A last ball six. A persona exuding nonchalance and calmness. A hardly-there grin in moments of victory, brought about by his superhuman efforts with the bat. A leader and the best finisher that ever graced the game.
Fast-foward to 2017, when the struggle for sixes have risen and the layer of unfazed exterior has given way to a flustered and perplexed being. Maybe, he is frustrated with the constant scrutiny around him. Maybe, he does not understand why spectators make a huge hullabaloo in his inability to finish off games as before. Are they coming in too hard at him, failing to realise that he too is human? Or maybe, he is just angry with himself, for failing to recreate the magic consistently as he fumbles and fumes his way to runs.
The strange saga of Mahendra Singh Dhoni alternatively called Captain Cool, the Best Finisher, Sixer King or the Man with the Midas Touch. In a day and age when audiences in India accord a cricketer with a status that can be equated to a demi-god, Dhoni was India's Zeus. The ruler of Indian cricket. The most powerful batsman and captain who could overthrow records and establish his own legacy in the realm of the sport.
And so it continued, year after year. As 'Mahi' rose to further glories, the endearment levels rocketed sky-high. As he pocketed the maiden T20 World Cup in 2007 with a group of youngsters or bagged the coveted World Cup in 2011 with the experienced, Dhoni's aura had been stamped and it could hardly ever be tarnished.
Or so, one had thought. Following the cruel norms of existence, the struggles rapidly caught on with the unparalleled successes, threatening to push Dhoni's achievements far into the horizon. A Test exit was soon followed with a replenishment of captaincy in the limited-overs format. Just when Dhoni believed that he could concentrate on his playing career sans any burdens, the ghosts of inconsistency and mistimed shots, especially in the T20 format grasped him so strongly that an exit from its clutches seems a miraculous reality.
In 82 T20 International matches, Dhoni has scored 1281 runs at an average of 35.58, with just a half-century to his name. Since January 2016, he has managed 407 runs at an average of 40.70 in 30 matches. Even in team losses, he has averaged 34.83 which increases to 47 in the 2nd innings of a defeat. His strike rate too is at an impressive 128.94 in losses, so why are the cruel glares staring down at him?
But where the figures deceive is the manner in which the runs have been scored. This Dhoni is no longer the batsman who can go in for a big hit early on in his innings. He will need time to settle down, till which his strike rate will hover around the 100 mark. Once he has settled down, the onslaught of multiple boundaries begins. And this is where the problem lies. T20 cricket remains a format in which each shot and each delivery is of utmost importance. Each dot ball or for that matter, even a continuous spree of singles hampers the run rate, adding additional pressure.
With Dhoni constantly batting at number 5 or 6 in the format, he ends up walking to the crease in the death overs, where it becomes imperative to cash in on the foundation laid down by the openers from the word-go. On an average, Dhoni takes 23 deliveries to settle down at the crease, in which he barely crosses a strike rate of beyond 100. Once he has had adequate time to adjust to the bowling and the demands of the pitch, he is able to flex his muscles for the lofty hits. From a strike rate of 100 in his initial phase of batting, his strike rate boomerangs in excess of 125 by the end.
But, herein lies the debate. Is Dhoni placed in the T20 team only to hit a couple of deliveries after a phase of no-show? Would it not have been better if the side had a batsman who could strike the ball from the very start? In most scenarios, when Dhoni is unable to stay beyond his 'initial phase of settling in', it puts vast amounts of pressure on his team-mates as one starts to haplessly compare the Dhoni that was and the Dhoni that is.
His distress was evident in the 10th edition of the Indian Premier League, where his average of 26.36 was the lowest that it has been in any season of the domestic league and his strike rate of 116 starkly contrasting the strike rate of 135.25 notched up last year.
"But Dhoni came in late in the innings."
"Cricket remains a team game."
"If the Indian team lost, why could not the other players contribute more? Dhoni alone should not be blamed."
The cryptic comments from supporters that come pouring in after a failed innings remains a matter of much amusement. Yes, Dhoni comes in at number 5 or 6 regularly and this is where he has established himself as a great. Yes, it will be foolish to expect him to play a match-winning knock in every game but when the inability to get the team across the line looms larger than the match-winning knocks, it does remain a matter of concern.
The Indian team at present, has players like Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli who can anchor the innings to perfection and the reason Dhoni has been thrust down the order is because the team needs a finisher who can ably support the Hardik Pandyas and Shreyas Iyers. Dhoni had seemed perfect in that role
Yes, one player alone can not be blamed for a loss but when one player's prowess is clearly on the decline, with the pristine shot-making and the jaw-dropping helicopter shot a rare-sighting, it is time to question the player's position and role in the team.
In the One Day Internationals, where the number of overs matches Dhoni's renewed style of play, his impact can not be questioned. But in the T20s, when knocks of 8 runs in 22 balls become a common phenomena, it is time to wonder whether Dhoni does deserve a spot in the playing eleven.