A year ago, when MS Dhoni turned 30, things were different. He had captained India to their first World Cup win in 28 years, led Chennai Super Kings to their second straight IPL title, and India were the No. 1 Test team in the world. Dhoni was in the West Indies when his birthday rolled around, during the third Test against the hosts, with most people's thoughts on the important tour of England to follow. It's unlikely Dhoni could have envisioned what would pan out.
A winless tour of England, most damningly a 4-0 rout in the Tests that saw India lose the No. 1 ranking. Dhoni at a loss for ideas, marshalling a crocked team through a slew of defeats while struggling to score runs. Facile wins at home over England in ODIs and West Indies in a full series – including Dhoni's first Test hundred in two and a half years – acted merely as a screen. In Australia, India were hammered 4-0 to take their overseas losing streak to eight consecutive Tests. Then they sleepwalked through the CB Series, and failed to make the final of the Asia Cup.
Throughout India's rise to the top of the ICC's Test rankings and their subsequent time at the top – 18-odd months – the image of their captain Dhoni coolly marshalling his troops and nonchalantly addressing post-match ceremonies and press conferences with a confident smile on his face became a trademark. Captain Cool, he was called. For what seemed like years, Dhoni could do no wrong. He would make a bowling change and more often than not it would work. He got the best out of players like Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan. He led former captains in Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly while handling egos in the dressing room. He presided over a rare Test series win in New Zealand, a first drawn series in South Africa and hasn't lost a series at home.
But the aura that Dhoni had built up over three years has started to unravel. He cannot be blamed for India's failing in Australia and in England, but his failure to inspire, his repeatedly defensive captaincy and his lack of runs (220 in four Tests against England and 102 in six innings in Australia) have been factors in their downfall. In limited-overs cricket, he has been a more successful batsman, but the fact that the BCCI's selectors have put in a plan for the future with Gambhir and Virat Kohli marked out as the future leaders, indicates there could be wariness over Dhoni's leadership.
Did this affect Dhoni? Well, he's greyed rapidly between 30 and 31. He's spoken of the possibility of quitting Tests in a couple years. He's had team-mates question his tactics. There are strong indications of a rift in the team, with Dhoni vs Gambhir and Dhoni vs Sehwag seen as the major areas of conflict.
Yet, off the field, the last one year has been massively rewarding for Dhoni. Forbes magazine has ranked him as the highest-paid athlete in India from June 2011 to June 2012, raking in an estimated US $26.5 million, of which $23 million was earned from endorsements and $3.5 million from salary and prize money. That's more than Sachin Tendulkar, Usain Bolt, Novak Djokovic and Wayne Rooney. Dhoni might not be so miffed with the Indian team's performances over the past year if he's getting paid that much money.
So you decide – has it really been a bad last year for Dhoni?