Mind maketh the man
This was the T20 World Cup final, 2007. When Misbah-ul-Haq hit a towering straight six off Joginder Sharma in the second ball of the last over, Pakistan looked nearly home. Six needed of fours balls. On air, Ravi Shastri said: ‘Pakistan are just a hit away from becoming world champions.’ Co-commentator Ramiz Raja was gushing about Misbah and could barely restrain his excitement. Shastri had already asked if Dhoni should have gone for Harbhajan (Singh) instead to bowl that last over, for casting the inexperienced Joginder in that role seemed to fly in the face of cricketing logic. Joginder’s first ball, a 10 feet wide, only added to the alarm. Dhoni ran up to his charge, for a third time in the over, whispered into his ears and returned behind the stumps. The next ball was bowled full on the middle stump. Misbah scooped it into the gleeful hands of Sreesanth at short fine leg. The stadium erupted, India erupted, and the legend of visionary captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, already a much-adored national hero, was born.
The seemingly prescient throw of the dice in the 2007 final was no fluke. Over the years, MSD did it again and again. In many close encounters. Cut to the 2011 World Cup final. Much to everyone’s surprise, MSD promoted himself in the batting order, ahead of in-form Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, and took India home, this time as batsman, in another well-remembered knock, including a match-winning six that Sunil Gavaskar rhapsodises is the last thing he’d like to see before he dies. As coach Gary Kirsten said, “It was his call. And it showed how he was as leader and captain.”
A third memory, not so firmly etched in the public imagination, is how Dhoni turned the tide in the 2013 Champions Trophy final against England in Birmingham. Defending a modest 129 off 20 overs in a rain-curtailed game, Dhoni was fast running out of options, with Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara on a roll. That’s when he turned, counter-intuitively for many experts, to Ishant Sharma, who had been singled out for harsh treatment by the English. Sitting in the Edgbaston press box, we agreed it was a huge gamble: one more bad over, and it would have been curtains for India. But. To everyone’s surprise, Sharma picked two wickets in two balls, and all of a sudden, India had a chance. In another inspired tactical move, Dhoni got the spinners Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin to bowl overs 19 and 20, teasing the English batsman, far more comfortable against pace, to slog and perish. It worked, and gave MSD the only missing piece of ICC silverware for himself and India.
“He is the calmest on the field,” says Dave Warner. Tendulkar, too, picks that quality of being unflappable under pressure as Dhoni’s defining attribute: “Being calm is what helped him take key decisions.” Mithali Raj, captain of the women’s national ODI team and one of the legends of the women’s game, qualifies the apparent calm: “As a captain, you do feel pressure, but with Dhoni, it is as if he doesn’t. Even if he does, he is able to absorb it and not show it.”
That calm demeanour on the cricket field is so universally accepted and so talked about that it’s become an underexamined cliché among fans. The reason why that cricketing brain processes dynamic, on-field information well is that his calm reduces clutter, which leads to clarity of thinking. This was in telling evidence in the concluding over of the humdinger against Bangladesh in the World T20 in 2016, a match India managed to pull back from the jaws of defeat. With two to get of the last ball, it was a given that the Bangladesh batsmen would run for everything. By the time that last ball missed the bat and sailed into Dhoni’s gloves, the non-striker had already taken off. “In that situation, the first instinct is to throw the ball”, says Jhulan Goswami, another former India captain. “You aim and throw, hoping to hit [the stumps].” But Dhoni, a powerful runner, quickly wagered in his mind that he could beat the non-striker and darted off towards the stumps. He did get there first, to take India through yet again. Recalling the drama of that last ball on India Today TV, for the chat show Inspiration, Hardik Pandya said: “When Mahibhai started running, I just shut my eyes. I knew he’d get there, it was Mahibhai, but the tension was too much. There can never be another M.S. Dhoni.”
The ability to think on his feet and soak up pressure in tight situations served him well as a leader. Almost irrespective of the match situation, Dhoni looked in control; in fact he looked a step ahead of the competition. Rarely did Dhoni react when a catch was dropped, a terrible ball bowled, an indiscreet shot played. “Those things make a huge difference. When you bungle, you’re already feeling bad. If the captain is calm, it soothes your nerves,” says Ajinkya Rahane, a regular in the national side and among the best readers of the modern game.
A senior academic at IIM Calcutta says M.S. Dhoni is a favourite B-school case study. “Who decodes that mind better can break a deadlock between two candidates in an interview,” he says. MSD’s modest early life is too well-storied to bear repetition, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that it was he who really gave wings to the cricketing aspirations of small-town India (he comes from Ranchi in Jharkhand); it was Dhoni more than anyone else who gave underprivileged aspirants in India the hope that perhaps they could do it too. In putting Ranchi on India’s cricket map, Dhoni nurtured dreams and changed Indian cricket forever. It’s an interesting coincidence that India’s first World Cup-winning skipper, Kapil Dev, also came from a cricketing backwaters of his time. In 1983, when India won the first World Cup, Chandigarh had no cricket pedigree; it was not the fancied cricket destination of today.
MSD was far from perfect, though. He was not as naturally gifted as Tendulkar or as resilient as Gavaskar or as flamboyant as Kapil Dev. Nor was he a stylist with the bat, he was no David Gower or V.V.S. Laxman or Mohammed Azharuddin, whose batting grace people love to wax lyrical about. Nor was he a natural behind the stumps. But he made up for the lack of those gifts in ways that others can only envy. On the field, as captain, keeper and batsman, especially in the white ball game, he was matchless. And if you’ll measure him simply by his success, then try and beat his three biggest trophies, the World T20 (2007), the ODI World Cup (2011) and the ICC Champions Trophy (2013), not to forget, India’s ascent, under his leadership to the #1 position in the ICC Test rankings.
That record, by itself, speaks volumes for why Mahendra Singh Dhoni has earned for himself a permanent place among the pantheon of cricketing greats. If you ask Ravi Shastri, he’ll tell you that he counts him among the greatest ever. But even beyond the gifts of mind and body or leadership, the man stands for, and is driven by, a certain process-based work ethic without overinvesting himself in the end result. That brings a lightness of spirit to his adventures on the field and lights up the smile that cricket aficionados and fans the world over will remember for a long, long time.