Dhoni phenomenon: genius,luck,or magic?

Mahendra Singh Dhoni,wicket-keeper,batsman,captain,philosopher. And,perhaps,magician.

Written by Kunal Pradhan | Published: March 28, 2009 10:38 am

Mahendra Singh Dhoni,wicket-keeper,batsman,captain,philosopher. And,perhaps,magician.

It was considered an odd coincidence,a funny story about how the stars aligned to shower him with good fortune,that things fell into place whenever Dhoni donned the captain’s hat,and went horribly wrong when he was either missing or demoted. Fans laughed,and experts indulgently shook their heads at his good luck.

But it has gone on for so long now that even hardened disbelievers are scratching their heads and wondering if he is only a cricketer or some dark sorcerer in disguise.

After a great run in New Zealand,India had their first two poor days in Napier when Dhoni was forced to sit out of the match due to back spasms,and at a time when John Buchanan is advocating more power to coaches,the inexplicable influence of Dhoni’s captaincy must be reinvigorating for skippers around the world.

In the six Tests that he has captained India,they’ve won five,including three times when he was standing in for the now-retired Anil Kumble. He’s led the team to victory in 31 of 51 ODI matches,and while his T20 record of six out of 12 is the least impressive of the lot,it includes the World Cup triumph in South Africa.

Slowly,evidence is emerging to suggest that somehow the life gets sucked out of the team when Dhoni is not on the field. It’s not about field placements and bowling changes,there’s something more,something intangible,that seems to walk off with him.

And the really strange part is that there aren’t really any obvious signs of his genius when he is marshalling his resources in the middle. There are no famous trump-card decisions to be quoted — nothing like Don Bradman inverting the line-up on a wet pitch,Martin Crowe opening the bowling with a spinner,Clive Lloyd allowing Geoff Boycott to bat on,or Sourav Ganguly making Steve Waugh wait for the toss.

Dhoni was perhaps at his most intuitive against Australia in Nagpur,where he set an 8-1 off-side field that not only choked the batsmen for runs but also frustrated them into throwing away their wickets. The ploy,no matter how successful,was negative,ultra-defensive,almost “not cricket”,but still not alarming enough to be remembered forever.

Off the field,the anecdote that will pass the test of time was when he suddenly gave a metaphysical discourse on Descartian Dualism to a bunch of overworked reporters before this Napier Test. In response to a question about why the team had stayed in Auckland for an extra day,Dhoni said,“When it comes to the mind,it depends on what you’re feeding into it. The mind doesn’t know if it’s Napier. You come and say this is Napier,it believes it is Napier; you say it is day,it believes it is day.”

This emergence of the philosopher within him was particularly confusing. The early theory,propounded by all-knowing cricket writers such as myself,was that Dhoni didn’t care about the tensions of his high-pressure job. Life was light for him,and so was the burden of captaincy. But those comments in Napier,combined with a recent admission in Sri Lanka that he sometimes turned dictatorial when the team were on the back foot,belied the analysis.

So what is it that makes Dhoni,the captain,so successful that the same players look ordinary when another man is at the helm? Is it his authoritarianism; his power of positive thinking; his immense self-belief that rubs off on those around him; or could this incredible run — which has now gone on for more than 18 months — really be no more than a stroke of good luck?

As Geoffrey Rush’s character,Philip Henslowe,kept repeating in Shakespeare in Love: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.


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