As I type this, MS Dhoni has finished the innings unbeaten on 92 in the second ODI between India and South Africa. He has perhaps spent the last few days shutting himself away from the predictable fan and media backlash following his failure to get his team across the line in the first ODI. Mind you, he is well aware of his responsibilities in the minds of Indian fans, and even more aware of the consequences that arise if he fails. His pragmatic “It’s only a game” approach is invariably a front he must put up in a sentimental and passionate country that has learned to pin its hopes on him. More often that not, this approach – which is the same after a massive victory or a sapping loss – is studied, calm and merits a certain amount of thought. He becomes the silent crusader if the team wins, and the silent over-thinker if the team loses. It’s a cross he has always borne with grace, dignity and utmost respect. 

It is no secret that, after achieving everything there is to achieve as a leader and athlete, after 10 years at the highest of levels, he is now a tired man. He is a spent man. When he crouches behind the stumps, his mind isn’t always on the next trick. At times, he just wants to keep wickets. At times, he just wants to play the game, and play the situation. And often, he just wants to find himself while batting. He is at the twilight of his studded career – one that took a fearless Indian outfit to the top of the world and back down, and back somewhere in the middle. They’ve explored every direction and every spectrum under him, and he’s still there. Along with Sachin Tendulkar, he is also the only Indian cricketer in recent memory that selects himself. Maybe – just maybe – he doesn’t want to be in that position anymore. Maybe he wants to be dropped if he isn’t good enough, and he doesn’t want to be selection-proof. It’s only human to want to be judged, and to want to have someone looking over you and telling you what you’re doing right and wrong. But he must be his own mentor now. This doesn’t reflect so much in his leadership as it does in his batting. His identity and inimitable strengths – that of being a finisher and a no-nonsense competitor, that of being able to treat the game for what it is, that of being able to look past the numbers, balls and wickets – is now fading. As is often the case with great champions, this inevitable decline hurts the team, and its fans, more than other declines.

This sudden loss of adequacy and consistency shows more immediately in context of the team’s roles and strategies. He isn’t quite the wheel of the team anymore, but he is the bolt that binds the body to the wheels. And as he continues to unravel on pitches and grounds, there is no hiding. There is no escape. The sun may be setting, but he will continue to demonstrate the difference between a decline and an all-out breakdown with a fighting innings against the run of form. He will fight time with these glimmers of the past, with flickers of the grit and the gumption that took him to the top. And with Dhoni, it’s impossible to even tell if he’s going away in a blaze of glory or not; his greatest innings and his scrappy struggles almost always look the same, except for a few telling blows. But this isn’t about numbers. It isn’t about his dipping average and win-loss ratio. It’s about the aura he commands when he is in the middle. It’s about the security his presence provides, and the unshakeable belief that anything is possible if he’s around. Now, that belief is reduced to a 50-50 chance of even reaching the final over – which is often his domain, but even then, it’s easy to see that the maturity that got him to make it a bowler-vs-batsman shootout is now letting him down. It was always a fine line, but when finishers stumble, their errors and faults are amplified tenfold – because their mistakes have the direct and most naked impact on the team’s chances. 

It’s also why Michael Bevan’s career finished unceremoniously; his scrappiness and guts were beginning to make him look like a fish thrashing for life out of water. He was still providing the odd flourishes, but he wasn’t winning Australia every game. It’s the price you pay for being great, and for setting a standard high enough. Even above-average performances aren’t good enough after that.

Similarly, not too far away, in another arena – yet in the same era – another athlete is feeling the effects of mortality. Rafael Nadal, all of 29, has been suffering for more than a year now. He is not winning tournaments; he is barely winning matches. He used to win half the matches before stepping onto court, with that spring in his step and adrenaline shooting through his veins. Now, he looks taciturn and more thoughtful. He sounds philosophical, as if he is aware that time is an enemy, and he will try his best to fight it. But the decline has gone beyond numbers. He is no more looked at as a favorite, and his presence in the draw isn’t looked at as an opportunity anymore. Even his opponents who beat him these days aren’t as ecstatic as they used to be. Defeating Nadal now is part of the plan, not the whole plan. 

It is therefore perhaps poetic justice that both Nadal and Dhoni began their pro careers at around the same time in 2005. Their best years coincided with each other, and their dips, as well as their comebacks and boosts have synced. They will never be known for their longevity, and that wasn’t even perhaps how they were built. They were built and blooded to come onto the scene, explode onto it, dominate it, shine brighter than the brightest for the briefest of phases, and then fade away. It is also in their power to pull on and prolong the pain, and prolong this getting-back-to-form phase, and nobody will begrudge them their efforts. But they’ve spent so much of themselves and put so much of their bodies and minds into the sports in shorter bursts, that a mandatory struggle will only weaken their legacies. They’ve always pushed the limits of human endurance in the face of adversity, and yet, their careers will never be remembered for enduring, and slowing down time. They will be remembered as fast-paced athletes who shone, raised standards, defined new levels, and exited; as warriors who were built only to fight a few battles, but dominate them like never before. It was perhaps in their destiny to break barriers, and break them harder than anybody else. In that sense alone, they will always be different from the more decorated players of their times. 

Without Nadal, there wouldn’t have been the Federer we’ve grown to love and admire. Without Dhoni, there wouldn’t have been any context of Indian success and failures.