The last five overs of Australia’s innings in the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup—a match now perched high in the regret and infamy embodying all our missed chances—was as good a marker defining Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s personality as any. After seeing his bowlers restrict the hosts for much of the first half, Dhoni watched them come apart at the death. But unlike his Bangladeshi counterpart, who broke into expletives as his bowlers imploded, ‘Mahi’ with cool, almost zen-like poise, accepted it as part of a pressure match and moved on. Before long, he was in the middle with a bat, shepherding the batsmen around in a usual, uphill hike towards a towering target.
If Dhoni were a painter, he would be a minimalist. Minimal lines and gestures, bold, primary colours. But as the curtain falls on the captain who did all in the maximum—taking India (nearly) to two consecutive WC finals, winning the T20 World Cup, making India (briefly) the No. 1 Test team, and repeatedly bailing it out through those helicopter sixes—former English captain Michael Vaughan asked a question many were loath to ask: was it because of the man from Ranchi that India reached the last four?
Make no mistake, after a disastrous tour Down Under during which Dhoni announced his retirement, no one gave Team India a chance. The rules were different. The team was different. The bowlers were rookies. There was a brouhaha about his IPL team CSK and matchfixing. His benefactor N. Srinivasan was no longer BCCI chief. For India to reach the semis, and how, in the midst of all this personal and emotional turmoil was no mean stroke. Mahi, take a bow.
“In Tests, Dhoni hasn’t bowlers who’d bowl 25 overs and force results. But he could have easily played for a year more.”
Dilip Vengsarkar, Former cricketer, selector
What is it that makes Dhoni and his inspired team extricate themselves from the pits to outshine the best? What lies beneath his celebrated ‘cool’ demeanour? How does one unpack his composure, his game, his hairstyle, his disarming speech, his aloofnesss, his love for bikes, his being a Jharkhandi, his being the best finisher, his easy approach to losses in Tests, his riches, his value at player auction? Dilip Vengsarkar, former captain and selector says, “He is a very good captain, the best finisher I’ve seen in ODIs and T20s. Although other things than cricket take time and energy these days, he has not allowed his focus to shift.” Cricket expert Ayaz Memon adds, “Undoubtedly, he has a terrific body of work, especially in limited overs cricket—from the T20 World Cup, Champions Trophy, IPL and the 2011 World Cup.”
Statistics is a foreign country, it often doesn’t reflect onfield verities, but Dhoni is an honoured citizen. After captaining 177 ODIs, Dhoni’s record is better than Ganguly’s or Azharuddin’s. “He had that captaincy material in him from the start. With experience one matures and he has. If you looked at him as cool before, he is supercool now,” says Lalchand Rajput, former player and manager of the 2007 T20 world champion team. But more than the stats, it’s his unflappable persona that’s the talk of cricket town. Says Vikas Kohli, Virat Kohli’s brother: “I can’t comment on the technical aspects, but I’ve known Dhoni for long and think he’s a very competent captain and a grounded person. He has a way with fellow players, getting everybody on board and placing youngsters in a comfortable zone.... He’s also a good human being.”
“No one expected someone from Jharkhand to bind the team so well. Dhoni’s upbringing and broad sympathy have helped.”
E.A.S. Prasanna, Former Test cricketer
His way with people is a vital part of his leadership qualities, says Santosh Desai. “The team he inherited was fabulously experienced. But if you see from a leadership challenge, a rookie comes from Ranchi, not Karnataka or Mumbai. He had to juggle superstars. He has encouraged the organic, natural ability of players. And his relaxed ways mean seniors weren’t threatened, while the young were comfortable. He is unmistakably his own man.” Adds Malayalam actor and cricket fan Prithviraj: “The most important thing that Dhoni has done for Indian cricket is to take the dream outside of big cities. Any under-15 player practising in, say, Warangal, can believe that if he plays well he can make a career in cricket.”
Was he always like this? Those who knew him from his under-19 days do recall his composure. “I played with him in under-16, under-19, East Zone, Duleep trophy,” says former Bengal fast bowler Ranadeb Bose. “He takes every ball, and every match, as it comes. He is never too happy or too sad.” Says former cricketer and commentator Joydeep Mukherjee, who has seen both Dhoni and Ganguly closely: “As a player he was always good. Never knew of his captaincy skills but he thought out of the box”. According to Test legend E.A.S. Prasanna, it is his background that makes him so special. “Pataudi and Ganguly were truly great leaders, but in the recent past Dhoni has come up as a different sort. No one expected that someone from Jharkhand, with least exposure to international cricket, will be able to bind the team, but his upbringing and his broad sympathy for people must have helped. He has inculcated discipline in the present team and shown how important commitment is for success,” says Prasanna.
Cricketing stalwarts with oversized egos might have proved a challenge, but they provided the steel to a team that was groomed by Ganguly. Anyway, it gave Dhoni a terrific advantage. That’s one reason why his unbeaten run till the semis of this World Cup with a rookie team is so significant. “Ganguly’s biggest contribution was his ambition to win. It effected a change in the mindset. He groomed many players like Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Sehwag, Zaheer. Even Dhoni made his debut under Sourav,” says Ayaz Memon. Vengsarkar says past captains and selectors play an important role—right from the under-19 stage—and “it shows in the performance”.
“I call him a yogi in pyjamas. He has commercial interests, but it doesn’t seem glamour and money have gone to his head.”
Santosh Desai, Social commentator
Dhoni’s success and the apparent smoothness with which he achieved it all is enviable. But it has not been a dream run. Scratch the surface and there is plenty of turmoil that the man has weathered and is still dealing with. The Indian team’s terrible recent performances at overseas Test matches and the ever-tightening grip of the IPL controversy have time and again threatened to obscure Dhoni’s outstanding limited overs record. As Prasanna points out: “In the five-day game he is a little wanting and is not a creative captain. Nobody in the team has the potential to create a fearsome bowling attack and it is a defensive show. It is absolutely necessary to have two spinners bowling in tandem.” Vengsarkar says a captain is as good or as bad as the team. “Unfortunately, Dhoni has not done well in Tests because he hasn’t got bowlers to bowl 25 overs a day with the same intensity. I am a bit disappointed with his Test retirement. He could have easily played for a year more.”
Then there has been the never-ending IPL saga where N. Srinivasan, his son-in-law Meiyappan and Dhoni all stand accused of conflict of interest vis-a-vis their dual roles. However, Dhoni stood apart from the controversy, not commenting or reacting to the press, but not withdrawing from any of his roles or stopping his commercial commitments. “I call him a yogi in pyjamas. He has an eerie sense of calm. Even the CSK troubles, he doesn’t seem to care...he stands apart. He has strong commercial interests, but it still doesn’t seem that glamour and money have gone to his head...one may have that feeling about Kohli or Yuvraj, but not about Dhoni,” says Desai.
So, where does Dhoni go from here, now that he is probably not going to win us another ODI World Cup? Will he slowly fade away from the one-day format too, playing only the twenty-over version? The IPL is hardly the arena to showcase all the talent ODI’s greatest ‘finisher’ possesses. The IPL, moreover, is where the ongoing Mudgal Committee investigations might cross Dhoni’s path again and complicate matters for him.
Is it the end of the Dhoni era? During the futile chase at the semi-final, he was so quick between the wickets that it seems he has out-run even the inexorable march of Father Time. It was ten long years ago that Dhoni made his debut in world cricket. He can chase down more targets yet.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai with Priyadarshini Sen