Cricket is an indulgence. Like the lingering aroma of coffee, the inebriating essence of the game grows on you. You start with something, let it brew and sometimes, it becomes romance, sometimes; poetry. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni stepped down as captain of India’s limited-overs side, the poem changed the meter.
The winning six over long-on in the final of the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup was Dhoni’s shot at immortality as captain, or was it? What about 2007 when he gambled a World T20 final by throwing the ball to lesser known Joginder Sharma, or 2013 when he staked his reputation and the Champions Trophy on Ishant Sharma and he delivered?
If you go to a Dhobi-ghat, the air there reverberates with the sound of clothes slapping stone. Dhoni’s bat, in the early days, used to work a lot like that- thwacking the leather off the ball, as the air around him rang with his confidence.
But captaincy brought about a decisive change in his batting- from a gun-slinging middle-order batsman to a calm, purposive anchor, Dhoni raised his batsmanship. Since taking over as captain in 2007, Dhoni scored 6633 runs at an incredibly high average of 53.92, compared to the 2477 runs at 44.23 when he was not the team’s captain. He inherited a new team, in an unknown format albeit with proven performers. There were better batsmen than him- Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh, and more seasoned campaigners – Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, and Irfan Pathan but the side was low on morale after the 50-over world cup debacle in the West Indies.
The challenge before Dhoni was to call on a side, under the cosh, to forge a winning habit. The team responded to his outlook as India went on to win the inaugural World T20 championship in South Africa.
His captaincy, straddling nine years, had panache, clairvoyance, and an unnerving confidence, that set him apart from his contemporaries. More than anything else, the surprise element in his plan ensured that Dhoni was always ahead of his opponent.
Be it tossing the new ball to Ravichandran Ashwin, or choking Australia with a defensive, but highly productive 8-1 off-side field in 2008, Dhoni caught the opposition unawares and waited for the drama to unfold.
Dhoni’s deadpan expression occasionally gave the impression that he was not absolutely sure about things. That a bowling change or a rearrangement in the field was but a roll of the dice. If it did not work, he would roll again. The cool and calm approach reflected on the team, helping India win matches, including the three major ICC-tournaments across two limited-overs format.
He was Indian cricket’s outsider. The 22 yards was not a shrine, but a sanctuary, a getaway from the chaos of the media, words of the coach and burden of results. In victory and in defeat, with sweat flooding his forehead, Dhoni maintained the composure of a monk- his smile; measured, words; precise and reaction; calm.
He was an astute observer of the game, planning everything down to the last detail. His mind worked like a computer, where the number of balls left and runs needed were mere bytes, programmed together to contrive a complex algorithm of success.
Not for him, the jitters of a tight game or the thrills of a monumental win. He had a job to do, he did it and went back into the confines of his own world.
Dhoni is one of the fittest athletes in international cricket today- the nimble movement behind the stumps, the lightening running between the wickets and a strong throwing arm all stand a testament to that. He gives a lot of importance to performance-based training evidenced by the fitness culture ushered into the team ever since he assumed the mantle of leadership. The likes of Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli, who are today considered among the best fielders in the game, are all products of Dhoni’s school of robustness.
There will be debates about the timing of his decision, questions asked about his temperament but for Dhoni, giving up captaincy was the denouement of just another sub-plot, the beginning of a new end. There have been captains before Dhoni, and there will be captains after, but captain cool, will forever be etched in memory as the skipper who was at once, in the game and out of it, for whom, winning was a job and not a mortal combat.