It might seem strange timing to bring up Mahendra Singh Dhoni. But given the heart attack his ardent fans seem to be going through every other week over speculation about his retirement, it’s time to ask: what really is Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s status vis-à-vis the Indian cricket team?

The one man who doesn’t seem overtly perturbed by Dhoni’s prolonged absence is the man who has been publicly vilified for being overly dependent on the former captain for advice on the field. Virat Kohli knows first hand the scathing indictment that Dhoni’s fans can inflict at the slightest statement alluding to Dhoni in the past tense.

Yet the current Indian captain is tightlipped every time the question of Dhoni’s return to the Indian cricket team is raised. Claiming to not be in the know is how Kohli deftly bats away the queries. But there must a plan in Kohli’s mind for a time when Dhoni will no longer take the field.

Those who think the whole scandal surrounding Dhoni’s continued stay away from the Indian team is just a hullabaloo, might actually be right. After all, why talk about a player who neither he himself nor the team’s thinktank ever talk about in the team’s future plans?

Although close knit groups circulated the idea that Dhoni is very much in the running for the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in Australia next year, thus far, every opinion in the public has suggested that the contrary may be true. Yet selectors and Board of Control for Cricket in India officials continue to be cryptic when asked about Dhoni’s availability.

The latest word is that “Dhoni is unavailable for the West Indies series.” One would normally overlook it in light of the fact that India have had an overcrowded international cricket schedule, and the player himself was much in need of a break.

However, in what is becoming the new normal for the man, Dhoni has been absent from the scene ever since the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 concluded in England mid July. He neither toured the West Indies nor featured in the home series against Bangladesh.

The whole befuddling scenario around Dhoni is not necessarily about him per se, but rather about the precedent it sets for the future of the sport, particularly in the Indian context where cricketers are the highest paid sportsmen and are treated like film stars and celebrities in their own right.

Contrary to the Indian coach’s tart insinuations about criticism of Dhoni, or his somewhat bewildering comment that “half the guys commenting on MS Dhoni can’t even tie their shoelaces”, the demigod business in Indian cricket runs contrary to the professional ethics of the sport.

Ravi Shastri’s own words are a perfect example. “Why are people in a hurry to see him off? Maybe they don’t find enough talking points. He and everybody who knows him know he’ll be going away soon.”

Shastri might be mindful of the fact that during another rough patch in Dhoni’s career, it was thought that then chief selector Mohinder Amarnath lost his job after he openly opposed Dhoni’s continuing as Test captain following the back to back 4-0 series drubbing in England and Australia in 2011. N.Srinivasan, owner of the Chennai Super Kings captained by Dhoni, was BCCI president at the time.

After making the case for Dhoni to be left alone, Shastri then contradicted himself. “I made it clear that Twenty20 selections won’t be based on reputations. We’ll be looking at it very differently. The path to finding the combinations is already on. But make no mistake, Twenty20 will be seen from a fresh perspective and a horses-for-courses policy will be followed.”

Now, Tom Brady is over forty years old and has enough trophies with the New England Patriots. But he is back in training by default of his being an active player. Experience alone in Dhoni’s case, or his age barrier glass ceiling collapse, cannot exonerate him from the fact that centrally contracted players are generally expected to train and turn up for the team.

If the same yardstick of merit and performance-based measurement were to be applied to all players, then by virtue of his protracted absence Dhoni virtually disqualifies himself from the process of selection.

Even a versatile batsman like Dhoni may find his reflexes slowing down, not to mention his ability to read the game. There were some surreptitious remarks from within India’s own cricket circles, including from former off spinner Harbhajan Singh, about Dhoni being able to play his vintage game for the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League, but curiously not so for the Indian cricket team.

Those comments were accentuated after Dhoni did not have a great run in the ICC Cricket World Cup, was dropped down the batting order in the crucial semifinal against New Zealand, and proved slow to push the agenda in that ill-fated match, which saw India crashing out of the tournament.

Since his retirement from Test cricket midway through the tour of Australia in 2014, Dhoni has had the opportunity and yet has played very little international cricket. If he is indeed in the plans for the Twenty20 World Cup at his own behest, or at the direction of the team or the board, it follows that Dhoni should be playing every match possible in the buildup to the ICC’s flagship event, whose inaugural edition India won in 2007 under his captaincy, cementing his leadership and value.

Given the maverick fashion in which Dhoni’s men won that tournament, openly throwing down the gauntlet to Ravi Shastri who had questioned the team as commentator at the time, surely he owes Kohli the same clarity. After all, Dhoni was not intent on hogging the limelight, not when he retired suddenly and not even when under his leadership, India lifted the World Cup in 2011, for only the second time in the team’s history.

Given how uncharacteristic the present scenario is, with Dhoni’s break being explained away as due to his serving in the army and therefore, national duty and above debate, there is actually strong speculation that Dhoni’s status is in limbo from two perspectives.

From the team’s standpoint, the team and Dhoni will only call curtains on his international career once they are satisfied that they have found a suitable replacement. With Rishabh Pant’s difficult initiation following in the footsteps of the dynamic wicketkeeper-batsman and captain, there may be a case for India wanting to pull out their stock weapon if the hour demands it.

From Dhoni’s own perspective, and this is purely speculative but strongly based on the modern cricketer’s commitment not only to the team but to his commercial interests, there may be an interest in keeping himself on the central contract for the Indian cricket team while he is still playing for the Chennai Super Kings, so as to tie his identity to national as well as club duties as part of his sponsorship deals, which amount to hundreds of crores of rupees.

This second scenario cannot entirely be ruled out. And it adds to the idea of demigod status when he is accorded that final agreement in lieu of his services to the team over the years.

While Dhoni’s contributions to Indian cricket are parallel to none, given the context of a team sport, it would be unprofessional and unethical for a player with a central contract and in the top tier to be allowed to pick and choose when he makes himself available.

For a player of such calibre and experience to be paid but not played is criminal, and it is equally sinful that a contracted cricketer, no matter how decorated, is not asked to show up in the dressing room and be a part of the squad. Young players like Pant can only benefit from a transfer of firsthand knowledge, which is an invaluable part of the transition/succession planning process, or should be.

The Indian selectors have often been caught on the wrong foot trying to either explain their decisions or justify in hindsight the embarrassment of riches that the Indian dressing room and think tank have displayed by outrightly ignoring the selectors’ choices.

There was speculation ahead of Sourav Ganguly’s appointment to the top post of the BCCI that there could be a potential for a tit for tat vis-à-vis Dhoni, given how Dhoni had made the unceremonious exit of more than one senior player from the Indian team one of the first tasks on his agenda upon assuming the leadership mantle.

But Ganguly refused to be drawn into the drama upon taking office, feigning ignorance and deferring to fan sentiment.

“I don’t know what’s in his mind. India is very proud of MS Dhoni. Till I am around, everybody will be respected. You know champions don’t finish quickly.”

Then he went on to to remind people that he himself felt that he had a couple of good cricketing years still left in him when he was forced to retire.

But Ganguly’s words counter MSK Prasad’s bold statement while announcing the Indian squad ahead of the Bangladesh series:

“We are moving on, we are very clear,” Prasad stated. “Post World Cup, we have been clear. We started backing Rishabh Pant and wanted to see him do well. He may not have had the best of matches but we are clear, we are focusing on him only.”

But the selectors have fallen flat on their face so many times in the past couple of years, that it would come as no surprise if Prasad has to eat his words and walk back on those plans to move on.

These contrarian views are dividing the sport and dangerously setting an unwanted precedent, not to mention an unappetising side dish of chatter. That’s precisely why there should be clarity on Dhoni’s plans, and where he fits in the larger scheme of things, in the interest of Indian cricket.