As the Indian Premier League (IPL) season of 2018 draws to a close, there is one man who has remained relevant right through its 11 seasons. In fact, like fine wine, he has matured with age. A man named Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Russell Radhakrishnan, the Chennai Super Kings’ (CSK) manager once said, “If we could, we would spend our entire player budget to get Mahi back into the CSK fold.” Chennai is Dhoni’s second home and for his Tamil fans, he is ‘Thalaiva’.
If Mahi is CSK’s pride, he is the envy of the other IPL franchises. Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta have on several occasions rued the fact that they couldn’t get Dhoni to play for their teams. Vijay Mallya and Raj Kundra, when they were associated with the IPL, had said that they would give anything to rope him in for their squads. That Dhoni has played seven of the 10 IPL finals, till date, isn’t coincidence. He may well be on his way to playing another final on 27 May, at the Wankhede Stadium — a place where he won the historic World Cup final for India in 2011.
Gary Kirsten, the India coach when the World Cup was won, said of him: “I would go to war with Dhoni by my side.”
Who is this man, this legend — who will turn 37 in a couple of months, and is still a match-winner and one of the best wicketkeeper-batsmen in the world, in white-ball cricket? Limited overs and T20 cricket, mind you, are for young, super-fit and driven players.
For me, if there is one quality that makes him stand out among the best, it is a clear, uncluttered mind. Speaking to sports psychologist, Rudi Webster (Think Like a Champion), Dhoni said, “Empty your mind of its trash and stay in the moment and you will be surprised to see what you can do. Being in the moment calms your mind, stops you from thinking about too many things, and helps you to play one ball at a time.”
Dhoni has often told of how he plays a song in his mind as the bowler runs up to bowl, and then switches to an intense focus — on the ball — as the bowler is in his delivery stride. “The song helps me empty my mind,” he has said. This also helps him switch-on and switch-off between deliveries when he is keeping wickets.
It is believed that Dhoni is naturally gifted with ‘alpha level brainwave’ frequency; what sports psychologists call ‘centering’. Therefore, he never looks anxious, even under intense pressure and he hardly ever seems overly excited when he crosses personal milestones or when his team wins.
Another quality that separates him from lesser mortals is his self-confidence and high self-esteem. Dhoni knows what he can do and what he can’t. In the World Cup final of 2011, when he decided to walk in to bat before the in-form Yuvraj Singh, it was his belief-in-self that prompted the move. It is the confidence in his abilities, as a batsman and as a ‘keeper, which helps Dhoni lead from the front. He won’t demand something of his players that he can’t do himself. It is this quality that endears him to teammates — both seniors and juniors.
“When the best leaders’ work is done, people say, ‘we did it ourselves’”, said Lao-Tsu. Dhoni is that sort of leader. It’s common knowledge now that he is hardly ever found ‘centre-stage’ in group pictures, where Team India or CSK has won.
“The captain must lead by example to get the trust, respect and support of his team. The people I lead carry the expectations of 1.2 billion people, so I help them by keeping everything as simple as possible and by creating an atmosphere that will give confidence and motivation to each and everyone to do his best,” Dhoni told Webster, when he was India skipper a few years ago.
Dhoni isn’t exactly a purists’ delight in the way that he bats. Even his wicket-keeping isn’t technically correct. But hard work and common sense have helped him get over his technical shortcomings to the extent that on most occasions bowlers have found it difficult to sort him out. Most ‘keepers ‘give’ while collecting the ball; Dhoni doesn’t. That accounts for his ‘lightning-quick’ stumpings and reflex catches!
He is known to spend some time at the wicket, nudging the ball around, before he launches into his patented scoring shots; the slap over point, the bottom-handed cover drive, the hoick between long-off and long-on and the ‘helicopter shot’ over mid-wicket. But he keeps the scoreboard ticking while he is settling in. The short ball bowled outside off-stump is deftly played to square-leg, with a movement outside off-stump and a slight hop to keep the ball down, for singles. That very ball, after a while could be ‘slapped’ for a six over the point boundary.
He is a thinker and a great reader of the game. His inputs from behind the stumps have helped bowlers like Ashwin, Jadeja, Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav find their bearings at the highest levels. Dhoni is now a ‘leader without a title’ in the Indian team, and this ‘leadership role’ has been spoken about in glowing terms by none other than India’s present skipper, Virat Kohli.
Dhoni is someone who believes it is his duty to pass on his experience, and knowledge of the game, to young aspirants who dream of playing for the country some day. The great man took some time off to speak to young Shivam Mavi and Ishan Kishan during recent IPL matches. Both of them are now Dhoni-fans; that’s the sort of charisma he possesses.
He is extremely fit for somebody in his late thirties. Yo-yo tests or not, he has always been quick between the wickets. Besides strong legs and torso — which provide him with a stable base to play big shots – his extra-quick arm-speed is a boon for both batting and ‘keeping. It is believed that Dhoni would shun fitness training in his younger days. But with the increasing demands of T20 and ODIs, he now realises that natural fitness won’t take him far.
Dhoni’s is an extraordinary example of brain and brawn working in unison. A legend who is simple and grounded, he loves competition and enjoys his cricket. He loves spending time with his family, his wife, his lovely daughter, Ziva and of course his pet dogs. More importantly, he knows how to unwind and switch-off from his cricket and business responsibilities.
Is it surprising then that Mahendra Singh Dhoni is still ‘the boss’ in Indian cricket?
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer.