Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s international retirement would leave an empty feeling inside all those who have shared a dressing room with the legendary wicketkeeper-batsman. But perhaps none more so than the wrist-spin duo of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, for whom the former India captain was friend, philosopher and guide, all rolled into one package. It was Dhoni who orchestrated their every move from behind the batsman and helped them mature, both on and off the field.
Dhoni showed them what they didn’t see. He gave them wings to fly, and made them believe they can soar. On their own. It involved scolding, hand-holding, cajoling, praising, silent nods of appreciation and mentoring, both on and off the field.
An emotional Kuldeep first talks about the presence. He first sets up the scene for us. Picture a rampaging batsman, a big-name of your choice, staring across the pitch as you amble in to bowl, his body language screaming violence is on his mind. What did Kuldeep see at that moment?
“The batsman can be a huge name but the man standing behind him is the most imposing figure (Batsman kitna bhi bada ho, us-sey peechhe khada aadmi sabse bada hai),” Kuldeep says. Any nervousness ballooning in the mind is punctured. “I always felt as if my coach is standing there and telling me what to do. Chahal and me were like soldiers waiting for Mahi bhai’s orders. Whatever he said we just followed without asking anything.”
Chahal says trust was the key factor in this guru-shishya relationship. “We used to trust him blindly, because he knew what is happening. He was getting a complete picture (from behind the stumps),” Chahal says.
Both personalise it with on-field anecdotes. The moments when their doubts were cast aside by Dhoni’s invisible hand. Kuldeep against the always-keen-to-attack Glenn Maxwell and Chahal vs two left-handers, in theory not so easy for a leg-spinner.
Kuldeep, first. “It was a game in Nagpur January last year. Maxwell was in good form, batting aggressively.” Not to worry, Dhoni hai na. “He kept telling me, keep it away from him, and keep it flat (“is-sey dur rakhna, letaa ke rakhna”). The idea was that Maxwell should be reaching out for the ball, not to feed him anything too close or too flighty to swing his arms to the leg side. Also, I had to keep it in the same area.” Kuldeep played on the patience and ego of the dasher.
2nd ODI, India vs Australia, Nagpur (2019): Glenn Maxwell
Australia were 132 for 3 in 28 overs, needing 119 runs. Kuldeep Yadav’s first two balls to Glenn Maxwell were wrong ‘uns. Dhoni asked Yadav to bowl flattish. Yadav delivered a back-of-length ball and got it to skid. Maxwell, looking for a big hit, went back to pull but had his stumps disturbed.
Australia needed 129 from little over 26 overs when Maxwell came in. Not much. The required run rate was under five, less than their ongoing run rate, and they had seven wickets in hand. Basically, wickets were what India needed. Maxwell started patiently, choosing to settle in, reaching two from nine balls when Kuldeep was brought back into the attack.
Dhoni is on Kuldeep’s ear with his plan. And so, the chinaman bowler starts with three googlies – the quickest hands behind the stumps even whip off the bails once in an aborted stumping appeal. The over ends.
Next over, more of the same. “Dur rakhna, letaa ke rakhna” (Away and flattish). Two more googlies. Then comes the real leta ke rakhna ball. And this time, Kuldeep had pulled back the length just a touch and gets it to skid along as a tied-down Maxwell looks to break free with an attempted pull. Mistake. The stumps are pegged back. Kuldeep feels he owes that wicket to Dhoni. “I bowled five balls around the same area and the sixth ball, he went to play across and was bowled.” The plan had worked.
Now, Chahal steps in with his stories. February 2018 at Centurion in South Africa. His first five-wicket haul. He cues up the JP Duminy dismissal.
“Duminy was sweeping a lot.” Not just against him, but to Kuldeep as well. “When I came to bowl, Mahi bhai said, ‘just bowl stump to stump because if he misses, you will get an LBW. Don’t worry if he hits. Keep it up.”
2nd ODI, South Africa vs India, Centurion (2018): JP Duminy
The hosts were struggling at 107-5 but Duminy had managed to hold fort with an unbeaten 25. In his sixth over, Chahal bowled a googly followed by two deliveries on the off-side. Dhoni then advised him to bowl on the stumps. Duminy blocked the first ball of his seventh over and went for a sweep the next but was out leg before.
Duminy paddle-sweeps Chahal in his first spell and when he comes back for the second, he almost immediately goes for a sweep off a ball on the stumps. He gets a little bit of wood on leather and Chahal’s appeal dies in his mouth. In his next over, then leggie tries a googly from the leg-stump line but it’s read by Duminy, who dabs it away. Next over, after a couple of deliveries around the off-stump, and after watching Duminy stay back to defend a rather full delivery, Chahal remembers Dhoni’s advice – “Tilli (matchstick, his nickname) isko dande pe hi rakhna,” (keep it on the sticks) – and whips it full on the middle and leg line. Duminy goes for the sweep but the ball dips and drifts towards the middle, escapes the bat and pings the pad in front of middle stump. Joy, all around.
“It happened just the way Mahi bhai had said,” Chahal says.
The trust kept growing. Another fragment of memory drifts in. It’s February 2019, and Chahal is in Wellington, New Zealand. He is up against another left-hander, Tom Latham this time.
It’s his first over, the 19th of the innings and perhaps concerned by the sweep, he drops it short to Latham who rams it between square-leg and midwicket for a four.
5th ODI, New Zealand vs India, Wellington (2019): Tom Latham
The Kiwis were 119 for 4, needing another 134 runs to win in 22 overs. Tom Latham was sweeping well. Chahal wanted to change his line but Dhoni asked him to keep it full and on the stumps. On the third ball of Chahal’s sixth over Latham went for the sweep but was out lbw.
“Latham was playing the sweep to me on a consistent basis. I wanted to change my line but Dhoni said don’t change it as one miss will bring me a wicket,” Chahal says now. Back then, he was tempted to change his line as after being swept a couple of times, he had tried shortening the length. The ball was thrown back from the point boundary. “Line change mat karna, isko aage daal and stumps pey rakh (Don’t change the line, keep it full and on the stumps).”
It’s Chahal’s sixth over in a row now. Another sweep comes out and he drops the length next ball.
Dhoni pipes up with the advice to keep it full. The next ball is full, Latham brings out his sweep but misses; Chahal (and Dhoni) have got their man.
“He keeps on reminding what to do. Many a time, I have felt that the wicket is not coming but suddenly we would get the wicket. Everything is about planning and Mahi bhai was far ahead in planning,” Chahal seems awed.
Kuldeep perhaps comes close as any in cracking Dhoni’s icy coolness that has enthralled the world. Where does that spring from?
“He has seen so much in life that cricket becomes a small thing to him. What’s emotionally heavy for us, it’s just normal for him (Jo cheez hamare liye bhaari hota hai, wo unke liye normal hota hai). He has so much experience of life beyond the game. The struggle he has seen and his life experience is immense,” Kuldeep says. “He knows what to talk, how much to talk. The way he makes you understand. If any guy who is undergoing depression speaks to Mahi bhai, that depression will fade away to a large extent. He is also like a psychologist.”
It’s not all milk and honey, of course, for this psychologist. It also involves some “scolding”. When Kuldeep talks about the moments he was verbally sprayed by Dhoni, it almost feels like he is talking about a tender moment.
“He scolded me many times. I used to listen to it all.” Because of that trust that comes from success. “Sometimes, there used to be a thought whether Mahi bhai is right or wrong. But his experience is so much that what he said always turned out to be true. Most of the time he is right. I feel the man who has life experience can teach anyone and guide any youngster. The way he handled us was remarkable.”
Ditto Chahal. “Sometimes, he scolded us too.” But he knew it came from a good place. “If he would have been there for two more years, it would have been great for everyone, not only for us. Whenever we came to bowl in tough situations, he cleared our thought process.”
Both are full of gratitude. “Mahi bhai has played a huge role in my career. He has been an elder brother, a friend, he was never just a Mahi bhai for us. I got my one-day cap from him and played a World Cup with him; these memories I will retain for life,” Chahal says. “It was shocking news for us, he has such vast experience behind the stumps. For me and Kuldeep, him not being there now, thoda farak toh padega (his absence will make a difference).”
For young spinners like Kuldeep and Chahal, Dhoni was the emotional anchor in the heat of battle, the man who sorted their troubles with insights and occasional anger – and above all, the brain that showed them what was possible.