath MS Dhoni’s legendary equanimity; the ice cold demeanour thawed and a small but significant surge of anger seeped out on to the otherwise inscrutable surface © Getty Images

In the post-match conference, smarting under the third humiliating defeat in a row, for a rare moment Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s equanimity was lost and his reply was uttered with a modicum of bad taste. Arunabha Sengupta tries to find out the merit of the question and answer sequence, and what it tells us about Indian cricket.

“Ask the BCCI, don’t be jealous of IPL.”

This had been captain MS Dhoni’s retort when asked whether a stint in county cricket would not be more beneficial for the Indian team prior to such tours than the Indian Premier League (IPL).

It was perhaps the first time that chinks and crevices appeared beneath the skipper’s legendary equanimity, the ice cold demeanour thawed and a small but significant surge of anger seeped out on to the otherwise inscrutable surface.

Had it been that unreasonable a question? Enough to break down a façade of calm perfected over a decade? Let us look at the evidence.

At Nottingham, with India struggling to save the Test on the final day, Ravindra Jadeja charged out at James Anderson, hitting the pace bowler straight back over his head for four.

At Lord’s the top order struggled to come to terms with the pitch. Only an extraordinary innings by Ajinkya Rahane and a fascinating rear-guard knock by Bhuvneshwar Kumar saved the team the blushes. In the second innings, Jadeja repeated his audacious advances, and for once it came off. His innings perhaps played the vital role in clinching the match in India’s favour. Before that, however, Stuart Binny had holed out off Moeen Ali without scoring, trying to hit one out of the ground when occupation of the wicket was the demand of the hour. Thankfully it did not prove expensive.

At Southampton, the Indian bowlers looked jaded. The discipline that had thus far been the bedrock of their performance, now showed signs of wavering. Bhuvneshwar had lost his accuracy, his movement, also the spring in his step. The batsmen got set and fell to relatively harmless deliveries, through snicks and bad shot selection. No one, Rahane apart, looked like building an innings.

The match was still in balance when Rohit Sharma charged down the wicket and hit Moeen down the throat of mid-off – the most outrageous of strokes even as Rahane and he were in the midst of a partnership that looked likely to take India much closer to the England total. In the second innings, with the match to be saved, Murali Vijay was run out attempting a short single. One by one the batsmen followed, again only Rahane intent on making an impression beyond a cameo. Many fell to the innocuous and often non-existent spin of Moeen.

By Manchester, the side seemed to have come apart at the seams. Gone were the exemplary restraint and perseverance of Murali Vijay, the brilliance of Kumar with bat and ball, the class and composure of Rahane. The Indian batting surrendered, with only captain Dhoni, the man with perhaps the worst technique in these conditions, making more runs than the ten other batsmen put together. The Virat Kohli-Cheteshwar Pujara duo, who had  flattered to deceive so far, refused to even go to the extent of flattering. In the second innings there was just a session to see through before rains were supposed to come down – and did. And the Indian batters gifted their wickets, a fair proportion to Moeen, by the bushel. The game was over within three days.

At The Oval, it was an eerie rerun of the previous Test. Once again the Indian batsmen floundered, once again Dhoni made more than all the other batsmen put together. The bowling was just jaded. By the final innings, no one had the will to fight.  The  white flag of surrender fluttered behind each batsman as he walked in and out. For the second time in succession the match was over in three days, for the fourth consecutive occasion the first five wickets yielded less than 65.

The invisible hand of Indian cricket governance was conspicuous all through, faintly during the first two matches and getting increasingly prominent from Ageas Bowl. That self-regulating behaviour that tried hard to reconstruct five day affairs into a more limited time-frame.

As long as men like Vijay, Rahane and Kumar had the fortitude to resist the urges and temptations of the shorter games, India batted like a Test team. They lasted 161 and 123 overs at Trent Bridge, even managed to negotiate a green pitch of Lord’s to bat for 91.4 and 103.1 overs, survived 106.1 overs the first time they batted at Rose Bowl. And then, the lack of First-Class preparation took its toll. It took England 66.4 overs to dismiss them in the second innings at Southampton, 46.4 and 43 overs at Old Trafford and 61.1 and 29.2 at The Oval.

The evidence is palpable

The side is far more suited for shorter versions where liberties and impulses can be indulged in without the arduous task of sticking around. The quality players started off well only to be mentally fatigued at an unused to ordeal of five day games by the end of the third Test. The bits and pieces cricketers, the likes of Stuart Binny and Ravindra Jadeja, found their ways into the team,underlining a thought processtraced around shorter versions. I guess it is high time to get rid of the delusion that Binny could be a miracle working swing bowler in English conditions. In three Tests he bowled 32 overs giving away 140 runs without anything to show for in the wickets column. Yes, I know one edge went between Dhoni and Shikhar Dhawan, but those are not the figures of a bowler ready for Test cricket.

Additionally, few batsmen had any clue about batting in such conditions. One fifty from 30 combined innings by four top order batsmen – Gautam Gambhir, Dhawan, Pujara and Kohli – leave little doubt about it.

Besides, we know that the IPL had been the usual full blown spectacle just before the England tour, and the Indian cricketers had been immersed deep in the waves of the loud and colourful tamasha. It seems in hindsight that they emerged from the festivities still soaked and dripping from the instant concoction of cricket.

Under these circumstances, is it too unreasonable to wonder whether the experience of county cricket, played on the English soil, battling the vagaries of the northern latitudes, the heavy atmosphere and fickle weather, would have been better preparation for such a series? After all, the past is littered with giants of the game who polished and perfected their techniques and methods in the finishing school of county cricket.

And neither was the question asked amidst the chaos and confusion that often attends media queries back home.

It seems that the question pricked a sensitive spot and out erupted the previously unseen puss and phlegm.

What made MS Dhoni lose his legendary cool?

“Ask the BCCI.” A clear indication that certain things are beyond his control. It cannot be said for sure whether Dhoni hinted that he himself was not happy with the preparation. After seven years of captaincy, does he not have even the slightest influence tomake BCCI pause, ponder and perhaps change some of their ways? If he doesn’t then there is every reason to lose his cool. But, clearly, he is not ready to answer the question.

The second part of the response was more of a glaring faux pas. It not only underlined that IPL was a topic that had the power to make the Indian captain lose his cool,  it painted him in angry colours for perhaps the first time in his tenure. It was a response that was aggressive, with allegations of jealousy thrown back at the journalists.

It is difficult to justify such an answer, but let me make an attempt nevertheless.

Ever since its inception, IPL has been condemned by several loud voices in unison. At the same time, a majority of the voices have tended to reduce their decibel levels and trickle off into deafening silence when the bandwagon has stopped in front of them with the invitation to jump on it. More often than not soon they have been heard on the other side, cheering with each DLF maximum.The voices that have continued to rage are generally the neglected ones who have been denied the opportunity to splurge in this cricketing orgy. The green eye of envy can be seen staring at the circus from the distant mounds and hills, after having been overlooked while invitations for a ringside view were being sent out.

Many of the proclaimed evils of IPL are so to say, right on the money. It is of course true that a spinner paid unthinkable amounts for bowling 24 balls, with an implied bonus for the dots, will fast lose the eagerness for 30-over days to purchase their wickets. However, often the same is stated with undue stress on the unthinkable amounts rather than the ‘lost eagerness’. Jealousy is a very basic human trait, and a base one. When opportunities have opened up for cricketers to reap the harvest of being exceptional in their field, onlookers droning on in begrudging moans can be infuriating to the professional cricketer. After all, he is not breaking rules to make his money.

However, being the captain of the Indian side carries certain unstated stipulations. One cannot react with anger in the face of abject failure, especially when the question – however unpleasant – is a very pertinent one. There is a certain accountability associated with every cricketer wearing national colours, and that cannot be ignored when the tints of franchises are brought under the spotlight of scrutiny.

Perhaps it has often been asked with more than a dose of that same envy that we see every day in every walk of life. But that is to be understood, and perhaps swallowed like an unavoidable, if slightly bitter, pill with the smile of steadfastness. Dhoni, till now, had been exceptional in withstanding difficult questions with good humour, without falling prey to outbursts in even the most extenuating circumstances. For once his composure wavered.

That was the only moment in the press conference when his mask of imperturbability slipped off, but it was significant. It was perhaps more than just the frustrations associated with repeated failures of the team. It seemed more likely that fine lines had been trespassed and delicate areas had been stepped into.

It is alarming that while Test match results leave the skipper calm and controlled, the mention of IPL can provoke such a reaction.

Complete coverage of India’s tour of England 2014

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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