MS Dhoni is there. He is also here. While being at places that are neither here nor there.
We don't even know where he is physically, but he sits in the minds of important people and rest of Indian cricket even as a home international season starts. His absence, and yet his presence, is all the more significant as this season begins with T20Is, a format that will remain India's focus for the next year or so, leading up to the T20 World Cup at the start of the Australian summer next year.
And Dhoni is not here as India begin their planning for the world event. Nor is he retired. Or injured. He is not rested; that happened during the West Indies tour. Nobody dares utter the word "dropped". All we know is, he is not here, and yet he is.
He is on captain Virat Kohli's mind. He often is. He tweeted about him out of the blue two days ago. He is on Indian cricket Twitter's mind: retiring one day because Kohli tweets about him out of the blue, and trending on another as #12yearsofcaptainDhoni. He is on the minds of the selectors, who want to focus on Rishabh Pant as the T20 wicketkeeper, but have to keep fielding questions about Dhoni, who hasn't yet retired or disclosed his plans. Not to the selectors at least.
On the eve of the first T20I against South Africa then, it was natural Kohli would be asked about where Dhoni sits in his mind. Not in the mind of Kohli the person, who is not surprisingly fond of Dhoni, but in the mind of Kohli the captain. This is what Kohli had to say:
"Look experience is always going to matter whether you like it or not. I mean there are a numerous number of times people have given up on sportsmen, and they have proved people wrong, and he has done that many times in his career as well. So one great thing about him is that he thinks for India cricket. And whatever we think, he is on the same page. The alignment is there. The kind of mindset he has had is to groom youngsters and give them opportunities, and he is still the same person."
Make what you will of it. One thing remains, though: that basically he is not here but he is still here.
The late Naz Khialvi had clearly foreseen the circumstances when he wrote, "Ho Bhi Nahi Ho/ Har Jaa Ho/ Tum Ik Gorakh Dhandha Ho [You are not there, you are everywhere, you are an intricate puzzle]."
"It was a lesson for me, that the world doesn't think the same way as I do." Virat Kohli, after his tweet on MS Dhoni
There can be more than one interpretation of this, but the likeliest one is that the team sees there might be a need to move on from Dhoni, but is still not 100% satisfied with the replacement. And that Dhoni knows it. He understands that the replacements be given ample opportunity, will live with it if he is not required, but will be ready if he is. There are about 27 matches before the World Cup so there is time to go back to Dhoni if Pant doesn't convince the team management.
This is not too dissimilar to what happened when Dhoni was left out of the home ODIs against Australia, the last ones India played before the World Cup. Except that right now they have time. Pant has time. Taking both of them to the World Cup can't be ruled out either, depending especially on the performance of other middle-order batsmen. The temptation to use Dhoni's experience still remains. It might be fair to assume his mind is not made up yet, and he has a two bob each way.
As far as the retirement talk goes, Kohli believes it is Dhoni's prerogative, and Dhoni's alone. "When you decide to stop playing is an absolutely individual thing, and no one else should have an opinion on it, that's what I think," Kohli said. "As long as he is available and continues to play, he is going to be very very valuable."
And, he said, he has learnt his lesson after his tweet the other day assumed monstrous proportions. It was a photo from their World T20 win against Australia in Mohali in 2016, when he and Dhoni had a match-winning partnership. Indian cricket Twitter went into meltdown thinking Kohli knew something about an announcement around the corner. "It was a lesson for me," Kohli said. "That the world doesn't think the same way as I do."
It is a game Kohli is fond of. It is a man he is fond of. The meltdown must be a reminder to him how much what he thinks about Dhoni matters to Indian cricket right now. If Dhoni doesn't make the decision himself, it is Kohli who will be instrumental to the call on whether Dhoni is still there or not. For now, though, Dhoni is still there even though he isn't.