There is an advert seen on Indian television these days that has celebrities of varying significance egging on the Indian team in the World Cup. The Hindi tagline at the end says, "Team aise nahin jeet ti, jitaana padtaa hai." Translated that means, "The team doesn't win just like that, you've got to make it win." It is meant for India's fans - as if they needed to be told to put the weight of their will behind MS Dhoni's squad. Should Dhoni turn his attention away from his favourite off-field pastime of video-gaming and watch the advert, it might sound like an instruction directed at him as well.
Dhoni has spent a relatively unharried four years in charge of India, or at least he has been careful to ensure it looks that way. More than his brand-building, cringe-making Captain Cool persona, Dhoni's tenure as skipper has been secure, rival-proof, and therefore wrinkle-free. Now, suddenly, over the course of a few weeks of the World Cup, creases are beginning to show both in the Indian team and its captain. India's World Cup is still alive, but already gloomy calculations are being made as to how their place in the quarter-finals is actually not secure. For the first time since his oxygen-depleting ascent, neither is Dhoni's as captain. On Sunday against West Indies in Chennai, he will be watched closer than he has been in a long time.
As startling as Dhoni's message may have been to his batsmen who played "for the crowd" on Saturday, it has not surprised them. Nor has it sent them, the India faithful will be relieved to hear, into despair or doubt. It is what Dhoni's modus operandi has always been: to speak directly, briefly and non-confrontationally to players; let them know what he believes needs to be done. In media briefings he does most of the same, but can frequently be snippy. Always, though, he will laboriously explain why he changed the batting or bowling order, chose to bat or chase, and then offer philosophical observations about hybrid fuel and life jackets.