April 2016 could have been the cruellest month for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Critics first whispered, then raised their sibilant slants—Dhoni’s skill was waning, his reflexes were slowing and his ability to surprise the opposition as captain was disappearing. It all came to a head rather dramatically, at a press conference after India narrowly lost to eventual champions West Indies in the T20 World Cup semi-finals, when an Australian journalist flatly asked Dhoni if he was going to retire. Dhoni read the flipper well: “You want me to retire? Do you think I can survive till the [50-over] 2019 World Cup?” The reporter sheepishly said, “You should, yes, sure.” Dhoni’s coup de grace—“Then you have answered the question”—drew no blood, only laughs.
Three years back, Dhoni’s quick-witted repartee effectively conveyed his determination to play in the 2019 World Cup. His message looked to have been aimed at the selectors; ‘I am game for England 2019’, it read. Those eminent gentlemen took note; Dhoni soldiered on, smoothly, stodgily, stumblingly. Last week, he was picked for this year’s World Cup that runs from May 30 to July 14. His experience at this rarefied platform includes the low of a first-round exit in 2007, the respectable semi-final exit in 2015 and the delirious success of 2011, an ascent crowned by Dhoni with a final shot straight out of schoolboys’ dreams.
Sachin Tendulkar and Javed Miandad may have played six World Cups each, but Dhoni, with three WCs, six T20 WCs and four Champions Trophy tournaments, remains the most decorated World Cupper in cricket history. As captain, Dhoni’s achievements are unparalleled too: the three biggest trophies--T20 World Cup 2007, World Cup 2011, and the Champions Trophy 2013.
Dhoni’s cricketing longevity after the World Cup notwithstanding, his place in the annals of cricket is cemented. “His position as one of the best ever white-ball cricketers in the game is assured. He will go down as one of India’s best-ever captains in white-ball cricket as well,” Greg Chappell, a former India coach, tells Outlook from Australia. Chappell’s predecessor John Wright, India’s first foreign coach under whom Dhoni made his ODI and Test debut, is no less generous. “He has been a leader of great distinction. He was tactically intuitive and calm and that appeared to get the best out of players. History will judge him accordingly—as one of the greats,” says Wright.
It is relevant to note that Dhoni’s workload was far more testing and tiring than a Jack Hobbs, Wilfred Rhodes or a Tendulkar—those with the longest careers—as he had to keep wickets, bat, and captain the team for years. In his best years, he performed all three jobs with the highest efficiency possible. As a batsman, after getting his eye in, stealing singles to and fro, he would accelerate—one of the great sights of limited overs cricket. Yorkers were effortlessly converted into half-volleys; bouncers into long hops to be pulled to the boundary, or rolled short of the fielders; short-of-length deliveries would be met with a short skip out of the crease, then whipped away ferociously, without demonstrative backlift, each shot finding the gaps unerringly. In match after match when India chased a target, Dhoni took India home. As a wicketkeeper, Dhoni’s miraculous reflexes easily made him the best in the world when standing up to the wicket, the dreaded flicks to the stumps making suffering batsmen swear never to run to him. As captain, he marshalled his men like an expert conductor, loosening or tightening the strings in response to every contingency, an exemplar of time, space and resource management. In all three roles, his coolness of head amidst the tensest of match situations evoked admiration bordering on disbelief.
Taking into account his supreme abilities, it can be incontrovertibly said that his ‘finishing’ skills have waned—the instinct is there, but the lightning reflexes and hand-eye coordination that lay behind that heavenly timing often deserts the 37-year-old warrior of the greens. His shots more often find fielders, disturbing that exquisite sense of pacing the innings as a target draws near. However, it’s only fair to take note of Dhoni’s recent return to roaring form in the ODI series against Australia. Constrastingly, his skills behind the wicket remain intact—he still is the best wicketkeeper in the country. He has largely divested himself of captaincy (he quit Test cricket in December 2014 and the ODI and T20 captaincy in 2017), though he continues to lead CSK with distinction.
That immortal strike at the 2011 WC final.
Yet, Dhoni’s presence on the field as a senior consultant is priceless, on occasion he looks to perpetually guide Virat Kohli. And such is his stellar record in running the final lap that he still has to live up to a billion Indian dreams. “Till the Dhoni is at the crease, there is hope,” adman Prahlad Kakar, founder, Genesis Films, tells Outlook.
Yet, what goes on in his head, behind that icy poise? No one can tell, for Dhoni remains an enigma. His most trusted friends here in Ranchi, his hometown, are unanimous in that he is unpredictable. When Dhoni quit Tests he stunned all, for he was on the threshold of three milestones—10 matches short of 100 Tests; 124 runs short of 5,000 runs and six short of 300 dismissals. How many cricketers would have quit at the cusp of so many landmarks? Only Dhoni, as unpredictable as weather, can dare. Maybe this is the reason why a recent, tasteless rumour that spread in Ranchi had that Dhoni would retire before the World Cup. Some of Dhoni’s close friends, however, say they wouldn’t be surprised if he goes on to play next year’s T20 World Cup as well.
Former chairmen of selection committees, Kiran More (2004-06) and K.Srikkanth (2008-12), nod in agreement. “He’s a person who springs surprises. This could be his last World Cup. But it’s up to him how long he wants to play,” avers More. Says Srikkanth: “He has his own way of doing things, sometimes; they may not be orthodox methods.”
Dhoni, with 529 international matches under his belt, is the elder statesman in world cricket, perhaps the most experienced player among all competing teams in the WC. As such, Kohli and the selectors need him for onfield guidance, advice and the crucial calming influence. “He is a good listener and never gets hassled. He doesn’t take any pre-emptive decisions and didn’t believe in long team meetings. He takes his own decisions; you cannot influence him. When you come from a small town, you are street-smart,” says Srikkanth.
Dhoni’s cool temperament on his ODI debut against Bangladesh in 2004 made a sudden impact on Wright. “I remember MS as a quiet man who fitted in so easily. He was mature beyond his years….,” the former Kiwi captain tells Outlook from New Zealand.
Three years later, during the World Cup in the West Indies, Chappell predicted national captaincy for Dhoni. “He said that to me during our match against Sri Lanka. It was the first time I had heard anyone talk about Dhoni as a future captain,” discloses then national selector Sanjay Jagdale. Chappell’s words were prophetic; a few months later the Dilip Vengsarkar-headed selection committee appointed Dhoni captain for the 2007 T20 World Cup, after the seniors had opted out. India famously won the title, and thereafter, Dhoni was handed the reins of the other formats as well. He is India’s most successful skipper, in terms of the number of matches won—27 Tests out of 60, 110 ODIs out of 200, and 42 T20s out of 72. The embarrassing lows came in 2011-12, with 0-4 Test series defeats in England and Australia. He is also the most capped captain across formats—Tests, ODIs, and T20s. He has led India in 332 matches, eight more than Ricky Ponting. Under his captaincy, India became world No.1 team in Test cricket for the first time, in December 2009.
“Dhoni’s name will always be on top of the list, along with the likes of Tendulkar, Gavaskar, Kapil…. It will be written in golden words,” says ex-India stumper Kiran More. Chappell, Ben Stokes and many others consider Dhoni as the greatest ever finisher in the 50-over format. “MS is one of the most impressive young cricketers I’ve ever worked with. He read the game better than most and had rare confidence. He has the incomparable ability to conjure a boundary. Once he realised that he didn’t have to hit boundaries only and learned to enjoy hitting the ball on the ground, he became the best finisher that the game has ever seen,” says Chappell.
From left, Sunil Singh, Deval Sahay, former teammates Pushpak Lala, Adil Hussain, Shabbir Hussain.
The ability to overcome adversity showed itself early. After a first-ball duck on ODI debut in Chittagong, Dhoni smashed a 123-ball 148 against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam. Wright was mesmerised. “It was such a brilliant knock that for once it made Viru [Sehwag] look like Geoff Boycott. In the very next game, he batted one down after a big opening partnership between Sachin and Sourav and fed the strike to the in-batsmen by getting short singles. I remember thinking, ‘How smart this kid is!’, he reveals.
Jagdale was a selector between 2000-2008, the period in which Dhoni cemented his place. “He was confident; his body language positive, with good communication skills. He always played for the team; and was never ruffled. He commanded the respect of all the seniors—Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman happily played under him,” he says. Says former pacer R.P. Singh: “His match awareness was great and he know how to cwontrol situations. He always kept his calm.”
The MSD story began in the unassuming Ranchi colony of MECON, a public sector undertaking, where Dhoni’s father worked. He attended the DAV School in Shyamali, which shared the boundary wall with the MECON Stadium. Dhoni’s first love was football, where a dive as goalkeeper caught the eye of Keshab Ranjan Banerjee, the multi-sport coach, and the seeds of a great career were sown. “I saw he had no fear and he was not scared. He has had tough days at the beginning, but didn’t go astray. His simplicity was a big factor in his rise,” Banerjee tells Outlook.
Dhoni’s life-changing turnaround happened in 1997 when, in a repeat Ranchi inter-school tournament final against Kendriya Vidyalaya, Hinoo, a determined Dhoni (213 no) and his captain Shabbir Hussain (146) joined hands to avenge the previous year’s mauling of DAV school in grand style. “Dhoni was not a regular opener; I was. That match was the turning point for us, as we soon joined Central Coalfields Ltd. (CCL) on stipend when were in class XI. CCL was a very strong team, playing for which was a privilege,” says Hussain, Dhoni’s low-profile classmate since standard VIII. “Hussain was a much better batsman, but couldn’t play beyond Ranji Trophy. It’s all destiny,” Banerjee adds wistfully, reflecting on the two careers that went in different directions.
Dhoni at his school.
Dhoni’s double century compelled the CCL selectors, headed by Deval Sahay, to pick him in the Ranchi district team. “His partnership with Shabbir was the turning point of his fledgling career,” points out Sahay, 72.
Dhoni’s childhood friends testify to the calmness and intelligence that would be much admired around the world. “During his rise, he never boasted about his abilities. He lived in the present, but had tremendous confidence,” remembers his ex-Bihar and Jharkhand teammate and batsman Syed Tariqur Rahman. Rahman introduced Dhoni to Delhi cricket. When the first-choice keeper of the NIS Club of New Delhi’s National Stadium was injured, Rahman recommended Dhoni to team coach M.P. Singh. Dhoni then quit Railways and joined Air India in New Delhi where he met Arun Pandey, his present manager.
All of Dhoni’s friends in Ranchi have a story. Paramjit Singh, who owns a sports goods shop, helped him with his first bat contract, with BAS-Vampire of Jalandhar. “When Dhoni started scoring big, I requested owner Somi Kohli to sponsor Dhoni’s kit,” he recalls. Says Kohli: “I initially said no as I hadn’t seen Dhoni play. I’m the happiest person today.” It speaks much about a man when his friends remember him with warmth, like Sanjay Singh and Pushpak Lala, who played alongside Dhoni for CCL. Singh says Dhoni was so good that he got 10 minutes extra during net sessions while Lala recalls how he continued to bat after fracturing his left forearm in a tournament in Odisha.
Soon after Dhoni hammered a 145-ball 183 n.o. against Sri Lanka in Jaipur in 2005, Sunil Singh, a former Jharkhand cricket secretary, accompanied the state Ranji team to Jaipur for a match against Rajasthan. When Singh went to buy medicines, he got a hefty discount when told it was Dhoni’s team. “And Dhoni wasn’t even in that team,” says Singh. It was an early glimmer of superstardom.
Dhoni’s exploits next will be in full view in the World Cup. Will it be the last time? Maybe not. But remember, India’s next ODI/T20 matches—which Dhoni play—are in July-August. For Dhoni, life after retirement, when it inevitably arrives, the possibilities are infinite—coach, commentator, motivational speaker, politics, bike racing. With 50-plus bikes and cars parked in Ranchi, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, he’ll have a helluva ride. Long after he oils his bat for the last time and packs away his ‘coffin’, he will appear to posterity as a legend, casting a huge shadow, a magician who could conjure impossible escapes when all seemed lost. On bad days, all of us will draw heavily on our memories of those exploits.
Carrying His Bat Through
A yearly almanac of M.S. Dhoni’s epoch-making career
1997: In his biggest turning point while at school, Dhoni smashed 213 no in the final of a inter-school tournament. It draws attention to his huge talent.
2004: Dhoni, 23, tallies 362 runs, with two tons and a 50, in seven matches for India ‘A’ in a tournament between Pakistan and Kenya, win India ODI spot.
2005: Becomes first Indian wicketkeeper to hit an ODI century (148), his first, against Pakistan. Smashes 183 n.o. off 145 balls against Sri Lanka, the highest ODI score by a ’keeper. Makes Test debut against Lanka.
2007: Appointed India’s T20 captain, leads team to maiden World T20 title, beating Pakistan in the final. Appointed ODI captain.
2008: Named full-time Test captain, wins the first series 1-0 vs England. CSK grabs ‘icon’ Dhoni for Rs 6 cr. ICC names him ODI Player of the Year.
2009: India becomes No.1 Test for the first time.
2010: Leads India to the Asian Cup triumph and CSK to the Champions League T20 title. ICC names him captain of the World Test XI. Marries friend Sakshi.
2011: Hammers the WC-winning six in final against Sri Lanka; named Man of the Match for his 79-ball 91 not out. The bat fetched him Rs 72 lakh in an auction.
2013: Dhoni plots a 4-0 triumph against Australia at home. Goes past Ganguly’s record 21 wins as captain. Captains India to Champions Trophy title in England.
2014: Surprises all by announcing retirement from Tests. Finishes as most successful captain with 27 wins, top Indian keeper with 294 dismissals.
2015: Leads India into semi-finals of the 50-over World Cup in Australia, wins 100th ODI as captain. Later, leads CSK to their sixth IPL final.
2016: India lose in semi-finals of the World T20 at home. His biopic MS Dhoni: The Untold Story is released in 120 countries.
2017: Quits limited-overs captaincy in January, but continues to be part of ODI and T20 teams.
2018: Becomes only fourth Indian to complete 10,000 ODI runs, in his 300th match.
2019: Is picked for his fourth consecutive 50-over WC (he has played in six T20 WCs, all as captain). Becomes first captain to win 100 IPL matches.