MS Dhoni always made you feel something was up, something was possible, as long as he was around
MS Dhoni always made you feel something was up, something was possible, as long as he was around
He took on a ridiculous amount of work as a wicketkeeper-batsman and made it look easy, but as captain, his legacy is a little more complicated
The first time I met MS Dhoni, he served me cashew nuts, almonds, biscuits and tea on a cold grey afternoon.
It was early 2006, and Dhoni had hit Indian cricket like nothing had hit it ever before: with brute force and a style of expression that said its owner was unaware of a need to behave in a certain way. I was just starting my working life, and this interview was the first big story I had been assigned in an otherwise unsatisfactory job. I was in the job because within three months of the start of my career I had chosen a crazy-money offer over a satisfying job.
Getting to travel to Ranchi to interview Dhoni was a break from the daily admonishments I used to give myself for my poor career choice. I was hopelessly out of my depth for the assignment. I didn't take a recorder with me nor a working mobile phone. I just showed up at Dhoni's house at the given time, only to find out he wasn't home. Now I had to go back because the police wouldn't allow me to wait outside the house. So when Dhoni did arrive he didn't find me nor did he have a way to get in touch with me. A couple of hours later when I reached his house again, he was about to go away for some other appointment after having waited for me.
I told Dhoni what had happened, and he cancelled whatever he was stepping out for. He looked around, saw a big crowd and security cordon, and decided to take me to his refuge, his sister's place. Minutes later he came back with a serving tray full of a whole tea spread. Unfortunately, because I was so unprofessional, I don't remember much of the interview well enough to reproduce it in writing except the one thing that clearly stood out: He had taken a big risk and gone to Delhi for a Railways cricket trial where they didn't even give him a proper hit. And just like that, he quit that Railways job.
Now a good job is what a majority of athletes from non-privileged homes in India played sport for. Whatever else they managed was a bonus; the job was something to be held on to. Dhoni told me he grew up in a house so small that he struggled to find a place for his kit bag. And yet the security of a job meant naught when he felt he was treated unjustly. More importantly, he knew he was too good a player to be licking a bureaucrat's boots to get a fair chance at cricket selection.
Dhoni dismantled external influences on the India dressing room, so younger players could breathe free
© Getty Images
Dhoni dismantled external influences on the India dressing room, so younger players could breathe free © Getty Images
After the interview, Dhoni expressed a mistrust of the media. He couldn't figure out why certain players were hyped in the press when many others who were better cricketers didn't get a mention. He didn't understand why he needed to do interviews with journalists who told him they were close to the India captain. He was talking about all this to the wrong guy, because I didn't know such things happened. Imagine being a young cricketer from a small town and being made to oblige journalists because they know the captain. Imagine how much worse it must get for the same young cricketer with club owners, administrators, selectors, sponsors, agents, commentators, umpires, scorers, employers' cousins, and a host of other people he thinks he can't afford to offend.
It took me less than a couple of months to quit that job, with no back-up in hand and my family far away in a town smaller than Ranchi. Getting further into all of that will be navel-gazing, so I promise to keep this short. When I started to get a grip on how cricket media worked, I saw journalists who had the captain's ear did exercise a certain amount of influence. They had access to inside scoops, and younger players made sure they said hello whenever they went past. Although I have never seen it in action, I was told of how journalists used to influence selections till not long ago. A word here or there from them could make or break a career.
During the Ganguly-Chappell saga, they lobbied for their own man, to ensure future access to gossip and stories. And interviews with young stars. Cricket was the last thing covered. I had serious doubts if I would survive: I didn't think even Dhoni, a youngster who had been so nice to me, remembered me now (not that I tried to remind him); imagine having to be in the good books of a captain just to be able to do my job.
I didn't need to be. Young cricketers didn't need to be. Pretty soon Dhoni became India's captain without resorting to any of the tactics he so abhorred; his captains and coaches marvelled at the refreshing lack of put-on humility. The first thing he did as captain was eliminate all external influences on the dressing room. Your utility to the Indian cricket team was all that mattered now. If Dhoni's rise from so far out of the system had given many boys like him a reason to dream, he was making sure their cricket mattered and not how worldly-wise they were.
It had a small knock-on effect on us writers. There were no leaks, no exclusive interviews. We just focused on the cricket. It was the best time to be a young cricket journalist in India, and even better to be a young cricketer. This sense of liberation can be seen in the likes of Ravindra Jadeja, the Kumars Bhuvneshwar and Praveen, and in a later era, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya. The ones who would have been outliers were not feeling out of place. This was the biggest off-field impact of Dhoni on Indian cricket. If he never did anything else for Indian cricket, he had done more than enough by opening it up to a much wider talent pool.
Sixty Tests as wicketkeeper-batsman and captain, 42 more than any other at the time of his Test retirement. An average of over 40 and an unblemished wicketkeeping record - except for the final months, when he stopped diving in front of first slip, possibly because of a dodgy back. Good enough to be No. 6 on turning tracks to accommodate an extra bowler, good enough to be India's second-best batsman on a tour of South Africa and England apiece.
Absolute game changer of a wicketkeeper in limited-overs cricket. A powerful hitter who turned his game around to become a middle-order rock. Over 10,000 ODI runs at an average of over 50 and a strike rate close to 90 - he was a mix of Kapil Dev and Rahul Dravid with a dash of Michael Bevan thrown in. And then 200 ODIs as captain, over 150 more than any other wicketkeeper.
Dhoni was the biggest revolution in the art of wicketkeeping in his time: he stumped without any give, he stuck his leg out to stop late cuts, he deflected throws for direct hits, he stood upright with pads together to stop half-volleys.
Dhoni was part of three ICC tournament title wins, plus two other finals, three semi-finals, and India's ascent to No. 1 Test ranking. His keeping and batting played a big part in India's longest successful run in cricket. There was a massive blip in between when they lost 4-0 in both England and Australia, but Dhoni the wicketkeeper-batsman was always ready for the challenge even if the captain needed some support from the board to survive.
During the seven years of his captaincy, Dhoni went up and down in his keeping stance 113,120 times. Under his Test captaincy, India spent 120 or more overs in the field 36 times, six more than the second-worst team on that count, Sri Lanka. Overall he kept to close to 200,000 international deliveries. Add to it the IPL. By the end of it, the fingers were all beaten out of shape, and the back a literal pain.
All this needs to be said because in trying to figure out Dhoni the captain and Dhoni the man, we often forget the primary job he did: to score runs and keep wicket. He took on that ridiculous workload and did more than any other man before him had done. If he hadn't been captain, Dhoni would have had much more written about his primary skills, he still would have been an all-time great, and we wouldn't have spoken of his shades of grey.
Captaincy wasn't something Dhoni craved. In fact, when it was announced he would be the ODI captain, he refused to speak to the media despite requests from the board, and eventually he just read out a statement. Once he took it on, though, he dived head on. He embraced the T20 format, which played a part in speeding up the IPL revolution, which in turn opened the doors for a greater scale of employment for cricketers in India. In the longer formats, though, he had an unenviable task: that of captaining bona fide legends of Indian cricket. He was not intimidated. Pretty early he made it clear the team would run the way he wanted it to run. If Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid were surplus to requirements in ODIs, he put his foot down but retained them in Tests where they were still handy.
Manjrekar: Very unlikely we'll see someone with Dhoni's all-round package
Manjrekar: Very unlikely we'll see someone with Dhoni's all-round package
Dhoni never dropped them himself. If they were in the squad, he told the selectors he didn't want to sour the dressing room by leaving the legends out of the XI. He had great instinct for this. "An old soul," his former coach Greg Chappell called him. "He has been here before."
Dhoni kept letting the selectors know that the losses would be on them if they came because India were too slow in the field. Fitness and at least 50 matches of experience going into a World Cup were non-negotiables. Eventually he had his way in time for the 2011 World Cup.
Once N Srinivasan became the president of the Indian cricket board and his company bought Dhoni's services in the IPL, all that selection struggle ceased to exist. Just like captains before him, Dhoni loved being in absolute control. He was more comfortable once he had a young team to handle, the Jadejas and Ishant Sharmas, who would listen to him and bowl wherever he wanted.
Off the field, where he had sought to eliminate all external influences, a number of players started to feel a need to be managed by the company that managed Dhoni. To be fair, this sort of thing was not new, but it seemed more organised now. A particular IPL team and a particular talent management agency began to dominate Indian cricket, but the captain said or did nothing about the poor optics. It was beneath him to address these concerns. He was offended that such a successful and committed captain was not considered above all this.
Dhoni is inaccurately hailed as a big risk-taker. Because he had Joginder Sharma bowl the last over of the T20 World Cup final, because he takes games deep, because of his odd bowling choices at times. Dhoni wasn't so much a risk-taker as a great assessor of risk. Sharma was a decision almost forced on him because the designated man, Harbhajan Singh, had had a horror 18th over and was perfect for Misbah-ul-Haq's slog-sweep. Dhoni sat on series leads so negatively he once had India bat until they set New Zealand 617 to win in a Test where rain was forecast on the final day. He refused the dare of a chase with seven wickets in hand in the West Indies.
Power is what you hold till the end: for Dhoni, big hitting was a weapon to be saved for when it would have the most impact
Power is what you hold till the end: for Dhoni, big hitting was a weapon to be saved for when it would have the most impact © AFP
As a batsman, Dhoni abhorred risk. To take risks was to admit you didn't have faith in your ability. You put in all that hard work so you can avoid risk. That's why he never tried low-percentage shots in the face of a rising asking rate. He was too proud a pro to take undue risks. Time after time he turned the 11-on-2 physical contest into a one-on-one in the final over.
Sometimes that limited him in limited-overs chases, especially in T20. He took too much on himself and failed to utilise all the resources at disposal. Slightly old-fashioned in that regard, he wanted to finish off the job once he was in, as opposed to making sure the batsman after him didn't have to deal with the high asking rate should he get out.
Once Dhoni's game began to desert him after the 2015 World Cup, though, it began to hurt him and India. Data analysis told bowlers he had fewer areas to hit out in. They began to deny him those balls. You had a template to bowl to him now: left-arm spin, for example, or pace into the hip. The mind refused to accept he was any the lesser as a batsman, so the instances of failed chases began to grow - though it is still a credit to his experience that the bowlers had to be at their very best to make that happen. Often it would be that Dhoni would leave those after him too much to do in too little time.
Being interviewed by Michael Atherton. That's an odd picture to add to a retirement montage.
It is a four-minute-seven-second clip composed of what looks like a personal collection of photos. The sudden nature of the announcement might make it seem to some Dhoni had been callous again, but watch it, it is painstaking work. The photos have been chosen perfectly to go with the lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi that speak of the transient nature of limelight and success.
The song is a poet telling his audience his time at the top is but fleeting. That there were many before him too - here Dhoni uses pictures of Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan, Ashish Nehra to pay tribute to the older players he played with. When the song speaks of tomorrow, the likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah emerge. "There will be others tomorrow; better poets than me and better listeners than you."
It is like Dhoni is directly talking to you right then, testing the moisture content behind your eyes. In that moment he makes you realise it is all gone: the shout of "Nahi Ash" from behind the stumps every time R Ashwin pitched short, the "Jaad, idhar se bhi daal saktay hain" when he wanted Jadeja to change the angle. The disarming smile, the lethal cricketing brain, the quickest hands behind the stumps, the reluctance to be in the limelight coexisting with the understated showmanship, the fear he struck in the mind of bowlers, the feeling that we were in for a close fight whenever Dhoni came out to bat, the anticipation of the next surprise, the moves you couldn't make sense of in away Tests, the absolute puppeteer he would become once the ball turned or stopped, the absurdly nonsensical analogies that made sense only to him. Even though the end had been nigh for a while, it is at this point that it strikes you. You might need to adjust to the next poet now, and try to be a better listener.
It is something to be interviewed by Atherton when you lose a Test in England. After India won the Lord's Test in 2014, Indian commentators looked at each other in awe as Atherton gracefully and without menace grilled the home captain, Alastair Cook. "That would be my last interview if I did that back home," one of them said.
Dhoni's handling of senior players was shrewd, and he finessed their exits from the team astutely
Dhoni's handling of senior players was shrewd, and he finessed their exits from the team astutely © AFP
Dhoni went through four of those on the 2011 trip. It was a brutal tour where India lost all four Tests after letting players have their way when it came to preparation. Several key players chose to play the IPL over recuperating and turned up ragged in England. Not for the first time Dhoni was questioned what mattered more: the IPL or international cricket. Not for the first time, there was no answer. Now, in his own way, he has told you how much it hurt.
The last on-field frame in that montage is Dhoni getting run out in the 2019 World Cup semi-final. This was a match four years in the making. The questions began to pop up at the end of India's 2015 World Cup campaign, which he then doused by selecting himself for the next year's T20 World Cup. At the end of the 2016 T20 World Cup, the cool façade gave way when he indirectly told anyone questioning him to do so if only they personally knew someone who was better and fitter than him for sure.
All those years of quietly taking all sorts of questions and showing no emotion were behind him. Questions about whether Gurunath Meiyappan was known to them as the one who ran Chennai Super Kings or not. Questions about what his real problem with the DRS was. He would quietly just listen to the questions and let the media manager take over. Now he was snapping.
By 2017 he was being left out of the team for no clear reason and being brought back without any domestic cricket to make his case. Exceptions were being made for him - which you would never imagine Dhoni might ask for; it was something he was against. Then again, it was Dhoni, so nobody said what was going on.
One thing you knew was that Dhoni wasn't changing his style. He was taking it as deep as he could. No risks in the middle overs. No changing the way he batted. He trusted his game. Too proud to take a risk early. He just needed to reduce it to another one on one. Not Dhoni against the sun. Not Dhoni against a whole attack. But Dhoni against the last bowler standing.
Old Trafford 2019: too big a risk too soon
© Getty Images
Old Trafford 2019: too big a risk too soon © Getty Images
Cricket gave him one more chance through Jadeja's scarcely believable half-century in the Old Trafford semi-final. However, Dhoni's own slowness while resurrecting the innings left him with too much to do in the end. He was not hitting them well. By the time it came to the last two bowlers, the equation was not in control. Dhoni knew he couldn't trust the other end. So he went for a risky second even though he was slow to set off as Lockie Ferguson hurried him and hit him on the already disfigured hand.
This was too early a risk for Dhoni. On another day he would have taken the single and made sure he was there when Jimmy Neesham began the last over. Not here. He knew he needed to be on strike for the penultimate over too. And he fell short to a direct hit. The best calculator of risk in the business had erred.
Everybody has an MS Dhoni story. They are often not independently verified but they are great tales that showcase his wit, his pragmatism, his aura. My favourite is from the time he asked Joginder Sharma to bowl the final over of the 2007 final. In that situation, amid all the chaos, Dhoni is supposed to have gone up to Sharma and told him, "You have bowled so many overs in domestic cricket with so much dedication, when no one is watching. Don't worry, cricket won't let you down now."
Despite all the pragmatism and hard work, he believed in the cricketing gods. I wonder if he feels the cricketing gods have been unfair to him now that he has retired from international cricket. I mean, what are the odds of a fine-leg throw hitting the only stump visible? I wonder if he feels the same indignation towards the cricketing gods as he did whenever he was questioned by those outside the team. Or towards the pandemic, which put paid to any thoughts he might have had of making the T20 World Cup through a big IPL.
I wonder if he replays that match in his head and wishes he had hit one six a little sooner so that he could have taken it to the last over with the game still alive. Nah, that would have been too perfect. Not the kind of end for our man of greys.
"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Dhoni's wife, Sakshi Singh Dhoni, quoted Maya Angelou in her Instagram post in reaction to her husband's announcement. For the most part, especially in limited-overs cricket, Dhoni made you feel something was up, something was possible, that his team was never out of it till he had a say left. That in a team you weren't an outsider as long as you had something to contribute. That "Jaad, idhar se bhi daal saktay hain", that there is always a new angle that can be explored. That will never be forgotten.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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