Mahendra Singh Dhoni

Lack of support from the head honchos may have played its part in India’s slump

It’s not a common sight in sport to find players and administrators on the same page. Disparities arise in multitudes, ranging from salaries to selections. Yet, this disagreement has little to no effect when players take the field, for circumvention is an integral part of their professional life. Nonetheless, some frictional moments between the aforesaid parties leave behind a wound that takes a considerable time to heal. It not only affects the protagonist, but has a direct impact on the performance of the team. In some unfortunate cases, it has even nudged the career of a fine player down a slippery slope, and it’s at this juncture the Australian summer of 2007-08 springs readily to mind.

The Indians, with renewed optimism, assembled under Anil Kumble’s leadership to take on a gallant Australian side. On the back of just one three-day warm-up game, the tourists were swiftly brought down to their knees with a 337-run defeat in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne. The second fixture, at Sydney, is painted with a black brush in the annals of cricket’s history. Tempers frayed on either side right from the commencement of the Test, and on Day Three, Harbhajan Singh was charged for remarks against Andrew Symonds that were apparently racist in nature.

The game concluded with another defeat, albeit by a slightly lesser margin, for the Indians. During the post-match conference at Sydney, Kumble paraphrased former Australian cricketer Bill Woodfull, stating, “I think only one team was playing within the spirit of the game.” The comment partly stemmed owing to Australia’s needless aggression on the field, especially reactions over a couple of dubious decisions that had gone their way.

Harbhajan was found guilty and slapped with a three-Test ban for the charge laid; the Indians threatened to go home; Australians were ridiculed in newspapers all over; Harbhajan’s ban was then reduced to a fine of half his match fee, since it was later explained that the spinner had apparently uttered a native expletive that Symonds misconstrued to be offensive. A farcical ending ensued.

The entire episode not just opened a can of worms, but sapped energy of all involved. Cricket Australia, who had earlier assured Ricky Ponting and Symonds that the Indian bowler would be taken to task, trudged back on their stance and proceeded to handle the case with diplomatic lens. Symonds was distraught when Harbhajan was let off rather loosely, and some Australian players vouch to this day that the all-rounder was not quite the same player post that incident, since support seldom arrived from expected quarters when needed most.

Ponting, who was captain at the time, puts the repercussions of such fallout with the head honchos in perspective. In his book, At the Close of Play, he writes, “One of the low points of my cricket career was the time after Sydney when I felt like I was on trial, exhausted, let down.” He also notes how Symonds was taken aback with all that transpired: “I had tried to protect him [Symonds] from most of what was going on in the lead-up to the hearing, but when it was done I reckon it took the wind out of his sails…In a lot of ways Symmo [Symonds] was gone from this moment on and it still makes me angry.”

From that point onward, Australia’s slip for the remainder of the tournament was conspicuous. They were thoroughly outplayed by the Indians in the third Test at Perth and salvaged a draw in the fourth at Adelaide. In the triangular One-Day International series that followed, they lost twice to India in the best-of-three final. It’s hard to miss the shift in momentum the incident triggered since the Australians, especially the captain and his player, felt they were handed a raw deal by the powers that be.

Almost seven years later, in what has turned out to be yet another unforgiving English summer for the Indians on the field, Mahendra Singh Dhoni can perhaps empathize with Ponting. The altercation between Ravindra Jadeja and England’s James Anderson grabbed headlines for majority of the series. It came to the fore between the first and the second Tests — at Trent Bridge and Lord’s respectively. The Indians insisted that Anderson be charged, allegedly for abusing and pushing Jadeja as the two teams walked back to the pavilion between sessions. The English responded by claiming Jadeja was the instigator of the eventual tussle. Anderson admitted to abusing Jadeja, but in the end, both parties were cleared of any wrongdoing.

This didn’t go down well with Dhoni, understandably, for history shows he’s stood by what’s right on the field (Dhoni was the first to admit Shanthakumaran Sreesanth’s antics hurt India more than it did the opposition). From the outset, Dhoni remained firm in his stance that Jadeja was not to be blamed this time. “I did something that was right and I stand for what’s right and what’s wrong. If something wrong is happening, I will go against it irrespective of who is doing it. If one of my players gets fined and if he’s within the boundary lines, I will definitely go and defend him. But if he crosses that line, I won’t come and he will go alone and face the consequences,” he said.

While the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) initially backed Jadeja and Dhoni, snippets in print and digital media, of Narayanaswami Srinivasan — now the chairman of the International Cricket Committee (ICC) — asking Dhoni to refrain from pursuing the matter further, surfaced. It is said that Dhoni, though, refused to back down — the first sign of a crevice in what was until now a visibly cordial relationship between the two. The fact that Anderson was found not guilty must have rattled Dhoni, for he maintained that a line had been crossed by the bowler. He also refused to make any comment following the verdict, but one could sense not all was amicable behind the scenes.

The head honchos in this situation, too, opted to travel down a diplomatic path rather than ensuring justice. Regardless of the rights and wrongs in either Symond’s or Jadeja’s case, the fact that the administrators failed to, or at least attempt to, do what’s necessary, did have an impact on the captain and his team. Could that explain India’s extraordinary slump after the high at Lord’s?

There’s ample evidence to back the claim that not all’s well between the Indian captain and his employers. While the BCCI recently appointed Ravi Shastri as the director of the team, Dhoni unflinchingly asserted in a press-conference that Duncan Fletcher was still the boss, and that the sacking of fielding and bowling coaches Trevor Penney and Joe Dawes was a tad bit harsh. The BCCI was quick to remind Dhoni of his confines.

More discrepencies may surface in the coming days, but it’s possible that a minor incident, during the course of which the players realize the ‘force’ may opt not to be with them, is capable of jolting a team’s confidence.

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