It’s easy to place nearly all our cricket captains in varying shades of Indianness. Except MS Dhoni. Always in the moment, an astounding ability to erase traces of emotions, an eerie calm that never ceased to amaze, and the sexy icy-cool nerves. This Dhoni-esque traits form the mythological essence of Indianness — found in the wisdom of epics and in the words of the sages, but rarely found in the streets. Meditation in marketplace sells briskly from the shelves, and thousands throng satsangs to hear similar rhetoric but it’s seldom seen in Indians, so much so that it is considered almost unIndian. Dhoni has somehow emerged from this context as a throwback to an mythical era. That would be his greatest achievement and his legacy.
WATCH VIDEO | Mahendra Singh Dhoni steps down as India ODI, T20I captain
He has left captaincy like the way he came in — poof and he is gone. Unlike many, he has a great sense of timing about when to walk away. Indian cricket is in the Kohli era, and it made no sense for Dhoni to continue as the ODI captain. Especially when the Test captaincy – regarded as the tougher job as Dhoni himself found out – was already with Kohli.
The next World Cup is in 2019 and there is no certifiable reason apart from self-indulgent farewell to stay on. There is the Champions Trophy in a few months and though no one would have minded if Dhoni had carried on till then, it would have been classified as indulgence.
It wouldn’t have sat well with the man who knows how to read the writing on the wall quicker than most.
Now to the cricket. The game is hurtling towards a tense climax. Pressure ratcheting up, nerves choking, palms sweaty, batsmen edgy, bowlers edgier – you couldn’t think of a better fielding captain in that scenario than Dhoni. The shorter the duration, the better his captaincy as he could control these fleeting shifts in the game with his persona. Unsurprisingly, he found it difficult to control these essentially uncontrollable urges for a longer period of time in Tests. No wonder he shone in T20 for Chennai Super Kings and in ODIs for India. All his strengths could be squeezed out to their maximum effect in that time period.
With him, it was clear that someone was in control out there. His fielders felt it, his bowlers felt it, the opposition batsmen felt it and the fans too cottoned on to it. And the spooky calmness behind the stumps would surely have had a detrimental effect on the batsmen. It definitely had a beneficial effect on his team-mates, and also changed the way we, the viewers, watched the Indians play.
The bowlers didn’t throw up their arms and looked either downcast or angry when misfields happened. If the yorker ended up as a full toss and was swatted for a six, Dhoni wouldn’t throw a tantrum. Suddenly, everyone in the team would appear less nervy and more detached. As if they were all caught in his hypnotic spell, and did his bidding. That would go down as his great achievement as the leader. His silence, the darting eyes, the occasional wave of the hand, the turn of the head here and there to see if the fielders are in the right spots, and the quiet word or two to the bowler. With all the emotional energy saved up and not frittered, it was no surprise that the team started to benefit and prosper under Indian cricket’s greatest Pied Piper.
For majority of his time as the captain, the lack of narcissism also came as a pleasant surprise. Again, almost unIndian in its construct. World Cups won – he raised the hopes with T20 and quenched the desires with the 50-over. Champions Trophy won, World No. 1 ranking achieved but above all he didn’t strut and preen. Lesser captains than him have patted themselves. He didn’t succumb to such vanity for most of his time as the top dog of Indian cricket. World cup won, he let Tendulkar and Kohli take centrestage. T20 World Cup won, after a shrike and a fist-pump, he let his younger team-mates revel in the spotlight.
It’s his shortcomings as a captain in the longer format that captured his effectiveness in the shorter formats. He could work out how to prevent a team from scoring 75 from 50 balls but he found it a bit of a problem when he had to strategise to take 10 wickets in four sessions.
He could let things drift. The coolness turned into undecipherable stubbornness. Recently, R Ashwin captured the difference in the captaincy style between Dhoni and Kohli. It’s tempting to read between the lines but it’s wiser not to do so.
“The difference between MS and Dhoni is the generation. Virat is one who wants to be at the front. He leads from the front. He says things to you face. You are not going back into the room thinking what he is thinking or what the team is thinking about oneself. He lets you know upfront and there is a lot of clarity. MS is someone who is not very vocal, not very expressive, very subdued. He keeps things to himself. The biggest positive was he would keep emotions in check,” Ashwin had said.
Dhoni’s legacy and aura is sometimes better captured by the imprint he left on the opponents. From the Haydens and Husseys who strayed into his IPL world and were captivated by his leadership style to those who have only been on the other side, like Michael Clarke. Last year, in Sydney, just as he was leaving the press conference after the semi-final game, Clarke stopped Dhoni who was entering the room.
“Mate, don’t tell me you are quitting. You can play and lead in the 2019 world cup.” Dhoni just smiled and walked in. Now he has just smiled, and walked away.