Paddy Upton in his book Barefeet Coach talks about his eye-opening short interaction with Mahendra Singh Dhoni very early in his stint as India’s mental conditioning coach. After one longish meeting, where the mind guru seemed to be making a habit of addressing the boys, Dhoni put an arm around his shoulder and said: “Upton, I don’t feel that you always have to say something.” It was a subtle message, the South African coach writes, to keep things simple. From that moment to his last day in office, when India won the 2011 World Cup, Upton had a better idea about his word limit, and the India skipper.
Jasprit Bumrah’s favourite Dhoni story is about his India debut in Australia. From the time he touched down at Sydney as a late replacement, Bumrah was anxious about his expected one-on-one with the skipper. Would the talk be about team ethics, dressing room decorum, game plan or a plain pep talk? Will it happen on match eve, inside the dressing room, during the warm-up or just after the toss? On Dhoni’s watch, conventions get trampled upon on a daily basis. It was only when a nervous Bumrah was entering the field, the big man walked up to him. “Do whatever you know. Whatever fields you want, we will give.” Again nothing complicated; simple words, simpler advice. India went to win that game and the rookie pacer ended up as the best bowler.
Upton’s moved on, Bumrah’s moved up but India’s favourite strong-and-silent cricketer continues to diligently practice what he in his subtle way preaches. An ardent practitioner of tactical conservatism, Dhoni, by being loyal to cricket’s good-old basic principles has mastered the format which feverishly explores possibilities, glorifies radicalism, celebrates all inane innovations and is of late getting over-eager to borrow ideas from other sports. However hard T20 cricket tries to run away from the mother sport, Dhoni keeps dragging it back home.
At Dubai on Friday, he lifted the IPL trophy for the fourth time. CSK’s consistency in a notoriously unpredictable format that is unforgiving of even a minor slip-up is a tribute to a leader whose greatness lies in the simplicity of his cricketing engagement. Dhoni follows a set pattern, banks on his regulars, along with long-time coach Stephen Fleming. The two aren’t known to be waylaid by seasonal trends and other excesses on the T20 playlist.
For his rivals, the match-eve brain-storming sessions aren’t about guessing the surprise that Dhoni would throw at them, they are mostly about thinking of ways to stop CSK’s usual suspects executing their very well-known winning plan.
Case in point is the text-book bowling sequence which Dhoni has followed for years now. It has a very predictable pattern. Take this season. For the first six overs, it’s the Aussie quick Josh Hazelwood with pacers slower than him. Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja gets the ball after the first power play. Just around the half-way mark, the team’s fulcrum, the clever trundler Dwayne Bravo gets in the mix. He has spinners for company in the middle overs and pacers at the death. Pacers-spinners-pacers, this wheel was invented for the Tests and later fitted to ODIs. Dhoni doesn’t show the restlessness to reinvent it for T20 cricket.
Most CSK regulars are old-school cricketers. The now iconic canary yellow jersey is rarely seen on those globetrotting T20 specialists – the six-hitting muscular mercenaries or the mystery spinners who treat the cricket ball as a carrom striker. Those who delivered for him in the final – Faf du Plessis, Hazelwood, Jadeja and Moeen Ali – have proven Test pedigree. Others who played bit parts – Rayudu, Uthappa, Thakur, Chahar – have a long and towering presence in first-class cricket.
The find of this season and IPL’s top run-getter Ruturaj Gaikwad, is a 24-year-old with 4 first-class centuries. He is no flashy slogger but an opener with a refined all-format technique. Like many IPL upstarts drafted in the Test side lately, Gaikwad, it’s being predicted, wouldn’t look ridiculous in India whites. And leading this bunch of conventional cricketers is the wise-old oracle, cricket’s Chankya and Chandragupt rolled into one – Dhoni.
Captains with Dhoni-like qualities, and CVs, have been historically indulged; they get their way and the team they want. But not in IPL, the high-stakes tournament with a brand valuation of around Rs 48,000 crores. Cricket’s corporatisation has changed the power equations. IPL owners as a species are known to have inflated egos, scissor-hands and long pointed noses that sniff in areas where they don’t have expertise.
CSK, the only IPL franchise with a rich cricketing legacy, thankfully hasn’t moved with the times. The original owner and BCCI influential office-bearer N Srinivasan has run multiple teams in Chennai’s local leagues, seen intense club rivalry, scooped big-ticket transfers and dealt with players of every hue. He didn’t whistle podu into cricket yesterday. Srinivasan has been around to know that supporting cricket needs a philanthropist’s mindset; it’s not an investment that gives regular annual dividends.
Not to be seen as a virtue, but at CSK the players and owners have stuck to each other through thick and thin. At the peak of the spot-fixing controversy, when Srinivasan’s son-in-law faced allegations of betting from the dugout, CSK closed ranks, declared an omerta. No whistle-blower, no mutiny, no exodus. Even when his meticulously-crafted reputation was at stake, Dhoni remained loyal to his franchise. It was never in doubt that he would return to his home, the Chepauk Stadium, once CSK served its two-year ban. The franchise, in turn, reciprocated.
Last year when CSK veteran Suresh Raina, one fine night before the start of the bubbled IPL, flew back home; the team lost a vital cog. CSK lost balance and collapsed. It proved to be their worst season. Dhoni looked over the hill, the squad looked jaded. Any other franchise would have reacted. There would have been finger pointing, gas-lighting, planted stories about the captain losing the confidence of the team and owners.
In contrast, at Chennai there was no acrimony, no witch-hunt, not even a post-mortem. Raina was welcomed back. What’s one season between old-associates who have guarded each other’s backs for over a decade.
Like an old family-run institution, there were no panic decisions. Instead, the core remained unshakeable. At CSK, they know the drill. Unlike other teams, among CSK’s travelling party are a handful of Srinivasan loyalists, all Tamil Nadu Cricket Association old hands from the era when cricket administration didn’t stay in five-stars. It’s a travelling group that’s unlike an IPL team, it’s so Ranji Trophy like. There’s a father figure manager and an old hand, who is everyone’s best friend, looks after the logistics. The MBA-kinds haven’t yet infiltrated the CSK top management since the men at the top know their cricket. They understand this is a funny game that needs patience.
Dhoni brings the same rationale to the field. He’s open to change but not in a hurry to wipe out the wisdom availed over the years. By sticking to the old route to victory, the 40-year-old might appear outdated at times but he will never be seen as a wannabe. To be celebrated as the in-vogue out-of-box thinker, Dhoni wouldn’t avoid taking the tried and tested right option.
He’s not the prototype aggressive leader whose natural nerve-busting expression can sell India-Pak grudge games. Dhoni’s communication is understated. He’s not into riveting inspirational dressing room speeches – those work better in the final quarter of sports movies. His captaincy approach is functional and realistic. He guides youngsters to negotiate forked paths, and more importantly makes them aware about the game’s inevitabilities.
Unlike Virat Kohli, Dhoni doesn’t make his pursuit of a win obsessive. He remains aware of a possible uncontrollable twist in the tale and the subsequent unfavourable result. It’s this balance which makes him better prepared to face loss, bounce back and be India’s most celebrated captain in the game’s most-fickle format.
The non-secret of his success is his simplicity and clarity which comes from the self-realisation that he can’t have all the answers. Dhoni knows in cricket, like in life, you can’t cover all bases.
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