New Delhi: Constant evolution and a deep understanding of his strengths made Mahendra Singh Dhoni a modern great, former India wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta said while adding that the recently-retired cricketer is the "most cerebral" he has come across.
Dhoni, a veteran of 350 ODIs and 98 T20Is, called time on his international career on Saturday, triggering an outpouring of tributes from cricketing and non-cricketing quarters. He remains the only skipper in world cricket to win all ICC trophies, besides leading his team to No 1 ranking in Tests.
Dasgupta, who made his international debut in 2001, almost three years before Dhoni first donned the India colours, said that while the "X-factor" was always visible in the young trailblazer, the way he continuously adapted to the changing dynamics of the game formed the bedrock of his success.
"The first time I heard of him was in 2002-03 ahead of a Bengal versus Bihar Ranji Trophy game. Some of our Bengal boys had seen him before at a KSCA tournament in Bangalore, where he did what he did best - hitting really big sixes. He never really lost that strength. A lot of players lose their strengths while working on their weaknesses, but Dhoni was different. He is a perfect example of using your strength as a foundation to build your game.
"We knew he had this X factor; it was very evident. His journey from a young 20-something to now is a great learning in itself for everyone. From zonal cricket to Ranji Trophy to India, his game continued to evolve. He is easily the most cerebral cricketer I have come across in my life. He never changed who he was while making those adjustments," the cricketer-turned-commentator told Firstpost.
The 'adjustments' in question ranged from his batting to wicketkeeping. Known for hitting towering sixes at will, Dhoni, without abandoning his great strength, proceeded to develop a knack of running hard singles. Likewise in 'keeping, he moved from being a safe keeper to among the all-time greats, thanks to developing quick hands and mastering anticipation.
The twin innovations, Dasgupta reckons, were embraced without compromising on the fundamentals on which his game was built.
"In batting, his strength was hitting fours and sixes, but as his career progressed, he started to understand that while he can hit two boundaries in an over, it is also important to make use of the other four deliveries (of that over). So he got very good at rotating the strike over a period of time.
"Also, he was very sure of his hitting areas. He always preferred hitting straight down the ground, and throughout his career, you would hardly find him hitting across. He is the only 'keeper I know who didn't sweep. So he knew his strengths and backed himself," Dasgupta, who played with and against Dhoni in East Zone and Ranji Trophy, said.
"When we talk of his wicketkeeping, he was a safe keeper when he came in, but he developed and improved. Again, what stood out is that he never changed his strengths, but built on them. Among his great strengths was his ability to read the game and players. He also had a rare match and situational awareness that kept him ahead of the game. That helped his 'keeping and batting immensely.
"Since he could read the game so well, he would know what the bowler was thinking, and that way he could plan his shots. The same goes for 'keeping. Depending on his reading of the game, he would know what lengths or areas the bowlers will or should bowl. It also helped him guide spinners from behind the wickets," Dasgupta explained.
Dhoni effected 321 catches and 123 stumpings in his ODI career, and another 57 catches and 34 stumpings in his T20I stint. While he would not dive too much, his fast hands and quick reflexes ensured he was exceptional against spinners - ranging from Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, among others.
Dasgupta believes that Dhoni's anticipation, stemming from his astute reading of the game and the pitch, played a major role in his storied success against spinners on all kinds of tracks.
"The reason he was so good against spinners was because of his assessment of the game and the pitch. He would understand the bounce very well, and he could preempt a lot of things. He always had that instinct and credit to him, he built on this over time. That's the reason he became a better 'keeper over the years. Yet, when you look at him, the fundamentals of his 'keeping didn't change much, but he became better at preempting where the ball would finish."
An admirer of Dhoni's indigenous and instinctive methods, Dasgupta conceded that Dhoni's approach made him look at the concepts of wicketkeeping in a different light and helped him get rid of the opaque fundamentals that characterise the trade.
"His cricket was not about technique or hitting a thousand balls each day, or taking a thousand catches. His preparation and approach were totally different. My idea of wicketkeeping changed as I watched him go about his business. I was forced to rethink the technique and what was really essential.
"Like most 'keepers, I was stuck with cliches of footwork and receiving the ball, but he was someone who would force you to rethink and reassess the importance of those cliches. He would make you think of the ways to work around them. His strength was not his fast hands or helicopter shot, it was his mind," he said.
Dasgupta, however, cautions young 'keepers looking to emulate Dhoni's unconventional methods. These methods, the former Bengal cricketer believes, can be perfected with practice but need a thorough understanding of one's basics.
"A lot of wicketkeepers look to emulate him without understanding their game or strengths. As a 'keeper, you can look to take your hands towards the ball to save the extra fraction of second, but the timing of when you close your hand is a very important aspect of that act. Kids can look to practice that, but it is equally important to understand what worked for Dhoni was that he had very soft hands and his timing was impeccable.
"His career is worth studying. It may be difficult to replicate, but if you look at the fundamentals on which he based his career, it will serve as a brilliant teacher."
Dhoni's departure has left the current Indian team without a reliable fall-back option. The 39-year-old didn't play a game since the World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand last year as India oscillated between Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul for the wicketkeeping role, with Sanju Samson getting two T20Is against the Kiwis earlier this year, though not as a 'keeper.
While Wriddhiman Saha continues to be the best 'keeper in the country, he is well past 35 and underwent a finger surgery late last year. Pant, considered a natural replacement of Dhoni, has courted criticism for his reckless batting while Rahul is yet to cement a Test spot.
"I agree, the void is there. There are Pant and Rahul as frontrunners, and then there are Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson on the fringes. But honestly, I think 'keeping is an aspect that needs to be looked at deeper and at a more fundamental level. There is a lot of work to be done. I am a big advocate of having keeper-coaches at the junior level. At the grassroots and association level, it is very important to have coaches who cater to wicketkeepers, and help them understand the technique," he said.
Together with Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel, Dasgupta formed the promising group of wicketkeepers whose international careers never took off thanks to Dhoni's consistent success, but the 43-year-old, who played eight Tests and five ODIs, doesn't harbour any regrets or hard feelings.
"Dhoni's success never frustrated me, and there are two reasons for that. First, he was a very nice guy, and secondly, he was better than me, or all of us. I believe if someone is better than you, you just accept it and move on. You obviously compete, but if someone is better than you, you just have to accept it," he signed off.
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