Dhoni the Captain: Cool. Thinking, DaringJanuary 5, 2017
Sidharth Monga, in ESPNcricinfo.com where the title is “A reputation staked on bold decisions, Dhoni makes one more”
There is a great little story, almost confirmed, but better off without a final confirmation, about India’s – perhaps the world’s – best limited-overs captain. In the 2007 World T20 final, when MS Dhoni asked Joginder Sharma to bowl the final over ahead of Harbhajan Singh, he told this domestic workhorse something. It was either at the start of the over, when Pakistan needed 13 to win, or after the six by Misbah-Ul-Haq, which left them needing six runs off four balls.
In the high-pressure final, against the great rivals Pakistan, having given up a winning position in a match India originally had no business winning, amid blaring music, this man, in his first tournament as an international captain, told Joginder, two years younger to 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.”Dhoni’s last-over call to have Joginder Sharma bowl to Misbah-Ul-Haq with a World T20 title on the line is one of many calculated risks that paid off during his captaincy reign © Getty Images
Like with many things Dhoni, it can’t be said with certainty if he believes in concepts such as larger fairness or destiny. It is also not a Dhoni-like thing to say. He, after all, sought to take all emotion out of his cricket. At the same time Dhoni is not an unemotional person; he just shies from expressing them.
This was too grand a thing for Dhoni to say, but then again what explains his promoting himself in the 2011 World Cup final in a grand way? Whatever it was, it calmed Joginder down. Dhoni would continue doing that for a majority of the next nine years in limited-overs cricket. Calm India the cricket team down. Calm India down. To the followers of a cricket team that could lose from any situation, he showed they could do the opposite: win from any situation, through this calmness.
A quintessential Dhoni image will be his lips covered with those camouflage gloves after watching a fast bowler not bowl to his field and go for a boundary. The cricket field was not a place to get angry or emotional on. The team needed calculated decisions not desperate gambles. He only gambled when all else failed. He is too proud a cricketer to rely on chance.
It was in this calm that he told Hardik Pandya to take his time in the last over against Bangladesh in Bangalore last year because – and only Dhoni thought of such things at these times – you can’t be fined once the last over has begun within the stipulated time.
Yet it is the revolution that India need to thank Dhoni the most for. Behind the scenes, Dhoni completely transformed India’s limited-overs cricket. He did what Greg Chappell wanted to do but he did so without the emotional upheaval.
Twice in his captaincy he made unpopular calls and stuck by them no matter the consequences. In 2007-08 he got rid of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly because they were just too slow for modern limited-overs cricket. In his biopic, a rare cricketing insight has him justifying the call by saying their lack of rotation of strike had begun to put pressure on other batsmen. Plus add the extra runs in the field on those large unforgiving Australian grounds. He was happy to change his own game to basically do what Dravid did but at a higher strike rate through more ones and twos.
In 2011-12, perhaps at the lowest point of his captaincy, having lost seven continuous away Tests, Dhoni again decided to swim against the tide. He believed that playing all three of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir in the same XI cost them 20 runs each game – yes he put a number to it – and kept resting one of the three throughout the long tri-series in Australia. It didn’t matter even if it meant resting Tendulkar when his turn came.
While he did so, Dhoni made sure the newcomers got enough opportunities amid the popular clamour for the beloved stars. Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Suresh Raina in limited-overs cricket, and Virat Kohli in Tests owe Dhoni a lot for his faith when others didn’t believe in them.
Why Dhoni didn’t make unpopular calls in Tests is likely to remain a mystery if his biopic is anything to go by, but when cricket was finite, when he had to make the most of limited resources at disposal, Dhoni was unparalleled. When there was a result in sight, Dhoni switched on spectacularly. Before afternoon or night games, he makes sure he sleeps till late so that he is fresh for the game, and then gives it his all, physically and mentally.
The victories just came as a consequence. It is no surprise he is the only captain to have won all three limited-overs ICC trophies. Yet the last year and a half is certain to have taken its toll. Ever since the World Cup in 2015, played less than two months after he surprised everybody around the new year by retiring from Tests, there was bound to be speculation around his future. If he was not going to be around at the age of 39, going into the 2019 World Cup, what was the point carrying on?
Then he started losing close games. Kagiso Rabada denied him 11 in a last over. Who knows if he lost his calm when his partners swung for the hills with just eight required in the last over in a Twenty20 international in Zimbabwe? The gravest blow would have been when Dwayne Bravo outsmarted him in a Twenty20 international in Florida. Defending just seven in that last over, Bravo did what Dhoni has got many a bowler do to the opposition: slow the game down – over rate doesn’t matter once the final over begins, remember – and force the batsman to take a risk.
And now at 199 ODIs as captain, around another new year, without any fanfare or explanation, even in the days of this new superficially transparent board, Dhoni has quit as captain. He could have easily gone on because the England limited-overs series is hardly anybody’s concern during the times of Lodha.
That would be unlike Dhoni, though. Perhaps Dhoni has had enough of thinking for others. Perhaps he just wants to bat freely now. Let Kohli decide where he bats. Or if he bats at all. For this is a bold and humble decision. There is concession in it that he is not sure anymore if he will keep picking himself till the 2019 World Cup. That the new captain should see the highs and lows of limited-overs before he goes into the big event. That the new captain gets time to build his own team. That Dhoni himself will not continue playing in the XI just by the virtue of being the captain. That he is leaving his fate in the hands of the new captain and the selectors. Just like he once ruled on the future of Ganguly, Laxman and Dravid.
You wonder if Dhoni has told himself cricket will not let him down now.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo