Chennai Super Kings' exit from the Champions Trophy T20 is a third straight reverse for M S Dhoni. For a captain who has had fewer setbacks, compared to his triumphs, it's a bitter pill to swallow, says Bikash Mohapatra.
The thrashing Chennai Super Kings received at the hands of New South Wales Blues on Tuesday, their third defeat in four matches, meant the defending champions were knocked out in the group phase of this edition of the Champions League T20.
More importantly, it marked the third failure in less than three months of their captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
For someone who, not long back, made winning a habit, this early exit comes close on the heels of the whitewash India suffered in the Test series and ODIs that followed in England.
When was the last time Dhoni, the captain, suffered three straight setbacks?
Before you scratch your head pondering an answer, let's clarify that it is a first for him as well. Definitely not something he would like to remember, though.
Dhoni led India to top of Test rankings and a World Cup win
Initially, leading the team in the shorter version of the game only, Dhoni was asked to replace Anil Kumble -- in the third Test against South Africa in Kanpur in April 2008, his first Test in charge.
The astute captain not only led the side to a series-levelling win in the said Test, but also had an unbeaten run that lasted more than three years -- a period in which the side he helmed did not lose a single series. More importantly, Dhoni took Team India to the top spot in the ICC Test rankings (in December 2009).
If his achievements in the game's longer version were commendable, those in the shorter format were equally praiseworthy.
Team India won their first World Cup title in 28 years this April, with Dhoni leading from the front -- scoring a match-winning unbeaten 91 against Sri Lanka in the final and sealing a memorable triumph with a six.
He followed it up by leading the Chennai franchise to their second successive Indian Premier League title in May.
The slide began in West Indies and stretched to England
Then began the slide. Well, literally!
While he skipped the ODI series in the Caribbean, in which a largely second string Indian side, led by Suresh Raina, scraped through to a 3-2 win, he was back in charge in the following Test series. And though India won the three-match series 1-0, even the staunchest of supporters would admit it was a disappointing effort against a team of which only the vestiges remain.
Nonetheless, when the Indian team landed in England in July, they started as the favourites. However, their No1 ranking was at stake and they were playing an opposition that had not been beaten in eight series.
The first Test at Lord's, the 2,000th Test in history, set the tone for the rest of the series and in just over a month Team India had suffered a 4-0 thrashing -- the first time in 11 years, since they were beaten 0-3 Down Under, that they suffered a whitewash.
India lost the No 1 tag after the England whitewash
It was also the first time since 1974 -- since that summer of 42 series -- that England had blanked India.
Moreover, the visitors ceded their top spot to their hosts and dropped to third in the Test rankings.
For Dhoni, his first series loss as a captain took a long time coming. That it would come to such an abject end was also beyond comprehension.
It wasn't just about losing the series. It was about the extent of defeat, the humiliation of having been thrashed in three successive Tests -- the magnitude of defeat getting bigger on each occasion.
While the margin was 196 runs for the opening Test, it grew to 319 runs at Trent Bridge and the final two Tests, at Edgbaston and The Oval, respectively ended in innings defeats.
'I didn't have any tricks left'
Dhoni remained stoic throughout the reverse and was categorical in his summation of the disaster.
His explanation after the defeat at Lord's, 'Most of the things that could have gone wrong went wrong', became applicable for the entire series as his team was bogged by fatigue [blame it on excess cricket], injury worries and the resultant underperformance. Halfway through the series -- with four key players out injured and no chance left of winning -- the captain was honest enough to admit he had run out of ideas and resources.
"I didn't have any tricks left. With whatever resources I had, I tried everything," he said, after the defeat at Trent Bridge. The reverses at Edgbaston and The Oval were more on expected lines.
However, if Dhoni thought a fresh set of players would ensure a reversal of fortunes in the following One-day series, he was in for another disappointment as Team India, despite putting up a better show vis-a-vis the Tests, failed to beat the home side.
Bad run in the CL T20 tournament
Having returned empty-handed from England, there were more surprises, rather shocks, waiting to happen. An unlikely belligerence with the bat, from Lasith Malinga, of all players, consigned holders Chennai Super Kings to defeat against under-strength Mumbai Indians in their Champions League opener.
Though they fought back, by beating Cape Cobras in their second match, a shocking loss to Trinidad and Tobago made things difficult for Dhoni and Co. And Wednesday's setback meant their title defence failed to cross the first hurdle.
For a captain who has had fewer setbacks, compared to his triumphs, a third straight reverse is definitely a bitter pill to swallow. Even worse is his predicament.
With Team India depleted, Dhoni can't think of rest
Despite being overworked and injured -- his fingers are in bad shape -- Dhoni can't contemplate taking some time off the game, as most of his senior colleagues are already out of the side with some injury or the other.
Again, despite having an additional wicketkeeper (playing as a batsman), a role Parthiv Patel played in England and Wridhimann Saha did for CSK, Dhoni couldn't designate his keeping duties to either in a bid to save his fingers -- and if he is to be believed -- because he is a poor fielder in the outfield.
The Indian bowling has reached its nadir and there's little that Dhoni can do about it. The flat wickets in India, conducive to batsmen, have more or less ensured a slow death for a breed called 'bowlers'.
Losing the midas touch of late
His repeated calls for a shorter calendar, with lesser number of matches (and appropriate rest) than the bulk India plays every year, seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
All these factors have affected his on-the-field performances as well, both as a batsman and captain. From being a captain who dared to be different, Dhoni has, in recent times, become a leader averse to taking risks. That probably explains the slump in his fortunes.
Till recently, labelled a lucky captain, Dhoni seems to have lost his Midas touch of late. By saying that, it doesn't mean his time as captain is over. It is only about expressing concern over the plight of a player, and a captain, India can ill-afford to lose.
At the moment, though, there is no reprieve whatsoever for Dhoni. With Team India playing sans interruption in the next few months, the captain has no option but to get himself ready to face more brickbats -- the more likely option considering the fact excess doesn't come minus a price.
For Dhoni's sake, let's hope he has a quick turnaround of fortunes and gets back to winning ways!