In England, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has always been an enigma. Some believe he is a sphinx without a riddle—a quiet but imposing figure whose lack of histrionics confirms a lack of depth. My own view is more nuanced. It’s true he often seemed bored by Test cricket, yet in the white-ball formats he remains as razor-sharp as anyone.
His batting, of course, is enough to make other nations jealous, especially in limited-overs games. If there is an image that indelibly sums up his career, it is the six off Nuwan Kulasekara that delivered the World Cup into India’s hands in Mumbai in 2011. On nights like that, cricket seemed to exist purely so that Dhoni could finish things off in one towering blow. The game seemed subservient to his party piece. Other players could only look on in envy.
Some of the magic may have deserted him, and he will turn 38 the day after India’s final group game at this year’s World Cup. But his arrival at the crease still brings with it an energy that remains unusual in cricket. What if this is the moment, we all wonder every time he strolls out, when MS rekindles old flames?
Partly, this is because he is—despite the unkind sphinx theory—a thinking cricketer, though of a curious kind. In Test cricket, he occasionally appeared to drift off in the field. His keeping would remain as immaculate as ever, and it’s possible that there has never been a better gloveman standing up to the stumps. But whole sessions would go by without India laying a punch on their opponents. This didn’t seem to bother Dhoni.
Don’t misunderstand me. As Test captain, he won more games—27—than any Indian. He sits squarely on the pantheon. But how many more matches would they have won under his leadership had he consistently applied his white-ball sharpness to the Test arena? Two series form the basis for the prosecution: a pair of 0-4 defeats in 2011, first in England, then in Australia. In these, Dhoni seemed powerless to intervene, and not always interested in doing so. It was symbolic that he was forced to sit out the last of the eight games, at Adelaide, because he had allowed his side’s over-rate to grind to a halt.
As a one-day and Twenty20 leader, by contrast, he could never be accused of stasis. In this respect, his batting figures tell their own tale. By the end of the Australia series in February, Dhoni had racked up a tireless 10,500 runs at an average of 50—evidence of his fitness in a young man’s game. And 82 of his 289 innings had been unbeaten: more often than not, Dhoni has been in the thick of things, ensuring that India have enough runs when they are batting first, or enough nous when they are batting second.
We should be honest here: it is probable that he isn’t quite the finisher he once was. In a deciding one-day international against England at Lord’s last year, Dhoni was booed by Indian fans after apparently deciding the run-chase was impossible. I know England supporters at that game who are still angry that he gave up.
Then again, it seems futile to write him off. Against Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, he produced successive scores of 51, 55*, 87*, 48*, 1 and 59*—it was quintessential Dhoni, full of half-centuries and red ink. He may lack some of the raw power of old, but he retains his ability to be at the heart of the action.
These days, England have a leader who seems cut from a similar cloth: Eoin Morgan hardly betrays his emotions, is rarely less than ice-cool, and has an eye for innovation. He is respected by his team-mates and likes to maintain high standards. But until Morgan came along, the English regarded Dhoni with an admiration that bordered on jealousy.
And the fire still burns. On the first day of the 2019 IPL, Dhoni was, as usual, pulling the strings in the field as the Chennai Super Kings spinners strangled the life out of Virat Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore. It was a rout, yet Dhoni still made clear—in his UNObtrusive way—that he was displeased with a piece of fielding by Harbhajan Singh, who allowed Parthiv Patel to come back for a second. No matter that RCB would soon be bowled out for 70: Dhoni disliked what he perceived to be idleness.
When England fans consider Dhoni, they see an endlessly fascinating contradiction—a man who led India’s Test side to the top of the rankings and the depths of embarrassing defeats, and who still cares enough about the stolen second run in a one-sided IPL game. Never change, MS. Never change.
(Lawrence Booth is the editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack)