How MS Dhoni gave a nation hope
MS Dhoni was a nation’s hero who cut across age, social and regional boundaries. A true symbol of India’s democracy, in his own unique way, retired on August 15, without a fuss or controversy.
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The first cricket match I remember watching is the one where Dhoni bludgeoned a hapless Lankan bowling (it felt like that, even with Murali and Vaas in the ranks) on his way to a career highest 183. In the process, the national team finally found a world-standard wicket-keeper-batsman, and I got introduced to my first crush. Baba told me the name of the man of the match — Mahendra Singh Dhoni. A strange name, I had thought at that time. If the 148 against Pakistan earlier had shown the world a glimpse of the talent in the small-town boy with golden locks, this mercurial one filled with 10 towering sixes (a record number of sixes in an innings at that time) showed that this smiling youngster was there to stay. Looking back now, I think that particular innings — in which he made Sehwag look pedestrian in comparison — was a precursor to the ‘finisher’ Dhoni. It can perhaps be called a belligerent show of hitting prowess, a fighting inning (halfway through he needed a runner) where sheer will and temperament overshadowed the unique, unorthodox style.
Dhoni, the hero, was born soon. A national hero, perhaps the first one after Kapil Dev, who could cut through to fans and critics seamlessly. His fans started to grow as did the accolades. Within a year, he was the number one batsman in ODI rankings.
At that time he was at par with my Dadu (no. 5) on the list of my favourite people. There were two phases around this time. First when I would disturb everyone’s sanctity going around blabbering “Dhoni, Dhoni”, and then there was the time when like a new bride I would be too shy to utter his name. “I love Dhoni” I had written with red ink in an old Utsav magazine, which of course was discovered by my hilarious parents later on.
This was in the period 2005-2007, during which among his other achievements Dhoni went to Pakistan and rattled Akhtar and Musharraf alike. On a tour to England, he made a fighting 70-odd in the first test at Lords and helped India eke out a draw and then later win the Test series.
In between, there was the 2007 World Cup, a disastrous campaign for Dhoni and India. I remember he had an ombre-coloured hairstyle in the tournament. When Dhoni was out in the first ball (his second duck of the tournament) unable to pick a Murali-doosra, the telecasting company immediately showed a Limca advertisement featuring my hero. I wanted to sink to the ground.
There were the familiar criticisms. “Success is turning the man’s head.” Scathing remarks and the pelting stones at his house in Ranchi. At every gathering, I would have to hear the same things, maybe more than Dhoni. I was relieved when four years later India triumphed at Wankhede.
One of the best periods of Indian cricket merging with Dhoni’s development as a captain and as a batsman. (Photo: Reuters)
The next four years marked one of the best periods of Indian cricket, merging with Dhoni’s development as a captain and as a batsman. First, the 20-20 World Cup win. In the absence of Sachin, Sourav, Dravid, Zaheer, a first-time captain Dhoni, a bunch of youngsters (Gauti, Yuvi, RP Singh) ushered in India’s love for cricket’s newest child, which was initially scoffed at. More importantly, in the final against Pakistan, he handed over the ball to unheralded Joginder Sharma in front of a rampaging Misbah though Harbhajan had an over remaining. The move turned out to be a success as Misbah mistimed a scoop with six runs remaining. Was it a gamble, a masterstroke, or simply the uncanny sixth-sense of the man who had faced life hard on?
India won a series in New Zealand, drew in South Africa and under Dhoni’s leadership climbed to the top of the ICC test rankings for the first time. a tri-nation tournament — the Commonwealth Bank Series — was won with Dhoni successfully defending his decision to field a young team. Ganguly and Dravid were dropped because of the large grounds in Australia and their inability to rotate the strike on a consistent basis. A controversial decision that created an uproar, but also brought results.
It was not arrogance or disrespect, but an emphasis on the process being more important than the result. In this case, it was preparing a team for the upcoming World Cup. In fact, in Dada’s last test, Dhoni — the then-skipper — asked his first captain to undertake the helm for some time, but only when Australia’s backs were against the ropes. In this tournament, he played a 50-runs knock without a single hit to the fence. Converting the ones into twos, playing out the best bowlers, staying till the end and finishing the job was slowly becoming the Dhoni mantra.
In those days, my daily timetable would be based on India’s matches. My pleasures centred on newspaper reports regarding Dhoni’s performance. Every match day coming back from school, I used to ask two questions: What was India’s score? And how much had Dhoni scored? The latter, more important one, was cleverly shielded to show my allegiance to a nation as I would often be criticised to be a Dhoni fan more than a fan of Indian cricket.
There were controversies too. For instance, his alleged rifts with Sehwag and Gambhir. After the decision to take the whole team to the press conference to show the team’s unity to the British media backfired with a poor show in 2009 T-20 World Cup, Dhoni was lampooned. He hardly cared. His intention had been served and that was it. Even later, in the backdrop of the World Cup, he refused to go to the preparatory camp where the foreign coach Gary Kirsten would not be allowed. Playing for the team was backed by a man who would ironically, later be criticised for favouritism towards the CSK players.
The Dhoni connection with CSK slowly grew and Ranchi’s favourite son soon became the Tamil Thalaiva — at par with Rajnikanth. For me, it put me against my family (KKR fans) on countless occasions — defending the team’s strength to “My Captain’s” moral conduct when the spot-fixing scandal was rife.
The Dhoni connection with CSK slowly grew and Ranchi’s favourite son soon became the Tamil Thalaiva. (Photo: Getty Images)
The 2013 Champions Trophy, in which he astutely marshalled his troops, was the ‘Dhoni way’ to answer his critics post the spot-fixing saga. After the final match, one saw Dhoni (one who had merely twirled his bat after the World Cup six) jumping in delight to lead India to another triumph. He became the only captain to hold the three coveted ICC trophies.
There were disappointments, but somehow a comeback would always be on the horizon. The 4-0 whitewashes at the hands of Australia and England, losing to England at home, experimenting with revolving openers (Sehwag, Sachin and Gambhir were alternately given a chance) and then going back on that decision on a crunch encounter.
When Australia came touring in India, they were promptly returned the favour, with Dhoni leading the charge and scoring a double century. Decisions, like sticking on with Rohit Sharma and giving him the opener's slot (which seemed mindless at that time), have paid rich dividends too.
Even Kohli acknowledges Dhoni’s role in grooming him as the next skipper and leaving behind a core of India’s next-gen cricketers. Many of them — Umesh Yadav (Vidarbha), Pujara (Rajkot), Pandya (Baroda) — were small-town heroes like Dhoni. He came into a team with superstars (held his own among them), led Tendulkar (his childhood hero) with a nonchalance (often mistaken as arrogance), then left Kohli with a group (albeit at no. 7 in Test rankings) that would don the national jersey for the next five years.
During the period 2011-2015, Dhoni played some of his best innings. In a tri-series final, batting with Ishant Sharma, he took the game to the last over, targeted Shaminda Eranga (the weak link in the bowling attack) and scored 16 runs in the last over. He came to bat at 29-5 against Pakistan, scored a century, and took the team to a respectable score. In a match against Australia, he scored 130 — again when the team was in a precarious situation. In a test series against England (which India lost 3-1), Dhoni, with all his technical flaws, was the only one willing to grind it out in seamer-friendly green tops.
At one instance, Dhoni decided to roll up his sleeves and bowl slow-medium pacers. (Photo: Reuters)
The biggest criticism against Dhoni’s performance was his Test leadership away from home. I can only say that between 2011 and 2015 India’s pace bowling attack was mediocre, to say the least. Even then, in slow-turning pitches, Dhoni was a master at using the spinners, rotating the bowlers, applying the choke on the batsmen. In the one day game, Dhoni was the best tactician, admits Mike Brearley (former English captain) whose best-selling book — Art Of Captaincy — puts the image of a captain as almost a mirror-image of Mahi. Dhoni could not care less. He would stand back to the spinners at Lords. On another occasion, he decided to roll up his sleeves and bowl slow-medium pacers when the lead-bowler Zaheer was injured. That he got Pietersen out (the decision got overturned by a review) and Kapil lambasted his tactics, is a different issue.
After 2014-2015, somehow my crush disappeared. There was an attachment in a detached sense, where I somehow accepted the highs and lows that alternated. There was a failure to finish off the game in against South Africa at Kanpur in 2015, in the final over bowled by Kagiso Rabada. Then there was the innings against Sri Lanka where Dhoni was the only one who could master the guile of Dananjaya. Memories crept up of a young Dhoni fighting it out against Ajantha Mendis, as the orthodox technicians went back empty-handed. 2018 went without a single half-century, 2019 emerged with a Man Of The Series award in Australia, a World Cup dream shattered by a Guptil throw. Dhoni had lost the ability to rotate the strike like earlier times. But with his brute strength and indomitable will, etched in muscle memory, Dhoni fought it out till a suitable replacement arrived. Or perhaps, as he liked to say, until he was no longer the fastest runner in the team.
Winning the World Cup in 2011 was Dhoni’s crowning moment. Dhoni was having an ordinary time with the bat and though India reached the final, I was sort of half-pleased, half-celebrating. In fact, when Pakistan was beaten in the semi-finals, someone asked me what is the reason behind India’s win. I said it was a disciplined bowling performance. When he responded saying that it was Dhoni’s bowling changes, I was overjoyed.
The 2011 World Cup win was Dhoni’s crowning moment. (Photo: Reuters)
In the final, India was 114-3 chasing 275, when Dhoni came out to bat, promoting himself ahead of the Man Of The Tournament — Yuvraj. Out to face Murali, his tormenter four years ago. Looking back, the right-hand left-hand combination, the experience of playing alongside Murali in CSK, it seems to be a well-thought tactical decision. In fact, it was more than that. It showed the chutzpah of a man who could not care less about the critics, going head-to-head with an old nemesis when the chips were down. A perfect cinematic ending in the city of dreams.
That is not how Dhoni would want to be remembered though. He would want to be remembered as the person he was. The man who drove the team bus back to the hotel at a time when the team was down in the dumps. The man who is known for his penchant of finishing games, who blocked a ball, giving Kohli a chance to finish off a game (the 2014 T-20 semi-finals) he had single-handedly won for India. The captain who had his doors open at all times and yet was afraid to go and ask for Sachin’s autograph for his wife on the eve of Sachin’s last Test. The sportsman who helped a cramping Francois du Plessis when South Africa was plundering an Indian attack, or calling back Ian Bell after a runout confusion, even though the match slipped out of his hands.
Dhoni was a nation’s hero who cut across age, social and regional boundaries. A true symbol of India’s democracy, in his own unique way, retired on August 15 — without a fuss or controversy. The ever-smiling man who grew stoic with age, left cricket, making us smile again with his choice of farewell song. Dhoni, you gave a nation hope, you symbolised our fighting spirit, you taught us to step aside at the times of victory, and shoulder the blame when facing defeat. Dhoni, thank you for making my childhood memorable.