Former national selector Saba Karim, who has known Mahendra Singh Dhoni for over 16 years in various capacities, discloses that when the swashbuckling batsman announced his retirement from Test cricket in December 2014, he and his co-selectors were “shocked” to hear the news. And now, the former India Test wicket-keeper guesses that Dhoni wouldn’t have informed the present selectors as well while quitting ODI and T20 captaincy, thus springing another surprise.
Karim, 49, says Dhoni has the leadership qualities and the skills to be a leader, and could head a state cricket body once he fully and finally retires from international cricket. He also lauds Dhoni’s business acumen.
Although Karim has known Dhoni for over 16 years, he got an opportunity to interact with him more closely during his four-year tenure as a senior member of Sandeep Patil’s senior selection committee.
Karim first saw Dhoni in 2000 when the BCCI nominated him as a member of the Bihar selection committee to pick the state’s Ranji Trophy team. Soon, Dhoni announced his arrival on the international firmament when he starred for India ‘A’ in a triangular series in Kenya. Karim, who was present there as a TV commentator, describes that performance as Dhoni’s “greatest moment” as he witnessed the young player’s “true potential”.
“On my return, I told Sourav Ganguly, then India captain, that he should pick him when India was, I guess, supposed to tour Pakistan,” recalls the suave Karim. “But since Sourav had not seen him couldn’t take his name. But it had to happen, and eventually it did happen. The rest is history.”
Excerpts from the interview:
Did you find Dhoni relinquishing India’s ODI and T20 captaincy surprising?
No. It was kind of expected. If we look at Dhoni’s career and his personality, it was on the cards. He realised that Virat Kohli has emerged as a very strong contender for captaincy and he feels it is the right time to hand it over to him. He also realised that the kind of performance he was expecting from himself as well as from his team was not happening. He is mature and experienced enough to understand that players are rallying much better under Virat. I think, maybe the two ODI series at home, against South Africa and New Zealand – against South Africa we lost and against New Zealand we barely scraped through by winning the last ODI – was a very strong reflection about where he stands. His own performance had dipped. So now, I feel, he wants to contribute as a player and he feels he can play with freedom.
When he retired from Test cricket, you were a selector at the time. Were you people surprised?
It was a surprise because we were part of the selection committee. His announcement that he was quitting captaincy as well as retiring from Test cricket came as a big shock and surprise to all of us [national selectors], more so because it was in the middle of a series. It was never discussed after that also. He realised that he wasn’t able to contribute in the longer format. But, yes, it did come as a big surprise to all of us.
Do you feel the selectors might now have given him a hint to abdicate captaincy?
Very difficult to say, but I don’t think so, because MS is his own man and he takes his own decisions. I take a cue from the decision he took to quit Test cricket. We were not in the loop and we have had no discussion with MS about his Test career and all of a sudden this decision came from him. So, this may also have happened in that manner. I don’t think he would have discussed it with the selectors. That’s my personal opinion.
But by making himself available only as a player Dhoni has risked being dropped as well. Would that be prudent on Dhoni’s part?
Why not? That’s perfectly fine. I think MS doesn’t have an iota of selfish streak in his personality. He has been up to all kinds of challenges and he’d like to continue as a player. If he performs he’ll be in the team, if he doesn’t he’ll be treated like any other player. And he’s perfectly fine with that. But I don’t think it’ll come to that. The day he feels he’ll not be able to contribute to the team that’s when he’ll call it a day. He’s not that kind of a person who’ll linger on.
Dhoni will be leaving a huge legacy behind him. Isn’t it?
Oh yeah, in a big way. His biggest ability as a captain was match awareness – what to do in a difficult situation, whom to bring on [as a bowler], the kind of field setting. He had this uncanny ability to understand the batsman at the crease and accordingly figured out the bowlers and the kind of field placements he would have for him. That was a rare gift that he had.
From hitting a 145-ball 183 not out against Sri Lanka in Jaipur in October 2005, Dhoni curbed his natural instincts to suit situations. Do you think he deliberately did it?
He did that to suit the demands and the requirements of the team because No.6 is such a critical positon to come in to bat. So, that’s why he could understand the dynamics of the game very well. He was very aware of the situations and he realised that the goal is for the team to win and that there are so many ways to achieve that. So [he decided] let’s take the path that offered great results by minimising the risks. That’s why he would do so. Yeah, it was a conscious decision on his part and he reworked his game according to that. As and when required he could always play explosive shots but when not required he would rely on the singles and the rotation of the strike, and ran hard to convert the singles into doubles and doubles into threes. That was the kind of player MS was.
Since both of you come from the same state, Bihar, and you’ve seen him closely, did you at any stage realise that apart from captaincy he had the leadership qualities off the field too? Does he have those qualities to lead a cricket body?
Yeah, he has that because he has always commanded respect in the dressing room. Even from a very young age, I remember when I was a selector for Bihar, people would talk about his exploits on the field, his demeanour and calm approach towards life in general. He doesn’t carry any baggage. I’ve yet to come across a person who can be so cool in all kinds of situations across all formats, and I’m not talking only about cricket, but life in general. These are great qualities any corporate house would like to see in its leader, how to deal with difficult situations or challenging environment, how to absorb pressure, how to see to it that a leader guides his comrades in situations. He has God-given talent, gift. I don’t think it comes normally to human beings.
Have you ever seen Dhoni flustered or worried?
No. He remained unfazed even in difficult situations. We were with the team in Australia when we were hammered in the ODI series in January last year. But he would always be very cool and discuss the matter with the resources we had at our disposal and how to make the best use of them. We were under so much of pressure from the media at home but I’ve never seen him worried at all. And he is one player who would always work on his game. He realised in the past season, maybe, that he had to work on his batting a little bit more. So, he made some changes in his attitude and the way he would approach the game. He had a great understanding what was required as an individual and as a team.
How best can Indian cricket use Dhoni when he completely quits the game?
I think he has a great knowledge of the game. Also, one has seen his business expertise he has, very good grasp of the corporate needs, the business needs of the country. So, he’ll be wonderful to head a state cricket body, maybe become a CEO or president and take it forward because he has great vision. He knows what the requirements are of a player to reach the international level. I think it would be prudent of the BCCI to use him in that manner. It’s not only about his game but also his administrative skills. He’s got great leadership skills that everybody knows. In that capacity one can utilise him.