“If Dhoni plays till the end, one thing is for sure…he will make his team win” — Harsha Bhogle
More often than not we get a rags-to-riches story in cricket. Or as Drake would say “Started from the bottom, now we’re here”. It’s a beautiful sport considering the fact that you can indulge yourself by simply tying the ball to a string and mastering your stroke play. Every street in India has seen a glimmer of hope in the form of neighbour’s broken windows. Cricket is bigger than a religion in India as we have more often than not found our idols on a 22-yard pitch. And then there are exceptional few who get the chance to represent the dreams and hopes of all. With the country of 1.3 billion people, there are always a few stories which stand heads and shoulders above else and find its way to the centre of every drawing room discussion. For all the millennials out there, the legend of Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been written in the stone or rather etched in our memories for generations to come.
Everyone will pretty much have the same memory of Dhoni’s early beginnings. Long hair, unconventional batting style and the zeal to dismiss every ball into the crowd. It’s hard to imagine him in any other sport, but he was particularly fond of football in his growing years. With the limited interactions of a goalkeeper with the football, cricket seemed a better option for the young MS. To top all of that, you even get to bat and score runs. Dhoni’s emergence on the national scene happened at a time when Indian wicketkeepers were as inconsistent as a politician with his promise. If nothing worked, Dravid was the go-to man for every scenario, be it keeping or captaincy.
India has always boasted of great batsmen and decent enough bowlers. But wicketkeeping standards had been sub-par. Let’s look at some other teams: Gilchrist, Sangakkara, Boucher, McCullum. You not only had a reliable batsman but a safe pair of hands behind the wicket. It seems easy on the television but you need reflexes like a cat to not allow any delivery past you. At a time when the players looked up to the Fab 5 for technique and footwork, you had a flashy unorthodox batsman who knew better than to hit a ball with a straight bat. The Helicopter shot, Natraj shot. Yeah, you didn’t like the footwork but guess what, it worked for him. I still remember people switching off their TV set after Sachin’s dismissal in the 2003 World Cup final. No one knew that this long-haired bloke would strengthen the spine of this team by making sure it doesn’t get to the mercy of the bowlers to save the day.
As a young player representing the country, sometimes adrenaline takes control leading to rash decisions. Yet Dhoni could live up to the expectations. His explosive 148 against Pakistan and destructive 183 against Sri Lanka was assuring to the selectors that maybe they would not have to worry about the keeper any more for a few years. If his bat didn’t speak, he was quick between the wickets to turn a single into double. The runs kept coming either way. Dhoni became world no.1 batsman after a string of consistent performances, being the quickest to reach there. Although the reign was short-lived, it was good to see anyone else apart from Sachin and Dravid claiming the honours those days.
Dhoni was different behind the stumps too. Nothing of the likes of what the world had come to expect from Indian keepers so far. He was a pretty quick and innovative keeper. You had to be sure of staying in the crease with Dhoni behind the stumps. Because if you dare to step out and miss a ball, you need not turn back. Just keep walking back straight to the pavilion. Even his stumping replay seemed faster than Kamran Akmal’s reflexes. I know, not a gold standard for comparison.
Indian team never felt like a complete squad in an ICC event. We always depended more on the batsmen than the bowlers to win us matches. We weren’t athletic when it came to fielding. I feel we mentally surrendered most of the times if we had to defend a low total or chase a big score. It takes years to build squads which shine on the biggest stages. It’s a meticulous preparation to win the World Cup and ICC events. We came close in 2003 but lost to one of the greatest ODI teams of all time. There’s no shame in losing to the best. But the 2007 World Cup was a debacle like none. The team was surrounded by all the negative attention from the dressing room controversies. We weren’t used to exiting the competition at the group stage. Cricket might be a gentleman’s game but the hooliganism isn’t far behind in case of disappointments. Pelting stones, burning the effigies, a criminal might seem more innocent at that time in a fan’s eyes. A dismal performance by MS Dhoni in the tournament. This heartbreak made him realise that it’s okay to defend a ball rather than slog it over the fielder.
“If 15 runs are needed off the last over, pressure is on the bowler and not on MS Dhoni” -Ian Bishop
The redemption for Dhoni came in the form of the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007. Dhoni was asked to lead a young Indian team void of its biggest superstars. Yet sometimes you outperform when it’s least expected. There were so many memorable moments: bowl-out victory against Pakistan, Yuvraj’s 6 sixes against Broad, Sreesanth going nuts against Australia. You couldn’t bully this team anymore. If you trash-talked them, they replied on the pitch with more than a verbal send-off. Still, it would be the ingenuity of one MS Dhoni to make such decisions in the clutch moments which propelled his stardom as a captain. Joginder Sharma bowling the last over of the tournament. People called it lucky, but remember, fortune favours the brave. Sreesanth took that catch and this Indian squad became the first world T20 champions to everyone’s surprise. Dhoni passed his test and was soon appointed the captain of the one-day squad.
For the old school people here, there used to be an Aussie who struck more fear than Ponting, Gilchrist or McGrath. His name was Micheal Bevan. He wasn’t someone who would start the onslaught but he sure piled up the misery for many teams. It was always expected for the top and middle order to bring the team home till the time Bevan told them “hold my beer”. He had a better average than most of the top-order batsmen for some reason. Dhoni realised his importance to the team and in turn, became the Bevan team India needed. You could rely on MS to hold the other end and finish the match for the team.
2007–11 saw team India not just put memorable individual performances but collectively dominate the world cricket. 2007 test series win in England. Dhoni played a crucial inning at the home of cricket to save the 1st test. Commonwealth Bank series win in Australia. I still feel this is the most underrated tournament victory in this duration. To defeat Australia, then world champions at their own turf was something special. Remember Sachin’s reply to Brett Lee. The ball travelled faster to the rope than leaving Lee’s hands. 2009 test series win in New Zealand. India rose to no.1 rankings in test cricket for the first time in 2009 under Dhoni’s captaincy.
You could not credit Dhoni for all the achievements. Yet he played a very important role in shaping the team for its most important moment in our lifetime. 2007 T20 World Cup showed Dhoni the importance of youth in the team. It exudes different energy which is contagious and creates a positive dressing room environment. They were diving on to the pitch to save every run even when they didn’t perform in the batting or bowling department. Dhoni took over a batting lineup along with a few experienced bowlers who any captain would die for. Yet he had to make a few tough decisions to make room for the youngsters. He might have been a villain for some, for this team to become a hero. Gambhir, Kohli, Raina, Ashwin, Rohit, Sreesanth, Ishant, Yusuf Pathan are the few who ushered under Dhoni’s leadership.
India was co-hosting the 2011 World Cup after 1996 and it felt like a homecoming for the fans. The pressure is always high and this time around it felt like a more complete team. When most squads were reeling under the transition phase, India could find the right proportion of experience with youth. Sachin, as usual, led the batting department and Zak brought his experience on the bowling front. Youngsters enjoyed fielding on the pitch watching and learning from Yuvi. The tie against England, defeat against South Africa were mere hiccups in India’s path. Yuvraj was a revelation for team India with equal contributions with bat and ball. For the first time, an Indian all-rounder was stealing all the limelight and rightfully so. A gritty performance against Australia in the quarter-finals sent the defending champions home. Against Pakistan, you could count on Sachin and Sehwag to light the fireworks. But it would ultimately be the night to remember for every Indian which will see the leader rise to the occasion.
The setting was perfect for Sachin for his final world cup match. World Cup Final in his hometown. Yet two successive blows by Malinga turned Wankhede as silent as a graveyard. I still consider this Kohli inning as the most underrated of his career considering the sheer pressure of the occasion. Gambhir showed he is the man for the big matches by putting in another performance to match the T20 World Cup final in 2007. Here comes another masterstroke by the captain. Dhoni despite his average performance in the entire tournament promoted himself above in-form Yuvraj. Why? Because he was confident in his ability to pacify the Sri Lankan attack led by Muralitharan. What followed was one of the best performances by an Indian captain on the biggest stages of all putting a full stop to the critics. Reminiscent of one Kapil Dev. It was the finisher MS Dhoni who hit Kulasekara over his head to bring home the world cup after 28 years. The captain of the team was excellent on the night his team needed him the most.
The Indian team was undergoing another transition phase. Tendulkar passed the baton to Kohli. Jadeja was trying to replace Yuvraj as the dependable all-rounder. The team needed a new opening pair to fill the Sachin-Sehwag void. In comes Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. Most of these players have been in and out of the squad over the years but found a permanent spot after this event. India wanted to dominate as the world champions by winning the ICC Champions trophy. Our top order was scintillating in the entire series. Spinners were weaving their traps and young seamers were demolishing the opposition.
The final was a tough matchup. England on their home turf seemed a hard challenge to overcome, especially with rain and defending low total. But I never saw an Indian team so confident in their skin throwing themselves around and fielding themselves to the victory. Now here comes the so-called third “mistake” of Dhoni’s captaincy. Ishant Sharma had been taken to the cleaners by England during the match. But when Dhoni hands him the ball trusting his experience, Ishant scalps the in-form partnership to derail England. And so Dhoni becomes the only captain to win all the ICC events. This isn’t luck but the genius of the man.
Under Dhoni’s leadership, India had been successful in other competitions as well such as the Asia Cup. Dhoni has been synonymous with CSK for more than a decade now. Being the IPL champion multiple times and making the finals almost every other year. Many CSK players owe it to Dhoni to get a chance to don the India blue other than the CSK yellow. It’s not just the weights lifted at the gym, but studying and watching the match films in the dressing room which makes a complete cricketer. Dhoni is a cricketing genius. Just go look at all the decisions which seemed random at the moment but have worked in the hindsight. Do not agree, let’s look at some other moments as well:
Asking Ishant Sharma to bowl bouncers in the Lord’s Test 2014. Ishant Sharma puts the best performance of his test career and India record one of their biggest test victories. India vs Bangladesh T20 World Cup 2016. Dhoni took off his gloves to force a run out on the last ball to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. These moments stand out due to the grandeur occasions. DRS or many fondly call it as Dhoni Review System. It’s ironic that Dhoni has never been a fan of DRS and has been vocal about it. Yet he could nail every review every time. 3rd umpire knew it’s better to give the benefit of the doubt to MS.
A captain does not panic even when the ship is sinking and the crew will do just fine. Dhoni would never dare take his shirt off on the most prestigious balconies in the cricket. Neither would he flip the bird to get a front-page poster in the news. He had ice in his veins and the balls of steel even on the occasions one would shit their pants. Yet he has always been selfless. Someone else in his place would not stop embracing the trophies yet he would always let the youngsters take the centre stage. For someone with everything, he would just hold on to a stump after the win for the cheap thrills.
“I would go to war with Dhoni by my side” — Gary Kirsten
For the man who knew when to step aside, he didn’t stretch his tenure as a captain. Australia tour of 2014–15 saw Virat Kohli shed his demons and scourge the bowlers. Dhoni struggled to perform to the standards and retired from test cricket mid-series to let Kohli take over. He knew this team needed an extra dose of aggression which might not be his forte. Those grey hair weren’t just from managing these young children but from the wisdom of life. Dhoni was still a force to reckon in limited over format with strong contributions. We could alter our expectations with Dhoni over the years where we knew he would go test cricket at the start of his innings and T20 towards the end.
With the shortcomings in recent ICC events, Dhoni knew it was time for someone else at the helm. Finals loss in T20 World Cup 2014, semi-finals loss in 2015 World Cup, semi-finals loss in 2016 T20 World Cup. With Dhoni making us habitual of winning, these defeats felt like a ghost of the past. It was time for Kohli to replace Dhoni as the full-time captain for all the formats. Kohli as a captain has failed to perform in the ICC events when needed. 2017 Champions Trophy final and 2019 World Cup semi-final.
Every good story has a bitter end. Once the antagonist in someone else’s story, Dhoni found himself struggling to fit in the vision of now-captain’s team. The player we could expect to score right off the meat of the bat was starting to fail to even connect the bat with the ball. A few too many runs for Dhoni to just fall short of the line in the 2019 World Cup semi-final. A valiant effort for a lost cause. Such an irony that Dhoni would be dismissed in the same fashion in his first and the last match for India. When everyone was wondering if they will ever see him put on the gloves, he finally broke the silence by retiring from international cricket on 15th August 2020. His longevity and consistency have seen him accomplish wonders on the pitch:
- Most successful Indian test captain with 27 wins
- Most dismissals in test cricket by an Indian keeper
- First Indian wicketkeeper to score 4000 test runs
- First player to score 10000 runs in ODI with an average of more than 50
- Most runs batting at number 6 position in ODI
- Highest ODI score by a wicketkeeper and most not out innings in ODIs
- Most dismissals by an Indian wicketkeeper and most stumpings by any wicketkeeper in ODI
- Most wins as a captain and most matches as a captain and wicketkeeper in T20I
- Most dismissals, catches and stumpings as a keeper in T20I
- Most consecutive T20I innings without a duck
I still feel Dhoni deserved a farewell match. He is the greatest captain in India’s history or maybe the game’s history. Anytime you draw a comparison to Ricky Ponting, you know you are in great company. One of the best limited over Indian batsman of this century right behind the likes of Sachin Dravid Ganguly and Kohli. The stats speak for itself. It will be great to see him in the commentary booth considering his bytes captured over the years on the stump mic. That one time Peterson told him on the pitch that he is a better golfer amongst them, Dhoni replied “You were my first test wicket”
It’s good that IPL still gives us that comfort of seeing him in charge and playing for the fun of the game. For most of the people who have imagined winning a match for India by hitting a six, we could relate to Dhoni. His story and aspirations have felt genuine. We have been united to curse him on an intentional dot ball and cheer him on a boundary the very next delivery. For a bona fide global superstar, he personified humility on and off the pitch. For the fans who used to turn off the TV after Sachin’s dismissal, you made us believe “Maahi sambhaal lega”.
“When I die, the last thing I want to see is the six that Dhoni hit in the 2011 World Cup final” — Sunil Gavaskar
Thanks for this belief and all the wonderful memories. O Captain! My Captain! It was an honour. Enjoy your second innings.