Age can turn titans like Dhoni into a liability
Once he was a swashbuckling hero but now his 37-year-old body is putting up all sorts of obstacles, writes Jim White
‘It has happened before, not least when Tendulkar was reckoned undroppable’
Watching the end of India’s innings against England in Sunday’s Cricket World Cup match from the Sky commentary box, Nasser Hussain was dumbfounded. Why was it that MS Dhoni was playing as if he had been stripped of any sense of urgency?
Sure, the task was a tough one. But in the past the impossible has rarely been an obstruction for Dhoni. Yet here he was, dibbing and dabbing, padding and paddling, a woeful parody of the swashbuckling figure we associate with him.
Hussain asked his co-commentator, Sourav Ganguly, if he could explain what on earth was going on. But as Dhoni prodded away a gentle cutter from Liam Plunkett, the former India captain seemed as perplexed as anyone about his successor’s behaviour.
“I really have no idea why he just did that,” Ganguly said as the ball
slunk apologetically from Dhoni’s once free-flowing bat.
In our house, we had plenty of theories. The conspiracy enthusiasts present reckoned the Indians were deliberately losing to ensure England qualified ahead of Pakistan. One ludicrous suggestion was that, with an Indian defeat having no consequence in terms of their progress in the competition, this was a game ripe for matchfixing. Obviously, that was not a remotely plausible idea.
My own theory was that what we were seeing at Edgbaston was one of the most depressing of all sporting inevitabilities: the moment when age turns a titan into a liability. Dhoni, once the living deity of Indian cricket, a man who thrived on difficulty, who loved nothing more than snatching victory from the internal digestive system of defeat, has not made a one-day century since 2017. What he used to be able to do without a second thought, his soon-to-be 38-year-old body is putting up all sorts of obstacles to achieving.
Yet clearly, as he stood out in the middle at Edgbaston, sending Kedar Jadhav back to the other end instead of taking a perfectly runnable single, he was under the misguided belief that he – and he alone – could still influence the result.
In the recent past, the mid-innings assault of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli would have provided the perfect platform for him to unleash a smash-andgrab, to finish things off in the glorious manner familiar to the greatest finisher of all time. His assumption that only he at the crease could deliver victory was burning bright, even as he meekly surrendered to England’s bowling.
It has happened before. Not least in Indian cricket, where Sachin Tendulkar was reckoned undroppable long after ordinary mortals would have been dispatched to the nets. Not that English cricket has been immune: Ian Botham’s presence in the side stretched well beyond his usefulness. In football, too, John Terry and Andriy Shevchenko occupied a Chelsea shirt past the point where they could deliver any useful service, while Manchester United have recently brought in washed-up legends like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Radamel Falcao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And this when they already had Wayne Rooney.
Experience is a golden force in sport, but reputation can be destructive. Which brings us back to the unassailable Dhoni, a man who does not look as if the gym is an extensive part of his preparative regime. It was his inevitable decline that was writ large on the Edgbaston turf. At least we can only hope that is the case: any of the other explanations offered up are surely unthinkable.
Fallen giant: India’s MS Dhoni is struggling, where once he would have thrived