The other day I was watching a Sourav Ganguly interview on TV in which he was talking about spotting MS Dhoni’s big-hitting abilities and asking selectors to pick him. What unfolded after that is well chronicled in MS Dhoni: The Untold Story — the latter's biopic.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Dhoni’s epochal 148 against Pakistan at Vizag in his fifth ODI appearance changed the course of Indian cricket. Ganguly told that whenever he meets Dhoni, he still asks him to play like he did back in 2005 using his power to just smack the ball as hard as he can without worrying about the result. But no matter how dearly Dhoni fans, and that includes Ganguly, wish to see the old Dhoni, one knows it’s impossible to turn back time. The master aggressor is now an expert in winning it with a clinical rearguard.
Dhoni is still capable of bludgeoning a cricket ball. But like an ageing lion, he now waits for an eternity to find an easier prey to fulfill his appetite. This also means that there are days when the ageing lion ends up waiting too long and has to sleep hungry. This happened in July this year in the fourth ODI against West Indies in Antigua.
Chasing a meagre 190 to win, Dhoni walked in earlier than usual with India in a spot of bother after losing the third wicket in the thirteenth over. Those of us who were awake and watching it on TV didn’t have a worry in the world because Dhoni was still there. A few dozen “Keep calm and Trust Dhoni” tweets and WhatsApp messages induced a few yawns and added to the drudgery of a night of watching a low-scoring game on a slow pitch.
On this occasion though, we saw a barely recognisable Dhoni labouring his way to 54 of 114 balls, more inclined towards preserving his end instead of looking to knock off the target ahead of him. When there was a need to score quick runs, he looked at the other end for help. Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja both connected on a few occasions, but both perished trying to go for glory. It was up to Dhoni to put up one of his Houdini acts now.
Having shackled himself throughout the innings, could he call on his magic and escape just in time, or would he drown under the rising pressure? The final act came with a familiar powerful heave over midwicket that couldn’t clear the boundary rope, and instead went straight to the fielder. Houdini had drowned himself and the pain of losing his magical touch was all too apparent on his face. The man who was famous for never flinching in the face of disaster looked grave sitting in the dressing room after the loss.
Before the Sri Lanka series, chief selector MSK Prasad gave a vote of confidence in Dhoni’s ability, but also made it clear that he is not an automatic choice. An ultimatum was sent the way of the 2011 World Cup-winning captain and rightly so. In a cricketing nation spoilt for choices, no one can take his place for granted, not even the mighty Dhoni.
In the second ODI against Sri Lanka in Kandy, Dhoni was in an Antigua-like situation again. After a usual flowing partnership between openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, Akila Dhananjaya took six wickets before you could complete saying his full name, and had the Sri Lankans “dancing in the aisles” as Tony Greig would have said for the first time in this series.
The required run rate was manageable and all Dhoni had to do was to see Dhananjaya off and shepherd the tail. He had a more than able tailender in Bhuvneshwar Kumar at the other end. The fans may have lost some of their faith in Dhoni, but the Sri Lankans had suffered at his hands enough to have anything but awe for the man.
Dhoni’s innings had just one boundary that came through the way of an agricultural drag to wide long on. But the task of blunting the Dhananjaya threat was expertly handled. A bit like how Muttiah Muralitharan was tamed at Wankhede in Mumbai and the mystery of Ajantha Mendis was deciphered and dealt with a few years before that, once again by Dhoni along with the likes of Virender Sehwag and others.
The impact of a natural leader such as Dhoni in the team can’t just be measured in terms of numbers written against his name on the scorecard. The way he empowered Bhuvneshwar by delegating him the responsibility to be the aggressor once he looked set shows the value of having his wisdom and experience on the field.
Dhoni is no longer an intrepid commando who will enter the enemy territory alone with just a knife and hope to annihilate an entire army. He is an experienced general who has seen enough wars to know that one's chances of winning get better if every soldier in your troop understands the value of a well-orchestrated and well-timed charge. He may or may not be the first one out with a rifle in his hand every time, but he will always play to win.