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Captain. Leader. Legend.

January 23, 2017 10:06 IST

Tactical genius, uplifting leader, altruistic individual, a man with unwavering certitude.
Dhruv Munjal recounts what made Mahendra Singh Dhoni a great captain.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Photograph: BCCI

IMAGE: 'He isn't someone who likes to make it all about himself -- he is selfless in the truest sense of the word.'
'He just likes to do his job on the pitch. Once he's off it, he allows his teammates, the youngsters in particular, to take over.'

 

The evening of June 23, 2013 in Birmingham was doleful and blustery, as the English West Midlands were besieged by a torrential downpour that did not relent for several hours.

It was one of those forlorn days that often make you fully ponder the idiosyncrasies of the confounding phenomenon that is called the English summer.

Over at Edgbaston, India and England were in the midst of a thriller.

The Champions Trophy final had been reduced to 20 overs a side, and the hosts were making a hash of their pursuit of India's 129.

Soon, as James Tredwell hopelessly tried to hoick Ravichandran Ashwin into the Birmingham skyline and missed, it was all over.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni had completed his full set as India's limited-overs captain: The World T20 (2007), the 50-over World Cup (2011) and now, the Champions Trophy.

It was in the aftermath of this momentous victory that Dhoni lit up the dreary environs of Edgbaston with a polite, yet poignant, gesture.

As the Indian team lined up the podium, dressed in ghastly white blazers that seemed more appropriate for a university science lab than a cricket field, Dhoni thrilled fans with what was perhaps the moment of the tournament -- and it didn't even have anything to do with cricket.

At the presentation ceremony, Dhoni passed on the trophy to a frenzied Shikhar Dhawan as soon as it was handed to him, not even holding it aloft for the shutterbugs, as is the custom followed by captains all over the world.

A beaming Dhoni quickly found comfort in the corner of the second row, classily letting Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja and Virat Kohli take centre stage.

Here was a man who had shepherded his team to a marvellous triumph in the most trying of conditions, here was a man who had trusted his off-spinner to bowl the last over, albeit to two left-handers, and yet decided to thumpingly eschew the limelight.

That extraordinary evening captured Dhoni in all his magnificence: Tactical genius, uplifting leader, altruistic individual.

Another magic Dhoni dismissal! Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

IMAGE: Another magic Dhoni dismissal!
'He could just think differently, something that was unique.'
'Plus, he is the finest thinker of the game I've ever come across."
Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

 

As a former teammate recalls, "He isn't someone who likes to make it all about himself -- he is selfless in the truest sense of the word. He just likes to do his job on the pitch. Once he's off it, he allows his teammates, the youngsters in particular, to take over."

With Dhoni, there have never been any qualms about passing on credit -- even if undeservingly, sometimes.

As India's captain over the years, selflessness is perhaps one of Dhoni's myriad traits that haven't been appreciated enough.

During the Aussie summer of 2014-2015, Dhoni, then also the Test skipper, abruptly announced his retirement after the third Test in Melbourne.

By then, with India trailing 0-2 in the series with one match to go, Dhoni's revered proactiveness had made way for sluggish decision-making. He had acquired the aura of a hapless leader just going through the motions, particularly overseas.

The decision to altogether quit the longest format of the game was a tad perplexing, but the call to step down from the captaincy was taken in the larger interest of the team -- he realised he could no longer take this team forward.

As Anshuman Gaekwad, former Indian opening batsman and coach, explains: "He has done most things right in his career. The timing of his decisions is one of them."

The 35 year old calling time on his days as limited overs captain earlier this month was chiefly driven by the rise of Kohli.

Former players concede that this was increasingly becoming Kohli's team, with a stamp on it that is indelibly his.

"Every captain, player has a life, and Dhoni realises that. With Kohli ready and waiting, Dhoni has made the right call," says Gaekwad.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni shakes hands with his Pakistan counterpart Shahid Afridi at the end of their Asia Cup match. Photograph: Solaris Images

IMAGE:'He would watch the footwork and point out the batsman's weaknesses.'
'He would make the bowler better. It was just fascinating.'
Dhoni shakes hands with his Pakistan counterpart Shahid Afridi at the end of their Asia Cup match. Photograph: Solaris Images

 

The rise of Dhoni from the maidans of Ranchi to the echelons of world dominance is as glorious as it is befuddling.

Intriguingly, Dhoni never captained his state -- first Bihar, later Jharkhand -- in any domestic competition.

He never skippered the India 'A' side, either.

"Captaincy, in some ways, just happened. But there was always something about him. He could just think differently, something that was unique. Plus, he is the finest thinker of the game I've ever come across," says Seemanth Lohani, Dhoni's childhood friend popularly known to people as Chittu.

For Dhoni, thinking elaborately about the game came from the hundreds of matches he played as a teenager in Ranchi -- ideas and experiments he assimilated while spending thousands of hours out on the field.

His ideas, much like his entire approach to the game, were his own. The humdrum cricket manual was never an affable acquaintance.

"When you play a lot, these things come to you. The field placings, the bowling changes, the flow of the game -- your understanding of all these gets enhanced considerably when you play lots of matches. These things can't be taught," says a former teammate.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his teammates celebrate after beating Pakistan in the ICC World T20 final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on September 24, 2007. Photograph: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

IMAGE: 'The situation in the final was immensely tense.'
'But Dhoni told me that if we lost, it would be his responsibility.'
'That gave me so much confidence.'
Dhoni and his teammates celebrate after beating Pakistan in the ICC World T20 final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on September 24, 2007. Photograph: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

 

The 2007 ICC T20 in South Africa was Dhoni's first opportunity to fully showcase that exceptional cricket acumen.

As former Australian captain Ian Chappell pointed out at the time, Dhoni's team played in Dhoni's personality during the tournament: Undaunted, fearless and happily willing to embrace risk.

"I remember the final against Pakistan. I wanted to set a specific plan for Shahid Afridi, as I knew he was dangerous. He didn't ask me many questions; he just let me go ahead with it," reminisces Irfan Pathan.

The Baroda pacer got Afridi for a second ball duck, and went on to win the Man of the Match award.

The wicket-keeping obviously helped. Dhoni used the gloves to lord it over the field, much like a seasoned sniper seated atop a rooftop scanning for his next victim.

As left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha recalls, Dhoni looked at everything a batsman was doing. "He would watch the footwork and point out the batsman's weaknesses. He would make the bowler better. It was just fascinating," he says.

Once, during a game against Ireland at Hamilton in the 2015 World Cup, Dhoni's words of wisdom for his bowler were captured by the stump microphone.

As Suresh Raina bowled one that Irish captain William Porterfield patted away to cover, Dhoni, at his uproarious best, exclaimed: 'Iska paer dekh, kaise volleyball ki tarah khada hua hai (Look at his leg, he's standing there like a volleyball).'

This wasn't something the man he took over from would have necessarily uttered. Dhoni's limited overs predecessor, Rahul Dravid, was an able limited overs batsman, but was devoid of the dynamism that typified a modern-day captain.

Dhoni started mixing caution with aggression, inventiveness with logic, and hunch with reason to devastating effect.

In the years that would follow, he would go on to build a marauding limited-overs legacy.

The sight of Misbah-ul Haq getting holed out to S Sreesanth off Joginder Sharma's bowling at the Wanderers in 2007 is one deeply embedded in the mind of every Indian cricket fan.

Had it not been for Dhoni, Sharma, military-medium at best, would have been a forgotten entity by now. Amazingly, he still lingers in the memory.

"The situation in the final match was immensely tense. But Dhoni told me that if we lost, it would be his responsibility. That gave me so much confidence," says Sharma.

This was a gallant call from a first-time captain -- a cagey one would have opted for Harbhajan Singh, a veteran who had almost 10 years of international cricket behind him.

This intrepidity and clarity of thought would go on to define Dhoni, the limited overs captain.

As Dravid once said, 'Dhoni doesn't like to plan too much. If he plans a lot, he thinks his mind is getting cluttered.'

Sachin Tendulkar celebrates after winning the 2011 World Cup. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

IMAGE: When India won the 2011 World Cup in Mumbai, Dhoni stayed away from the limelight, letting Sachin Tendulkar and the others the hog all the attention.
Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

 

But the early years of Dhoni, the captain marvel, came with their share of strife.

Keen to blood more youngsters, Dhoni wielded the axe on the one day careers of V V S Laxman and Sourav Ganguly.

"At the time, this may have seemed like natural progression. But this took gumption. Dhoni was adamant that they had to go," says a former selector in the national fold on the condition of anonymity.

In the summer of 2008, India, with Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan as the only 'seniors' in the team, resoundingly beat Australia in the first two finals of the CB Triangular Series, becoming the first Indian team to win a tri-series Down Under. Dhoni's gamble to play more youngsters had been vindicated.

"After that series, there was no messing with him. He just knew what he was doing," adds the selector.

The series in Australia also brought to the world's attention Dhoni's most admirable quality: Stoical calm.

Dhoni with coach Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli. Photograph: BCCI

IMAGE: 'He will always be remembered as Captain Cool, up there with the best.'
Dhoni with coach Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli. Photograph: BCCI

 

As stress-ridden fielders ambled across the turf at the Gabba in Brisbane in the second final, the Indian captain was a picture of astounding calm, dispassionately looking on.

In between, he even managed to flash a broad grin at Yuvraj Singh who was standing at point.

Pathan, who bowled the last over in that game, recently recalled that it was the belief that helped India over the line.

"He just gave me a lot of encouragement. And that's what made all the difference."

"He will always be remembered as Captain Cool, up there with the best," adds Gaekwad.

Former Australian pace bowler Rodney Hogg once famously remarked that Mike Brearley, the former England captain, 'had a degree in people.' Although not as proficient as Brearley, Dhoni belongs to the same brood.

'Gut feel' is often an overstated piece of sporting hogwash -- it is mostly used as euphemism for plain luck.

The players who have played with Dhoni over the years say it is impossible to get into his mind. Even his childhood friends say it is impossible to predict what he will come up with next.

And hence, his 'gut feel' was often an intricate calculation in his mind -- the coming together of various ideas put into effect with the assistance of human instinct.

Much to the surprise of the opposition, he often threw the ball to Raina for a crucial over at the death, and the all-rounder -- despite his innocuous brand of off-spin -- would seldom let him down.

Arguably, the greatest image in one day cricket history in the 21st century. Maendra Singh Dhoni hits a six and India win the 2011 World Cup

IMAGE: Arguably, the greatest image in one day cricket history in the 21st century. Maendra Singh Dhoni hits a six and India win the 2011 World Cup.

 

Once, after closely studying Kieron Pollard for a few balls in an Indian Premier League game, Dhoni asked the fielder at mid-off to stand next to the bowler's mark.

The burly West Indian was belting them straight down the ground. Within a few balls, Pollard was gone, presenting an easy chance to the fielder Dhoni had just moved.

Moreover, this gut feel stemmed from immaculate self-assuredness, an unswerving certitude. "He'll take the match to the last ball because he knows he can win it," says a former teammate.

An out-of-form Dhoni's decision to walk in ahead of Yuvraj, a man in outstanding touch, in the 2011 World Cup final in Mumbai was clinching evidence of that moxie.

He stroked a match-winning 91 to help India win their second World Cup.

Come June, Dhoni will be confronted with the damp, wretched surroundings of Birmingham once again, when India look to defend the Champions Trophy title.

The mantle of captaincy would no longer be encumbering him by then, but for most in the Indian team, including Kohli, he will forever be their captain.

In fact, a little more than that: Captain, leader, legend.

Dhruv Munjal
Source: source
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