Indian cricket captains tend to go bald or turn grey prematurely. Perhaps, as one of them said, it is the second most important job in the country. Few, however, took to it with the assurance of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who brings to his job a rare calm. Early in the World Cup it had become clear that India’s progress owed much to the skipper’s vigour and focus.
Dhoni is not a great captain, but he is a significant one. Under him India were the number one Test side for 18 months; he led them to the T20 World Cup, the Champions Trophy and the 50-over World Cup. The record is impressive, and Dhoni is the natural captain of an all-time India XI in ODIs. He walks into the team as one of the greats, with a batting average above 50 and a strike rate hovering around 90.
He brought to the shorter formats a game sense that often deserted him in Test cricket, where he tended to be conservative and sometimes let things drift. Dhoni often carried illogicality to the point of impenetrability. You thought you had him figured out, and then he whipped off the mask to reveal other masks beneath. No one really understood Dhoni, except Dhoni himself. All his success, his confidence, his ability to inspire grew out of this self-knowledge. His decisiveness comes from trusting his instincts, his confidence from an almost childlike certainty that ultimately everything would turn out right.
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 intelligence and dignity, tactical nous and man-management skills. Dhoni learnt the importance of leading by example, 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 thus took to the job with commendable ease. The shorter game afforded him the time and space to take chances that stamped him as a genius when they succeeded and were easily forgotten when they didn’t. His captaincy-by-gamble paid off in the 2007 T20 final, when he asked Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over. Give me a lucky general, Napoleon said, not a tactician. For the most part, India seemed to have a lucky general, not necessarily a tactician.
Dhoni’s workload as an all-rounder and captain in three forms of the game has been the heaviest among players around the world. In ten years, he has played more internationals than players of an earlier generation had done in 20. There was too much pride in the Ranchi-born Dhoni to even contemplate dragging himself through as a passenger in the team he built, so he quit Test cricket. But he had overseen a crucial transition, from Tendulkar to Kohli, Dravid to Rahane and Zaheer to Shami. He was the bridge between generations, a role he understood well and undertook without fuss.
Dhoni’s arrival on the national scene as a small-town boy with big-city dreams had opened the floodgates. Soon the core of the team came from such cricketing backwaters as Jalandhar, Rae Bareli, Palarivattom, Ikhar, Coorg. His interest in the younger players was genuine, his disdain for pomp and hype sincere.
He denied access to the media rather in the manner of Amitabh Bachchan at the height of his fame. The media reacted by substituting speculation for facts, and Dhoni withdrew further into himself. Was he part of the protection around Chennai Super Kings’s Gurunath Meiyappan, repeating the ‘enthusiast’ story that was shown to be fiction by the Supreme Court-appointed committee? Did he spend sleepless nights worrying over the tussle between his roles as captain of India and vice-president of India Cements, who owned the IPL team?
If there was turmoil, he didn’t let on. If there was self-doubt after losing successive series in England and Australia, he didn’t let on. If the pressures of the many roles he played as captain, wicketkeeper and leading batsman got to him, he didn’t let on. The only hint was the greying hair.
(Suresh Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack)