13 long years ago, as a long-haired lad stepped out onto the crease to mark his debut in the cricket field for India, very few would have predicted the meteoric rise, the phenomenon, the sensation that he would change into. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, or MSD as the crores of fans fondly call him, has travelled a really long way between then and today. Right from start, the word most commonly used in his context was, and still is, “unconventional”. Starting with his appearance, with the long flowing locks, and his very non-textbook style of wielding his bat, to the most outrageous of shots, the “helicopters”, and later on as he was made captain, when he made decisions which surprised everyone but him – MS Dhoni has forever been associated with the word.
An intensely private person, Dhoni is known to open up only in the company of his close friends and associates. A man of simple taste and an unshakable belief in his own ability, Dhoni has always relied on his instincts while making decisions, both on and off the field. And, by his own admission, he, and his team, have gained much by keeping things simple in the mind. His flamboyance is founded, almost ironically, on an inexplicably cool and calculated head, which only makes him a legend all the more.
Beginning as a wicket-keeper, slowly making his mark on batting, he was already one of India’s best wicket-keeper-batsmen, by the time he was 26 – two years of experience in the international circuit was all he had by then. Will the 148 against Pakistan at Visakhapattnam, and 183* against Sri Lanka just six months later at Jaipur, ever be forgotten? Plenty of other match-winning knocks too, as he slowly eclipsed his compatriots Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik in the wk-b department.
However, soon afterwards, Dhoni copped a lot of the blame for India’s dismal performance at the 50-over World Cup in the West Indies in 2007, where they were defeated by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which paved the way for a premature exit. Dhoni was out for a duck in both matches. After the match against a mob of angry fans tore down the walls of his new house, which was under construction in his home town of Ranchi. “It seems Dhoni is banking more on modelling than wicket-keeping and batting,” I remember reading the words of one of the protesters, on the newspapers the next day. But within a year, Dhoni would be captain of both India’s ODI and T20 sides. He finally relinquished both jobs last December, after a decade-long glorious service.
More than those epochal victories and the numbers he etched – leading India in a record 199 ODIs (winning 110 and losing 74) and piloting the squad in 72 Twenty20 Internationals (41, 28) – what remains is the self-belief and confidence that he inculcated into the Men in Blue. Until his leadership acumen came into display, Indians were resigned to get nostalgic only about the 1983 World Cup win engineered by Kapil Dev’s men. Now we have 2007 and 2011 also in our list of limited-overs’ peaks, and can only imagine India’s defeat in a game of cricket, or watch with shock, on the rare occasions that it actually happens.
Dhoni was chosen to captain India only because three senior players – Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly – all decided that they didn’t want to play at the first World T20 in 2007. India, and the BCCI, were also against the idea of a shorter format in cricket – not a fact that many remember nowadays, while India continue to be a superpower in Twenty-20. India agreed to the 2007 tournament only with the caveat that they wouldn’t have to participate in it, and were only persuaded to take part when the ICC’s president, Ehsan Mani, threatened to nix their bid for the 2011 ODI World Cup. So in the end they sent Dhoni and a second XI. We all remember the first instance where Dhoni’s captaincy stood out – the first Indian fixture in the World T20 against Pakistan. The Group-A match ended in a tie and went into a bowl-out. Each team had to pick five bowlers to try to hit the stumps. Pakistan naturally plumped for the five men who had bowled in the Indian innings. But Dhoni picked Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina and Robin Uthappa, though they not had bowled in the actual match, instead of Sreesanth, Irfan Pathan and Ajit Agarkar. Dhoni’s focus was just on the fact that the slow bowlers had a better chance to hit the stumps, compared to the quickies. Sehwag and Uthappa both hit the stumps. Yasir Arafat and Umar Gul missed. India won.
The provincial T20 tournament organized by the BCCI earlier in 2007 had not even been televised. But the World T20 final between India and Pakistan was seen by around 40 million people worldwide and was one of the 10 most-watched sports events of 2007.
It came down to the last over. Pakistan needed 13 off it, had one wicket left, and Misbah-ul-Haq was on strike, 37 not out off 35 balls. Dhoni could have orchestrated his attack so that Harbhajan Singh delivered that last over, or Yusuf or Irfan Pathan. Irfan Pathan eventually became the Man-Of-The-Match for a sensational outing with the ball. But still, he left it to Joginder Sharma, a man who had bowled all of 39 overs in his international career, and who would never play another game for India.
There was a lovely anecdote in a recent piece of work I read online, which has Dhoni telling Sharma: “You have bowled so many overs in domestic cricket with so much dedication, when no one is watching. Don’t worry, cricket won’t let you down now.” It didn’t. Misbah was caught at short fine leg, as tournament underdogs India uprooted giants like South Africa, Australia and Pakistan – twice, to clinch it’s first international cricket title since 1983 – and also thereby washing off all the pain from the 2007 ODI World Cup Group Stage exit.
Between 2007 and 2011, Dhoni became the mastermind of so many memorable Indian victories – both home and away, as India peaked in rankings and topped Test, ODI and T20 Charts for the first time ever. In 2010-11, India clinched its maiden test-championship by remaining table-toppers for an entire cricketing season, once again, under the captaincy of MS Dhoni. The 2008 CB Series, the first ever victory of a test Series on South African and WestIndian soils.. there is much more to add into this list. And as we move on, we reach what’s probably the pinnacle of MS Dhoni’s career – the ODI World Cup in 2011.
As India sailed smoothly trough the tournament, except a tie against England and a loss against South Africa, Dhoni was mostly far away from the core of the team that was responsible for the victories. Being one of the hosts, India was already in too much pressure, not to mention India’s impeccable record at home – if in 2007 they were underdogs, they were the favourites to win, in 2011.
MS Dhoni was starting to receive flak from all around – runs were not coming from his bat as it used to, his decisions were not proving effective, and India nearly broke into a terrible sweat in the quarter-finals against Australia. Had it not been for Yuvi and Raina, India’s hopes would have been dashed then and there. But then came the semifinals – an all-important game against, guess who, Pakistan. As India made short work of the Pak bowlers and managed a respectable 260+, all focus went on what Dhoni would do with his bowlers on a dew-infested outfield at Mohali. Dhoni did not have to use a single part-timer as he won the game for India with all 10 Pak wickets shared equally between India’s five strike bowlers. His work with Indian bowling was appreciated. As it turned out, India was to play another host, Sri Lanka, in the finals.
And we all know how that game turned out. Sri Lanka posting a good target of 274 courtesy a wonderful ton by Jayawardene – statistics were turning in Sri Lanka’s favour. Only once before in all other World Cup Finals had a chasing team won the game. Nothing greater than 190 was chased down in World Cup finals until then. Matters only became worse, as Tendulkar and Sehwag succumbed to the pace and swing of Malinga, as India looked to crumble down at 18/2. An amazing knock by Gambhir on one side, and talented very-young Virat Kohli took India too around a 100, when Virat decided to play straight into the hands of TM Dilshan. At three down, it is time for the man-in-form Yuvraj to go up. One wrong move and everything could crumble to dust. But there came the surprise, as MS Dhoni decides to promote himself up the order and go down to play. For someone who managed just 34 in five or six innings until then in the World Cup, this was probably game-set-match for Sri Lanka. But, the “Captain Cool” always had other plans. In another couple of others, India lost only one more wicket as “Dhoni finishes it with style with a magnificent strike into the crowd” – commentator and former Indian cricketer Ravi Shastri’s words of meticulous perfection, as India lifted the World Cup after 28 long years. And at the middle of it all was the man himself, MS Dhoni – nothing short of “scintillating” to describe that 74-ball 91, and that unforgettable six that finally brought the World Cup home.
Post 2011, came a host of yet another amazing series of victories – the 2013 Champions Trophy, where again it was all about the man’s decisions that helped India defend a very paltry score of 125 in the match that was reduced to 20-overs a side due to rain. There was also an Asia Cup, runners-up position in the 2014 T20 World Cup, and the semi-final spot in the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 World T20. And who will ever forget that last over against Bangladesh where he again does his magic, entrusting the ball on to young Hardik Pandya, as India climb up from a “certainly lost” position to the most astounding victory in the most nerve-wracking finish ever.
Dhoni seemed, for a time, to have solved limited-overs cricket. Altogether, India won 151 limited-overs internationals under his captaincy. In a quarter of them, he was batting, unbeaten, at the end of the match. Which brings me to the second-most highlighted part of his career – his being the one-and-only “finisher”. The man really had a penchant for finishing matches – yet another glorious example just to show how well he thrives under pressure.
As I mentioned once or twice earlier on, Dhoni was primarily a wicket-keeper. And that must not be neglected at all. Currently, Dhoni has effected the most dismissals across all international formats. Very often that not, we see some superhuman effort of his behind the stumps – a hawk vision observing the trajectory of the ball, and he has already released his hands to gather it, and “pluck” knocks off the bails, all in a matter of milliseconds as the batsman starts contemplating to put his feet back on the crease, milliseconds later after he had left it. Blind run-outs, accurate DRS reviews, lengthy dives to complete a catch – we have seen it all.
But Dhoni did not only influence innings, games and series, but also the course of the entire sport as such. The legacy Dhoni bequeaths successor Virat Kohli is a team secure in its skin, certain it can win from any position. There was no better captain in the game’s shorter forms than Dhoni during his time. He is the only skipper to have won all three major trophies — the World Cup, the World Twenty20 and the Champions Trophy. Michael Clarke and Brendon McCullum had greater attacking verve. They were certainly superior Test captains. But in the art of managing a finite innings, reading a contest’s rhythm and its tactical contours, Dhoni had no equal. He had an intuitive feel for what could happen and the ability to get the best out of his resources, however bare. His greatest strength was his nerve. Where others tried to finish things quickly to pre-empt panicking, he took games deep. He raised the stakes, knowing he would not blink before his opponent. Remarkably, he managed to transmit this sense of composure to his team. He asked his bowlers to relax and stick to the plan; the responsibility of the result was his to bear. Few cricketers have stayed in the present as successfully as he has.
Along with mentioning all these, it is only fair to point out how the luster is reportedly being lost from Dhoni these days. In the game last week against a very-struggling Windies, Dhoni was seen huffing and puffing his way to a 54 off 114 balls, 70 of those being unscored deliveries. The batsman with a quite a few inhuman sixes up his kitty could produce nothing more than a solitary four. India ended up losing the match, not having been able to chase 191, falling out eventually by 11 runs. We also saw a very emotional MS Dhoni at the end of the game, probably because the entire defeat weighed on him. We had only seen one other previous occasion of a one-such MS Dhoni – post the defeat aginst Australia in the 2015 World Cup semis. Australia went on to clinch the coveted trophy. We did see a strong MS Dhoni just a couple of days earlier against the same opponents in the same venue, and I don’t think I am wrong when I point out that these lows are part and parcel of the game for every cricketer, and unless this happens way more frequently in the impending future, it is nothing to be worried about – at least not as much as how Indian cricket fans were seen raising a hue-and-cry over Dhoni’s performance. It is also to be noted, very importantly, that, at 36, Dhoni’s moving into the autumn of his career, and he should be given the space and respect he deserves.
Yet another of his qualities to be highlighted – not really spoken of, compared to the others, but still – his mettle with words. Just a pinch or a dash, or the best of lengthy explanations – he knows where to use what, and boy, does he do so well. I bet you can all recollect with a chuckle how Dhoni tonked a reporter’s question on his speculated retirement, out of the park, during the 2015 World Cup. He invited the guy who sit next to him at the press conference, and made him eat his own words. Typical Dhoni. If you are seriously in the need for motivation, or when feeling low, I really recommend that you log in to YouTube, and search for videos on “Dhoni ThugLife”. Grab yourself some popcorn, as you watch more and more of the innumerable ThugLife moments provided by the man before, after or in-between games. You just can’t ignore it.
Starting as a youngster in the team dominated by legends like Sachin, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag and Tendulkar, and slowly transforming into one of them, to now being the team’s senior-most, with young lads like Rahane, Bumrah and Hardik blossoming under those might wings, Dhoni’s career is now in an almost full-circle. He now has the added stardust of having a 100-Cr movie to his name as well – the 2016 Hindi Movie “MS Dhoni: The untold story” gave us more than a peak into Dhoni’s struggles from his early childhood, to the tough paths he had to brave through to finally get his Indian debut, to his first hundred – and the slow but steady path which finally reaches its apex at the 2011 World Cup final. Though not in the point-of-view of a movie review, the movie depicted his life and times so effectively.
As he slowly but surely walks into the sunset, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, is making sure that unlike the first part of his career, his last few steps are well-rehearsed and well-timed. That Dhoni will no longer lead India on a cricket field is hard to fathom, for, irrespective of whether he was donning Test match whites’ or limited-overs blues’, Dhoni was, and will always, remain a warrior. The fearlessness with which he approached battles made him a natural leader. Coupled with his unpredictability. The one and the only thing for sure right now, is that he is not done yet. He certainly will easily go on for longer. The good news is just that and Virat Kohli can surely lean on him for leadership inputs – which is, in fact, a most common sight these days. Dhoni has become so synonymous to effective DRS appeals that it’s a much celebrated joke where DRS stands for “Dhoni’s Review System”. Such is the power and vision of the man, and we don’t really mind Virat Kohli running up to him for quick consultations – rather, we are too happy that we get to play with two captains!
In the future, another BCCI press-release might break the news about his retirement as a limited-overs player. Like all great things, it is only a matter of time until the Dhoni-era comes to an end too. Until then it is time to celebrate a truly unique cricketer. And as the saying goes – a legend never retires, the memories remain.
Happy birthday, champion!
A few photos that give glimpses into that illustrious career of MS Dhoni(click for captions):