He led the game with dignity and with minimal fuss
One of cricket’s all-time greats, Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced his decision to retire from test cricket with immediate effect in a statement issued by the BCCI, “citing the strain of playing all formats of cricket.”
There was no build-up. No farewell. Not even a hint of what was coming when he addressed his last post-game press conference as captain of the Indian test team. The timing and his decision to retire from test cricket caught everyone off-guard.
However it should not come across as a surprise as it is reflective of a man who thinks, plays the game and does things in his own unique way. That is quintessentially what makes Mahendra Singh Dhoni such a captivating individual. Dhoni has never been a man to seek attention or bask in the spotlight. Quiet and unassuming, he drew an end to his six year tenure as test captain and an almost decade long test match career with minimal fuss. He had nothing more to prove in the test game and with the next generation of cricketers coming through the ranks, he felt this was the right time to leave. At only 33 years of age, he still has many years of cricket left in him and only he knows the toll that playing test cricket has on his body.
“MS came to cricket like a tiger and left like a lion,” said team director Ravi Shastri following his retirement. Mahendra Singh Dhoni draws universal respect and will go down in the Indian cricket pantheon as leading them to their most test match victories as skipper and taking them to the number 1 test ranking for the first time in history.
Test cricket did not come naturally to MS Dhoni. He was unorthodox, even ungainly at times- yet for the most part, he was effective. That he finished up the game being India’s most successful wicket-keeper batsman and captain is reflective of his remarkable abilities. His batting average (38.09) was the highest by an Indian keeper, and his 294 test dismissals the 5th highest in the history of the game. He will end his career having the best winning percentage as test skipper with 27 wins and had the honour of captaining the side in the most number of matches (60). In fact two-thirds of his test career was as captain.
The story of MS Dhoni is an inspiring tale of a small-town middle-class lad that dared to dream and eventually became a household name. It is the sort of rags to riches story that epitomizes modern India and inspires a generation. He is from Ranchi, a city in the poor north eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. Dhoni was more adept as a football goal keeper than a natural with the gloves. His swings with the bat, strong wrists and raw power could have been easily utilised in a different sport such as golf or baseball or in a different profession like the army. He even had a stint as a train ticket inspector and few would have guessed that he would go on to be the biggest earner the sport has seen.
“Small-town boys from places like this just don’t get to be captain of India. And it is mostly because of Dhoni that there is so much attention. In many ways it is an under-developed, backward place [Ranchi]. But it is known in cricket thanks to Dhoni,” commented one Indian cricket journalist.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni was street-smart and had the unique ability to soak up information into the memory bank and later draw into that using his ‘instinct.’ In an interview he had with the BCCI mid-year, Dhoni said “I don’t plan a lot and believe in my gut feel. But what many people don’t understand is that to have that gut feel, you have to have experienced that thing before. The way I play my cricket, my subconscious mind works more than the conscious mind.”
For someone whose technique was questioned by the purists, he found a way to be successful. He will be remembered for his scintillating innings of 148 off just 153 deliveries in 2006 against a rampant Shoaib Akthar. He changed gears and saved India from losing a test match at Lord’s in 2007 batting with the tail in his knock of 76*. And in 2013, Dhoni carved up the Australian attack with a blistering 224 off 265 deliveries which set the tone for a 4-0 series whitewash on home soil.
There are certain things that we will never quite understand such as why his captaincy style changes so much when India plays away from home. A criticism of his test captaincy of late has been his inability to prevent the team from losing abroad. However, he has in fact managed to win a test match in every country he has played in except for Australia. His record at home is imposing, with only three losses in 30 matches, but in the same number of matches away the team could only win on six occasions. If there is any solace, it was the fact that the Indian team since 2011 has been in a transition phase.
Put in perspective, MS Dhoni was not solely responsible for India’s rise to the number 1 position in the test rankings- something they achieved in 2009 and held till 2011 nor for their slide in performances abroad. India’s rise to number 1 in the test rankings was the culmination of years in the making. It coincided at a time when many of India’s modern cricketing greats were having their last hurrahs on the international stage. Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar had a stellar year of cricket in 2010. Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag were not far behind. However, from 2011 onwards however, the Indian test team has been in a state of transition. In that period, India’s entire top order was phased out and their leading bowler- Zaheer Khan was an irregular member of the side battling fitness and form.
Abroad, the Indian test team in the midst of transition was severely exposed. India’s inexperienced young batsmen failed and their bowlers struggled to take 20 wickets, without which you don’t win test matches. In this testing and tumultuous period, MS Dhoni acted as a shield and soaked up pressure. “As the leader you have to protect your team from any negativity that creeps in during these [tough] times,” said Dhoni earlier in the year.
In this light, his tactics and strategies too changed in matches away from home drawing criticism. “Although I am leading a young team, I don’t give a particular plan that the bowler is not comfortable implementing. If I give them a plan, they will take it and keep bowling in the same way without thinking. And tomorrow when they’re on their own, they won’t know what to do.” That “tomorrow” that Dhoni spoke about five months ago has now arrived. India’s young bowlers have had a steep learning curve and need to draw on their experiences in their recent tours abroad. The calming presence of ‘Mahi’ as he is affectionately called will not be around. Now they will need to think for themselves.
In a way, the timing for Dhoni to hand over the leadership baton to Virat Kohli could not be better. Kohli wears his heart on his sleeve, brings energy and youthful experience that is required to reinvigorate the team as the youngsters now become the established players in the line-up.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni leaves behind a young and ambitious team that is hungry for success. Their experiences and interactions with Dhoni will be invaluable for their development.
Dhoni will be remembered for his calmness even when in the eye of the storm, of being the quiet achiever who did not seek greatness, but where greatness was bestowed upon him.
Navneet Ganesh is the founder of Infinity Cricket, a leading cricket organisation responsible for delivering cricket events, cricket content and products. Its tag line is ‘Connecting people through cricket.’ Navneet is an avid cricket enthusiast and has a keen interest in writing.