There are various theories of captaincy and, over the decades, there has been a decent accumulation of essays, chapters, and books on the subject. It is arguable but a case can be made out for treating Test, ODI and T20 captaincy as quite different categories, requiring different skill sets, capabilities, temperaments and leadership qualities. In any case, that’s how choosing captains for the different formats of the contemporary game has tended.
We do know that Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India’s most successful captain across formats, used to consume sports magazines before he switched over to magazines on motorbikes and cars. It is unlikely that somewhere along the way he read any of the edifying literature on the subject of captaincy. Yet he is, by common consent, the best captain in this World Cup. Ian Chappell, an outspoken critic of Dhoni’s recent Test captaincy, has waxed lyrical about the way his “calm as light air”, aggressive and inspirational leadership and purposeful batting in the Cup have transformed “a bunch of straggling individuals” into “an aggressive and consistent combination” capable of scaling the heights (www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/845223.html).
In remarks made ahead of India’s semi-final against Australia, Michael Vaughan went so far as to opine that independent of playing conditions, talent, skill and Australia’s home turf advantage, the contest would be a “50-50 call” turning on one factor—Dhoni’s outstanding captaincy and sense of occasion (www.espncricinfo.com/icc-cricket-world-cup-2015/content/story/854607.html). Geoff Boycott’s opinion is well known: “You are damn lucky you’ve got M.S. Dhoni.”
Before we come to the question of what makes Dhoni an extraordinary ODI captain, let us indulge in a bit of counterfactual history—an interesting, if contentious pursuit, which attempts to answer ‘what if’ or counterfactual questions—but with a twist. It is understood among practitioners that counterfactuals must be limited to actions or courses actually considered at the time. But let us depart from this rule and use some sporting licence for the sake of comparing captaincy skills and the difference it can make to outcomes.
In the first semi-final, South Africa, the superior side led by the supremely talented A.B. de Villiers, failed by a heartbeat to make history. Let us leave aside the team’s inexplicable fielding blunders—the lollypop catch muffed in the confusion of the Duminy-Behardien collision, and the two relatively easy run-out misses, one by the team’s best fielder, the captain—and also the virtual certainty that had the game gone the distance to 50 overs and not been restricted to 43 by the rain, aided and abetted by Duckworth-Lewis, the Proteas would have won. Let us speculate, on the basis of what we know of Dhoni’s approach to captaincy, on what he might have done against New Zealand had he been in AB’s boots.
First, he might have tried a slow bowler against McCullum, because it was no secret what the New Zealand captain’s approach would be. Dhoni would not have stuck to AB’s formulaic approach of persisting with pace for the first five overs. He might have visualised J.P. Duminy from round the wicket as a good option. (If India had been playing NZ, Dhoni might have bowled Jadeja against McCullum; it would depend on the situation, but in Tuesday’s situation, we can surmise that he probably would have.)
Secondly, not bowling Imran Tahir after that first maiden over when another couple of wickets would have turned the game proved a costly mistake. Martin Guptill was struggling and Ross Taylor was let off the hook by not bowling the leg spinner. Dhoni would not have let them off the spin hook.
Thirdly, Dhoni almost certainly would not have bowled Steyn in the last over. Steyn may be the world’s best red ball bowler but struggles in ODI and T20 games; interestingly, Mitchell Starc is the opposite, outstanding with the white ball but not yet with the red. In fact, we saw the Steyn of the IPL end-overs in the WC semi-final, and the problem seemed to be the combination of his bowling style and the lengths he bowls. Had AB had the presence of mind or the experience to be able to set aside the formula, it might have become clear to him that Morne Morkel, the better bowler on the day, with his awkward bounce, was the man for the occasion.
This is hindsight, of course, but undoubtedly Dhoni would have read the situation unerringly—through close observation from behind the stumps and also through instinct, backed by the experience of leading India in 177 ODIs, with a win percentage of 60, including 11 straight World Cup wins.
And finally, Dhoni would have been disappointed with the outcome—but he would not have been devastated, as AB visibly was after the lost semi-final. Whatever be the Indian captain’s weaknesses, the “calm as light air” style, marked by equanimity as much as by an aggressive pragmatism, is the man. Dhoni has claimed more than once that winning or losing does not really matter to him as long as it is clear that the team, and all the individuals in it, have “given their 100 per cent”. He is something of a natural philosopher of cricket and the claim has a ring of truth to it.
In Tiger’s Tale (Stanley Paul, 1969), the autobiography ‘as told to’ Kenneth Wheeler, M.A.K. Pataudi offers a useful typology of international cricket captains. He distinguishes two major types, those who lead from the front, by “the sheer force of their performance”—Bradman, Sobers and Benaud—and those who “had to push from behind”—Brearley, Illingworth, “myself to an extent, who were not the best players in their sides”.
How does Dhoni fit into this typology?
He has made a mark in Test cricket as wicketkeeper-batsman and as captain, but with his batting average of 38.09 in 90 Tests and his reasonably competent but inconsistent wicket-keeping, he would not claim to be among the best Test players. However, it has been completely different in ODIs. Here, his batting average of 52.38 and 329 wicket-keeping dismissals over 261 matches, his reputation as the shorter game’s best finisher and his outstanding captaincy record place him right at the top, just behind Sachin Tendulkar. In fact, a poll of 50 cricketers and writers conducted recently by The Cricket Monthly to identify ‘The Greatest ODI Player’ ranked Dhoni the fifth greatest after Vivian Richards, Tendulkar, Wasim Akram and Adam Gilchrist, in that order (www.thecricketmonthly.com/story/846325/still-the-king).
Dhoni’s mastery of the ODI game, as wicket-keeper-batsman and as captain, rests on some self-taught principles: keeping things simple, avoiding extreme reactions in triumph as well as in defeat, learning by doing, trusting players, giving them an extended chance to prove themselves and treating them as adults, encouraging them to enjoy each other’s successes, and valuing, above all, sincerity and commitment. “I believe in giving more than 100 per cent on the field,” he told an interviewer soon after becoming captain in the shorter formats, “and I don’t really worry about the result if there’s great commitment on the field. That’s victory for me” (www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/343750.html.).
In the one-day game, Dhoni’s physical strength, athleticism, stamina and batting prowess, which have enabled him to be consistent and change gears effortlessly, and his tireless wicket-keeping have meant he leads from the front. The career-long habit of closely observing what goes on from behind the stumps and coming up with bold and innovative ideas has given his leadership a sharp edge. Greg Chappell, as coach, was perhaps the first to appreciate Dhoni’s observational acumen and spot his leadership potential. How Dhoni has gone about acquiring knowledge and experience of cricket makes him unique, sui generis: “I’m not really a keen watcher of cricket.... I don’t study cricket too much.... My video analyst supplies all the facts to me...but everything changes, you know...statistics, I know nothing [about].... Whatever I have learned or experienced is through cricket I’ve played on the field, and whatever little I have watched.”
Dhoni’s natural aggressiveness as a cricketer has combined with a self-taught equanimity to help keep things in balance and in perspective. Cricket has brought him fame and enormous riches but he has made it clear that it is not his life. It is a good bet that, although he is fit enough to lead India in ODIs up to the 2019 World Cup, he will retire from the international game once this World Cup is done, whatever be the outcome. Dhoni is also the kind of man who, post-retirement, might have nothing to do with the game and will do something totally different. Virat Kohli, a wonderful cricketer, is the anointed successor, but although he is the best player, the critical question is whether he can fill the big man’s shoes with anything like comparable success.
(N. Ram is chairman and publisher of The Hindu group of publications. He has played first class cricket for Madras.)