The evening after their World Cup win, the Indian cricket team was at Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Maharashtra. They had a tea appointment with President Pratibha Patil. Afterwards, on the lawns, the players ate barbecued meat and other snacks. Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni got himself some kababs and settled down with his plate when his wife, Sakshi, found him. She playfully admonished him for helping himself before she had. It was the second time in 24 hours that Dhoni had promoted himself in the order. But while in this instance he may pay a small penalty, the first added to his legend.
Dhoni’s decision to bat up the order was about cricketing logic, not courage. Had Yuvraj Singh joined Gautam Gambhir, there would have been two left-handers at the crease. This could have given Sri Lanka an opening, as they had two off-spinners in Muttiah Muralitharan and Suraj Randiv. It made sense for a right-hander to replace the departed Virat Kohli. But whether or not this prompted his decision, Dhoni got the opportunity to rediscover his batting touch and play a defining role in a match that will be remembered for generations. After the win over Pakistan in the semifinals, Dhoni was asked, “You can justify your place in the team as a captain. How do you justify it as a batsman?” This was his answer. There was nothing in the pitch. The batsmen only had to stay there and keep nudging away for ones and twos. After a couple of nervous prods at the start, Dhoni was in command, despite a runny nose, which saw him drop frequent phlegm bombs on the Wankhede turf. He played sensibly, saving the flourish for the last. When the match-winning six was hit, the ball rose into orbit, scripted Dhoni’s name on the way, and descended somewhere beyond long-on.
They called Mohammed Azharuddin Destiny’s Child. Dhoni is only more so. He is Destiny’s Captain. He tells Destiny where to field. A mere two World Cups ago, Dhoni was a ticket collector at Kharagpur railway station. True, he was a rising player, but his life was humble. He got around on a bicycle—a motorcycle at best—in Kharagpur or hometown Ranchi. His accommodation was modest. A dhaba meal was indulgent. These too were mostly paid for by friends. On a visit to Ranchi two years ago, I heard that one of his favourite places was Nunu Hotel on the Ranchi-Jamshedpur highway. He liked to eat chilli chicken with butter naan at this curiously named eatery (Bengalis know what ‘nunu’ is, others can guess).
Today Dhoni is the biggest star in Indian cricket after Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar has gone beyond cricket into the realm of national icons like Gandhi and Nehru. Dhoni has gone beyond contemporary rivals and is now up there with Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar in the pantheon of Indian cricketing legends. They may have had longer careers, but the extraordinary rate at which Dhoni’s teams have won big titles ensures him a place in the big league beyond reasonable argument. Since becoming the captain in 2007, he has led India to wins in the World T20, the CB Series in Australia, the No. 1 ranking in Tests and now the original World Cup. Statistically, he is India’s most successful captain. And arguably the best.
“He is the best captain I have played under,” says Tendulkar. “He is very sharp and always alert. He reads the situation well and is open to sharing ideas. He always has discussions with bowlers, batsmen and senior players separately.”
Tendulkar has played under six captains—Srikkanth, Azharuddin, Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble and now Dhoni. He acknowledges Dhoni’s ability to maintain his composure even in tense situations. “He is always calm and never shows his frustration. These are some of the human qualities that have made him such a good captain.”
Some people say Dhoni is lucky. This is not wrong. Like Clive Lloyd and Steve Waugh, he has had great players in the team. Dhoni’s India may have lacked the consistent dominance of the West Indies of the 1980s or Australia of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but they always had potential and were hard to beat on their day. The World Cup side, for example, batted till No. 7 and had two batsmen in great touch—Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh. It had a bowler like Zaheer Khan who, despite his unflattering physique and sluggish demeanour, was unplayable throughout the tournament. Gautam Gambhir’s batting put India on the way to a famous win, but Zaheer’s opening spell was almost as important. His opening spell of 5-3-6-1 put pressure on Sri Lanka and somewhat negated Lanka’s late flourish, when they blasted 63 of five overs.
At the World T20 too, Dhoni’s other great hour, Gambhir played a critical role in the final, top-scoring with 75. Dhoni owes Gambhir a lunch at Nunu Hotel. Yuvraj Singh was also in his element in that tournament—the six sixes off Stuart Broad bore ample testimony. At the CB Series in Australia, Tendulkar was in prime form. As was, once again, Gambhir. He was the top-scorer in the tournament. Without such weapons, Dhoni would not have the record he has.
But then Dhoni brings a lot to the square himself. He has the body language of a loan recovery agent. His pectorals march out first. They are the first line of defence, the arms the second. He has natural strength and fitness, now finetuned by the team’s support staff. This makes him one of the few players who can clear the ropes even on big grounds. His leg strength is especially apparent. Even after a full innings behind the stumps, he runs his singles hard, the legs coming off the pitch with a kick.
Where batting is concerned, Dhoni has played all over the world. But he has been at his best in the Asian Subcontinent, leading to the occasional complaint of being a ‘flat track bully’. Three of his four Test centuries have been in India, one in Pakistan. Five of his seven ODI hundreds have been in India, one in Pakistan, one in Bangladesh. He is not a graceful batsman. But he is never boring. Even when he is not at his explosive best and not taking the helicopter route, his batting is streetsmart. He might remind you of Javed Miandad. At the World Cup he scored big only in the final. But he made a few vital contributions: 31 against England, 34 against Ireland and 25 against Pakistan. Importantly, he did not throw away his wicket.
The same savvy shows in his aggressive field setting. Few pitches in this World Cup had much carry, and the fast bowlers at his command are not express. Dhoni, and his bowlers, saw more sense in employing a short cover instead of a second slip. In Powerplays, the circle is crowded anyway. A short cover further plugs the gaps. Runs dry up. The batsman tries to force the pace and meets his doom. It happened to Pakistan’s Younis Khan in the semifinals. From a solid 4.5 per over, the Pakistan run rate had slowed to just over four; the asking rate had climbed to six-plus. This got to Younis, and soon enough he drove an innocuous Yuvraj delivery into the hands of Suresh Raina at cover. In the final, the field setting contributed to India’s superb overall performance in that department. Gordon Banks, the legendary England goalkeeper who made the ‘Save of the Century’ off a Pele header in the 1970 [FIFA] World Cup quarterfinal, would have been impressed at the way Yuvraj, fielding at point, threw himself at hard square cuts.
A senior player once said about Dhoni that he does not worry about the future or the past. But this could be a result of his record. When you have won so much, the future and the past take care of themselves. The present is, then, automatically the only thing you worry about. From his outlook, Dhoni does seem a person who likes to keep things simple and, significantly, do them his own way. This also means that while he respects icons, he is not overly lyrical talking about them. For example, when speaking of Tendulkar, he is respectful but never over the top. Tokenism irritates him, even if he does not show it. Take, for instance, the India versus England match in Bangalore, which ended in a tie. Tendulkar had scored a masterly hundred. But the thrilling end and the controversial UDRS in favour of England’s Ian Bell had pushed it to the background. This reflected in the post-match press conference. At the fag end, however, when the intensity was gone and everyone had started to gather their belongings, a journalist asked Dhoni in Hindi if he wanted to say something about Tendulkar’s contribution. It was a token question and not critical in the context of the day’s events. So Dhoni begged off with a smile, saying, “Bees saal se bol rahe hain, sir (Been saying it for 20 years).”
Tendulkar and Dhoni are fundamentally different. Tendulkar is the ultimate role model. Dhoni’s individualism and self-assurance sometimes result in poor decisions, like accepting a liquor endorsement (which Tendulkar had declined). But they don’t get in the way of their working relationship. On the contrary, the two feed off each other a lot. It was Tendulkar who recommended to Sharad Pawar, then BCCI president, that Dhoni be made the ODI captain after Rahul Dravid had grown weary of the job. As the seniormost player in the team, Tendulkar frequently guides Dhoni. On the other hand, Dhoni’s leadership helped Tendulkar get the World Cup win he so craved, a win that will perhaps conclusively end the insinuation that he plays for numbers.
If Dhoni does not suck up to even the high and mighty, there is no chance he will suck up to journalists, or even fans. He is put off by extremes of the Indian media and their fetish for negativity. The last straw, apparently, was the story a leading newspaper ran of a rift between him and Virender Sehwag during the 2009 World T20. Now Dhoni fulfils his duty towards the press but not more. There was a time when the player of the match would be sent for the press conference. Now, most times, only Dhoni shows up. He wants to guard his players from the media. At the World Cup, journalists complained about this to him. His reply suggested that had it not been for ICC rules, he wouldn’t even do this much. Take it or leave it. Nonetheless, as reported earlier, when he does meet the press, he is social and says some revealing things. About playing in front of political heavyweights, as happened at the semifinals against Pakistan in Mohali, Dhoni said, “There are some things you guys don’t know and it’s best you don’t know them.” On another occasion, he offered a rare peek into his occasional turmoil. When fans stoned his house after India’s defeat in the 2007 World Cup, he said, “It took me a month to get over the depression.” This is why Dhoni appears a little put off even by Indian fans. When they were lathicharged in Bangalore, he suggested it was payback for the harassment they subject players to when they lose.
For now, though, life is a dream for Dhoni. He laughed and giggled through his press conference after the final. He would start an answer and then forget what the question was. The press did not mind. If they did, too bad. Nothing matters now. Dhoni can do what he wants.