HE WAS already Captain Cool, but this was taking cool too far. Even those long won over by Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s charm and energy cursed silently as he delayed Sachin Tendulkar’s double century in Gwalior. Dhoni, 35 when Sachin got to 199, played the next 10 deliveries, hitting 25 runs as a nation held its collective breath. With three balls left Sachin finally got the strike, and made it count.
At the end of it, Dhoni had the look of a man who had had his cake and eaten it too. He had taken India past 400, and ensured that Tendulkar got 200. So what was the fuss all about? He was merely being Dhoni and captain of India, both of which came naturally to him.
Captain Cool is also Captain Ruthless, Captain Pragmatic, Captain A-historical, Captain No-Nonsense. Dhoni is unburdened by history, his mind uncluttered by might-have-beens. He is simple without being simplistic, straightforward without being naive, and above all knows his own mind with an intimacy denied to most. His decisiveness comes from trusting his instincts, his confidence from an almost childlike certainty that ultimately everything will turn out right.
When he set an 8-1 field against Australia in a Nagpur Test, he kept the scoring down to 42 runs in the morning session. He is not chasing some unattainable romantic ideal, but something more tangible — victory every time he leads his team out. His batting, all power and timing, is no aesthetic delight; yet he is the top one-day player, and can switch from attack to defence depending on whether there is a Test match to be won or saved.
How did this amazing talent from Ranchi, the backwaters of cricket, emerge as a major all rounder and the most respected captain in the game today?
The story of India’s captaincy reflects the story of the rise of different layers of society, with cricket often anticipating that change. There is thus a historical inevitability about Dhoni’s elevation. It is the story of small town India grabbing chances denied for a number of reasons from the need for the rulers to maintain exclusivity to a lack of infrastructure to diffidence brought on by years of being outside the charmed circle. The progression from royalty to the middle classes to the also-rans appears ordained when viewed from this side of evolution.
IN THE beginning was the Maharajah. Or the Nawab. It was the Maharajah of Porbander who led the first Indian team to England in 1932 (by the time it came to the one-off Test, he had earned a reputation as the captain who had more Rolls Royces than runs, and the team was led by CK Nayudu). The Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram was India’s second captain, Nawab Iftikhar Ali of Pataudi the third.
FASTEST CENTURY SCORED BY AN INDIAN WICKETKEEPER, VERSUS PAKISTAN IN FAISALABAD, JANUARY 2006
DISMISSALS BY DHONI IS THE THIRD HIGHEST AMONG INDIAN WICKETKEEPERS, TOPPING NAYAN MONGIA (107) AND FAROKH ENGINEER (82)
THE RECORD FOR MOST CATCHES BY AN INDIAN PLAYER IN A SINGLE INNINGS, AGAINST NEW ZEALAND IN WELLINGTON, APRIL 2009
Then came those in the service of the Maharajahs — Lala Amarnath (Patiala) and Vijay Hazare (Baroda) — as India gained Independence and a measure of self-confidence. This was followed by a period of churning as captains came and went with distressing regularity, but the future was already present in the form of GS Ramchand (Air India) and Nari Contractor (State Bank of India and Tatas).
Tiger Pataudi brought stability to the job nearly three decades after that firstever Test, as the Indian captain reverted to type, emerging from the Maharajah- Nawab group. But this was royalty that knew the game and played it better than most commoners.
Dhoni realised early on he was a star: ‘The cameras used to pass me by, now they are stopping for me’
With the arrival of Ajit Wadekar at the helm, the middle class revolution was on its way — the next 13 captains were (generally) educated, salaried men reflecting the rise of the middle classes in the country as a whole. Mohammed Azharuddin straddled the decade of liberalisation which put more money into more pockets, and led India to 14 Test wins, mostly at home. The Ganguly-Dravid-Kumble generation that followed saw captains who had choices beyond cricket either on account of wealth or education.
And then came Dhoni.
By then, politically and economically the India of the cities had begun to integrate with the Bharat of the small towns. Television had fired the imagination of a generation that saw Kapil Dev lift the World Cup at Lord’s in 1983. The cricket board’s decision to spread the game beyond the cities saw a bunch of talented if improperly coached youngsters come through the system, their ambitions no longer unrealistic.
There was hunger for success. The small town boy’s willingness to work hard overlapped with the soft city boy’s approach fuelled by wider choices and easily attained success at lower levels.
It was Indian cricket’s biggest change in the new millennium. Non-traditional centres like Bharuch (Munaf Patel), Aligarh (Piyush Chawla), Jalandhar (Harbhajan Singh), Palarivattom (Sreeshanth), Quilon (Tinu Yohanan), Rae Bareli (RP Singh), Khorda (Pragyan Ojha), Coorg (Robin Uthappa) began producing international cricketers. And from Ranchi, there emerged a boy who gave up goalkeeping to take up wicketkeeping, and displayed an uncomplicated approach to the game that marked him out as an India player while still at the under-19 stage.
DISMISSALS IN AN ODI, A WORLD RECORD FOR WICKETKEEPERS, SHARED WITH GILCHRIST
MSD’S AVERAGE RUN RATE. THE ONLY BATSMAN IN ODI HISTORY (AMONG HITTERS WITH A MINIMUM OF 1,000 RUNS) TO HIT THIS MARK
RUNS OFF 145 BALLS, AGAINST SRI LANKA — THE HIGHEST SCORE IN THE SECOND INNINGS AND BY A WICKETKEEPER, BREAKING ADAM GILCHRIST’S RECORD OF 172
Societal changes might explain the emergence of Dhoni — but it doesn’t explain his success as captain or indeed his acceptance by the seniors in the team. He was eight years old when Tendulkar made his debut, yet within months of Dhoni’s leadership the senior man was saying, “I am extremely happy and delighted at the way Dhoni has conducted himself. He is a balanced guy with a sharp brain. His approach is clear and uncomplicated.”
VVS Laxman thought Dhoni was “one of the best captains” he had played under, “someone who is calm and composed and exudes confidence. It is a great feeling to play under him.”
For so many years has the Indian captain functioned in a snake pit, unsure which of his colleagues will bite him next, that this easy acceptance itself is a major change. Dhoni’s predecessor Anil Kumble knows why this is so. “The current crop of senior players has no destructive ego,” he says. “The team is all.” Kumble, who began his career when the reverse was the case, sees this as crucial, along with Dhoni’s calm approach, ability to be firm, and importantly, “change his game in the team interest once he had a bunch of flamboyant batsmen around him.
The role played by Dhoni’s captains in his own development is vital. Under Rahul Dravid he played 19 Tests, and under Kumble 13. These two Karnataka men brought to the job a rare intelligence and dignity, tactical nous and man-management skills. Dhoni learnt the importance of leading by example, of putting the team first and of being — this sounds almost old-fashioned now — an ambassador of his country and a spokesman for the game. Despite not having led at any level before he captained India, Dhoni took to the job with commendable ease thanks to this early training. And his own well-honed gift for the right gesture.
You only have to imagine Vizzy carrying CK Nayudu on his shoulders around a cricket stadium or Ajit Wadekar carrying Tiger Pataudi or Sunil Gavaskar carrying Bishan Bedi to realise what an incredible sight it was to see Dhoni, the captain-designate giving a lift to Kumble, the man he took over from in the latter’s farewell Test. If no man is a hero to his valet, no Indian captain has been a hero to his successor. Dhoni’s respect for his seniors — allowing Sourav Ganguly to lead as his final Test drew to a close — and his habit of handing over a stump or souvenir from a winning match to the player who most made it possible reveal aspects of a natural leader.
Ganguly, India’s most experienced and most successful Test captain (49 matches, 21 wins), led a second wave of the selfrespect movement (Pataudi led the first), pumping his team with his own brand of confidence. Dhoni appears to be a natural successor to the Kolkata man; he is a diplomatic Ganguly without the former captain’s bouts of irrationality.
Dhoni-mania reached its peak after the Twenty20 World Cup triumph, where his decision to bowl Joginder Sharma in the last over against Pakistan in the final was sheer inspiration. Like Ganguly, Dhoni put his faith in youngsters, throwing them into tense situations to separate the men from the boys or to watch the boys grow into men. As Ganguly said, “He has that extra bit of luck you need.”
When Dhoni instructed debutant Amit Mishra to bowl the last over of the second day of the Mohali Test against Australia from round the wicket, he dismissed Michael Clarke. At the press conference, while other captains might have been flicking an imaginary speck of dust from their collars or trying unsuccessfully to look modest, Dhoni confessed: “Fluke thaa, yaar (It was a fluke).” Self-deprecation is a quality few Indian captains possessed. After losing the one-dayer at Kingston, he said, “We didn’t judge the wicket well.” Indian captains were not known to be secure enough to admit making mistakes either.
YET, YOU can’t be permanently lucky or rely on flukes all the time. Dhoni’s intuition has seldom let him down, whether in opening the batting with Yusuf Pathan in the Twenty20 final or the bowling with Praveen Kumar in the one-day final in Australia.
MSD handles the media with aplomb: ‘please stop running to interview my parents every time i make 40 runs’
His players look up to him. “I want a team,” he had once said, “that can stand before a truck.” Dhoni’s take on the captain is unique: “He is basically a selfish guy,” he has said, “who picks guys to do his job for him.” Dhoni picks correctly.
Like Steve Waugh, Dhoni is conscious of the team doing things together. “To be captain on and off the field,” he says, “you need to totally enjoy each other’s company.” Thus, after a Test match in Hamilton finished a day early, he took his team for a break to Auckland where they rested, and then arrived in Napier just 18 hours before the toss. Sometimes bonding is more important than nets.
Dhoni attracts stories around him the way a carelessly thrown piece of chocolate attracts ants. Anyone who hits the ball as hard and as consistently as he does was bound to have old friends, new acquaintances and some who belonged to neither category, all recalling stories about him or making them up. Dhoni himself has traced the story of his consuming four litres of milk every day to the former player and commentator Ravi Shastri. He says he drinks only one or two litres, and somehow that got exaggerated.
That is the story of Dhoni in a nutshell — everything gets exaggerated. In his first season in international cricket, he emerged as a somewhat larger-than-life figure that batted with rare freedom. Spectators have a special way of welcoming their favourite strikers. A Kapil Dev or a Virender Sehwag always got a reception that was different from the one that would greet a Ganguly or a Dravid. It is cricket’s version of the front-benchers welcoming favourite Bollywood actors; despite their records, Ganguly and Dravid are intellectual favourites whose game will be dissected and analysed. Dhoni bids to join the former group.
The stories piled up quickly. He enjoys fast bikes, listens to Kishore Kumar, occasionally wears long hair sometimes streaked, thinks nothing of jumping into a helicopter hired at almost one lakh rupees an hour to dry a cricket pitch. He also loves animals, especially dogs. He has so much energy it is a shame he cannot bowl and keep wickets at the same time.
When he was first elevated to the number one position he was rather more controlled in his reaction than his fans or the media. The former celebrated enthusiastically, while the latter gave it saturation coverage, interviewing anyone who had the slightest acquaintance with the star. Relatives, friends, colleagues were constantly on television, repeating the same stories over and over again.
Dhoni stole the show in the media frenzy by making two statements. He said that he was aware these were temporary things, that No. 1 did not mean anything unless his performances came in team victories. Secondly, he requested the media to “please stop running to interview my parents every time I make 40 runs”. The first indicated maturity, the second irritation well handled with humour.
Payers from non-traditional centres work hard to get ahead, and are not likely to chuck it away in a hurry. This makes for both focus and a healthy disrespect for meaningless orthodoxy. The rustic hitters tend to emerge from centres where the straight bat and high elbow are theoretically possible, but where the good, oldfashioned heave is the more popular. Dhoni’s is not an unthinking heave, but it is unique in that it combines confidence and physical strength in about equal measure. Timing is of the essence, and Dhoni’s timing is impeccable.
HIGHEST MARGIN OF RUNS IN AN INDIAN TEST VICTORY, AGAINST AUSTRALIA IN OCTOBER 2008
RUNS SCORED BY INDIA, LEADING TO A 5-RUN VICTORY AGAINST PAKISTAN TO LIFT THE FIRST T20 WORLD CUP
WINS IN 12 TEST MATCHES
PLAYERS FROM the backwaters of cricket also carry little baggage — Sehwag was to say after nearly breaking the world record for the first wicket partnership in Test cricket that he had not heard of either Vinoo Mankad or Pankaj Roy, the record-holders; Dhoni by his own confession grew up not knowing who Viv Richards was, although he later claimed the West Indian as a hero. Just as unsurprisingly, Adam Gilchrist is a hero, not so much for his adventurous batting as for his habit of walking when he knows he is out.
But Dhoni knew who Tendulkar was, and that was inspiration enough. His dream was to win matches for India like his hero, and when he hit a stunning 148 against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam, lofting the bowlers into the crowd and running desperate singles in between, he captured a nation’s imagination.
Less than half a year later, he topped that with an incredible 183 not out against Sri Lanka, finishing off the game with his tenth six. It was the highest score in one-day cricket by a wicket keeper, and only 11 short of Saeed Anwar’s then record individual score. “It was a privilege to watch an innings like that,” said skipper Dravid who compared it to Tendulkar’s ‘Desert Storm’ innings of 143 against Australia in Sharjah. Dhoni kept wickets for 50 overs and batted for 46 in a performance that was as much about head and heart as it was about physical endurance.
Few batsmen have made it to the Test team by way of good performances in one-day cricket. The reverse is the more popular route, with established Test batsmen being picked to play the shorter game based on their sound approach. But after his stirring batting in the shorter game, it would have been foolish to keep Dhoni out of Test cricket. The selectors realised this, and brought in Dhoni to replace Dinesh Karthik, for no fault of the latter’s. Karthik’s only sin was that he was not Dhoni.
THEN THE debate began. Would Dhoni carry over his unique style into Test cricket? Was it even possible? India did not have to wait long for an answer. At Faisalabad in Pakistan, he began by hooking fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar for six, and got to his 50 in 34 balls. His century took all of 93.
The improvements in his wicketkeeping almost kept pace with the strides he was making as a batsman. After an unimpressive show behind the stumps when he started out, he has developed into a sound keeper, stumping down the leg side with élan and catching thick edges quietly and efficiently in sharp contrast to the noise and theatricality of his work in front of the stumps.
Former India wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani said he lacked “copybook basics” and that he did not have “the natural instincts of an athlete”. He was critical too of Dhoni standing on his heels to receive the ball rather than on his toes. But somehow, it all worked for Dhoni. What might look inadequate in another player became the Dhoni style, whether it was his corkscrew on-drive or flat-batted cover drive.
Dhoni realised early that he was an emerging star. “The cameras used to pass me by,” he said in some wonder then, “Now they are stopping for me.”
Dhoni spoke his mind with all the force of the innocent. It got him an audience. And he seldom said anything out of place.
Part of Dhoni’s maturity arises from the fact that he is not an overnight sensation. He served his apprenticeship well, having made his first class debut four years before his international debut. In 2004, his century helped East Zone win the Deodhar Trophy one-day tournament. Then he made two centuries for India A against Pakistan A in Nairobi, and worked his way into the national consciousness.
The poet TS Eliot had warned writers that of the two ways of achieving renown — gradually through years of work and abruptly with a sensational bestseller — it was better to get their gradually. It was more lasting. This holds good for sportsmen too, and especially in India, cricketers. Dhoni has been able to combine the gradual achievement and the overnight fame. His apprenticeship meant that when he hit the big time and things happened very quickly, he was ready for it.
The rise of skipper Dhoni was inevitable. Bharat came into its own under him. As did India. Dhoni’s elevation might presage the emergence of a Prime Minister from a similar background, although in politics it is not region so much as religion that is the handicap. Perhaps India is getting ready to welcome its first Christian or Dalit or Muslim Prime Minister.
After all, it was only after South India’s first long-serving captain Azharuddin led the country that the first Prime Minister from that part of the country, Narasimha Rao, took office. In India, cricket can be both the symbol of progress and progress itself. If you want to understand India’s politics, you should study its cricket first.
It is unlikely that Dhoni is conscious of all this. He merely makes history, leaving its interpretation to others.