The floodlights at Wankhede Stadium were on in full glory that warm April evening. Sri Lanka, having scored 274 in the World Cup finals of 2011, had just sent Virendra Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli back to the hut. The huge scoreboard over the MCA pavilion almost reluctantly changed the display to 114 for 3 even as spectators in the stands — on the edge of their seats — had started biting their nails.
The 42,000 people at the ground and another 135 million Indians at home, watching the live telecast, feared the worst; would they see a repeat of the 1996 semifinals at Kolkata? But what happened next gave rise to a collective gasp of disbelief. Walking out ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh at number 5 was Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The Indian skipper had shown indifferent form through the event and not even his most ardent fans expected him to do well, as a batsman, in the finals.
As he made his way down the dressing room stairway, the media box at the opposite end of the ground too was horror-struck. Ayaz Memon – cricket writer par excellence — revealed recently that one of the journalists there said, “Pagal hua hai!” (He’s gone crazy!), when he saw Dhoni saunter to the middle.
Dhoni’s innings that evening is now part of cricketing folklore. For the record, he scored a brilliant, unbeaten 91 and for good measure, thumped Kulasekara into the stands beyond long on to win for India the World Cup after 28 long years.
‘Mahi’, as he is better known to his friends, has always been a non-conformist and someone who, as a norm, did things the unconventional way. He revealed much later why he had batted ahead of Yuvraj Singh — who had had a brilliant hundred against the West Indies and an unbeaten 57 against the Australians in the run up to the finals:
He said, “With two off-spinners operating for Sri Lanka, I didn’t want two lefthanders at the crease. Gautam Gambhir was batting well so I thought I could give him company, rotate the strike and cause problems for the Sri Lankans with a left-right combination. Also, I had played Muralitharan a lot and was confident I could score against him.”
It made sense, in hindsight!
It was roses, roses all the way…
Despite a batting and ‘keeping technique of his own, Dhoni made it to the Indian ODI side in December 2004. He took over the captaincy in the limited overs format in 2007, after the debacle at the World Cup in the Caribbean Isles. A year later, he became India’s Test captain too.
Spending a decade at the helm, he won for India the World T20 Championship in 2007, the Asia Cup, the World Cup in 2011 and the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013. In 2009, India attained the number one rank in Tests. What’s more, he not only became a role model for young cricketers in the country but his leadership methods were discussed and adopted in some of the most professional corporate houses in India. A few high-profile business magazines too dissected his style of captaincy.
Captain Cool’s vision for the Indian team was simple. He wanted India to ‘play as a team’. He made sure that every member of the team enjoyed himself, took pride in each other’s performances and took the field as a team, not as individuals. ‘Let’s hunt in packs,’ was his watchword.
He was aware of the tremendous burden that each member of the team carried on his shoulders; what with more than a billion Indians expecting them to win every time they entered the ground.That, he said, was the reason he kept things simple and kept communication channels open. He involved the seniors in decision-making and picked their brains on cricketing matters. Their help was also sought to mentor the junior players.
When his house in Ranchi was stoned after India performed dismally in the 2007 World Cup, Dhoni had an early lesson on the capriciousness of the Indian cricket follower. He knew that the captaincy crown would bring with it status, admiration, fan following and lots and lots of dough; at the same time it could also be a ‘crown of thorns’. He knew well that the roses and myrtle in his path (‘The Patriot’ by Robert Browning) could someday turn to stones being flung by ‘whoever has a mind’.
Alack, it was I who leaped at the sun …
The stones came sooner than expected. The IPL match-fixing and betting scandals broke out in 2013 and Dhoni’s name was dragged in the muck along with that of Chennai Super Kings’ head honcho, N Srinivasan and his son-in-law, Gurunath Meiyappan.
Another CSK player, who was also on the radar, reveals how Dhoni reacted to the whole affair. “Have you done anything wrong?” the player was asked by his skipper. “If not, don’t worry!” All the same, sensation-hunting media persons cast aspersions and speculated on their involvement.
A few months after the World Cup triumph of 2011, news filtered out of the Indian dressing room that all was not well between Dhoni and some of the senior players in the side. In fact, Yuvraj’s father, former Test pacer, Yograj Singh even went public with the differences between his son and the skipper, which Yuvraj promptly denied, of course.
Some media persons viciously hounded him with questions regarding the IPL scandal and his role (including that of his ‘friend’, Srinivasan) in the sordid affair. Many of them, amazingly, even wanted to know when he would call it a day! Dhoni, therefore, zipped up his lips. This was uncharacteristic of the person he really is. In the few mandatory press interactions he had subsequently, he would lace his answers with sarcasm aimed at his cynics and baiters.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was perhaps the ODI series in Bangladesh, in 2015, which India lost. Mustafizur, the freakish pacer had the Indian batsmen in a tizzy in these matches. India had earlier lost in the semifinals at the World Cup. During this series, Virat Kohli publicly criticized India’s approach in the matches and a couple of Dhoni’s CSK colleagues had to defend their skipper at media conferences. This would surely have hurt.
Dhoni, as is his wont, all of a sudden decided to retire from traditional cricket after the Boxing Day Test, in Australia, in 2014. He abdicated his ‘throne’, in its entirety, a couple of days before the recent India-England ODI series for ‘crown prince’ Virat Kohli to take over. This supposedly was done after a ‘quiet talk’ with the chief of selectors.
The heartening news, after the tete-a-tete with M.S.K. Prasad, was that the former skipper would continue to play for India in the shorter version of the game, ‘if selected’.
One more World Cup winners’ picture, left extreme…
Dhoni has, quite often, expressed the desire to play the 2019 World Cup in England and Wales. The million dollar question is: will the selectors let him? Here are five good reasons why he should be on the flight to London in May 2019:
1. He is by far India’s best wicket-keeping bet for the next couple of years. He may be unorthodox but as far as effectiveness is concerned, he is head and shoulders above any other ‘keeper in the land. Moreover, as a ‘keeper, with years and years of experience behind him, he will be in the best position to guide bowlers and advice the skipper on key issues during a match. Rishabh Pant is perhaps somebody the selectors would look at to groom for the next World Cup. It would be prudent, however, to have him as Dhoni’s understudy and to blood him only if he improves considerably in the run on to the big event.
2. He is still one of the most dangerous limited overs batsmen in the world. Team India needs a thoroughbred in the middle order with the ability to rotate the strike intelligently, run sharp singles and to launch into an assault in the end overs. Besides the famous ‘helicopter shot’, he still possesses a range of strokes, and the power, to befuddle the best bowlers the world over.
3. There’s no substitute for experience, especially at an event like the World Cup. Dhoni has been there, done that! He has won a World Cup for India — that was elusive for 28 years — and almost did it a second time in 2015. He knows the ropes and his counsel will hold the Indian team in good stead in the prestigious event, especially on the softer tracks of Ol’ Blighty.
4. The new-look Indian team is young and brash. Skipper Kohli is also known to be aggressive, and impatient with his players, by nature. In all its impetuousness and spontaneity, the team will need the cool head of a ‘senior citizen’ like Dhoni on the ground. Off the ground, of course, the team couldn’t have asked for a better set of strategists: The brains of Anil Kumble, the experience of Dhoni and the aggression and passion of Kohli.
5. Dhoni’s presence in the team is a huge psychological advantage. With the ability to turn things upside down in a few overs, teams all over the world fear him. He will be discussed at length, for sure, in the opposition dressing rooms, thus lessening the pressure on other members of Team India.
6. Finally, if and when India wins the World Cup of 2019, see if you can find Mahendra Singh Dhoni on the extreme left of the picture. He might still be there!
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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2017 10:10:32 IST