Mahendra Singh Dhoni – the name creates an instant image in every Indian’s mind. A daredevil batsman, swinging his bat and the ball crashing on the roof of the Wankhede moments later.
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There is a little anecdote with which this story about India’s and arguably the world’s best limited-overs captain should be started. When Dhoni called up Joginder Sharma to bowl the lastover in the 2007 T20 World Cup final, every Indian fan in the stands, in front of the TV screens, was praying.
It was the famous finale with arch-rivals Pakistan. The young Indian side had already let the Pakistan team claw back from an impossible situation. Carrying the expectations of the entire nation is no mean task. And this man, in his debut tournament as the captain of the cricket-crazy nation, went over to Joginder and calmed him down. “You have bowled so many overs in domestic cricket with so much dedication when no one is watching. Don’t worry, “cricket won’t let you down now.”
For the fans of India who were accustomed to seeing their team lose from a winning situation, Dhoni showed a new way – a way to win from a losing situation.
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It is incredible how someone so early into his captaincy could be so mature. And yet, this what Dhoni is – the calm, composed ever assuring leader, not afraid to take responsibility. It was in the 2011 World Cup final when Dhoni again proved that he was not afraid of taking responsibility. He promoted himself ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh while facing a mammoth task of chasing down Sri Lanka’s total.
What followed on both the occasions are a part of the history books.Dhoni does not emote on the field. You would not see him jump up in exhilaration, you would not see him getting overwhelmed by what happens on the pitch. After all, he had sought to take all the emotion out of the game. And yet, at the same time Dhoni is not entirely unemotional. The image of a captain, staring at his bowler, mouth covered with those camouflage gloves, speaking not a single word and yet speaking volumes is a testimony to that. It is how he emotes on the field and in life.
The world got its first glimpse of the captain Dhoni in the 2007 T20 World Cup, leading the new India fearlessly. And for the next nine years, Dhoni would continue to do the same. He was indeed Captain Cool, calming the Indian team, calming the millions of fans.
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It cannot be said with certainty that Dhoni believes in destiny or the concept of karma. It is not something Dhoni would say out loud. After all, he had sought to take all the emotion out of the game. And yet, at the same time Dhoni is not entirely unemotional; he is just someone who does not express them.
Dhoni is not likely to have said this, but then again, how could one possibly explain his promoting himself in the final of the 2011 ODI World Cup? Whatever it was, it gave Joginder the extra motivation that he needed. What followed is, of course, a part of the history books and a new era had begun.
And for the next nine years, Dhoni would continue to do the same. He was indeed Captain Cool, calming the Indian team, calming the millions of fans. To the fans India who were accustomed to seeing their team lose from a winning situation, Dhoni showed the way of how to do the exact opposite – win from a losing situation.
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There is another quintessential Dhoni image that is imbibed in my mind. The image of a captain, staring at his bowler, mouth covered with those camouflage gloves, speaking not a single word and yet speaking volumes. The field is not the place where you show your emotions; it is where you act. A team needs calculating decisions and not gambles, and Dhoni only gambled when all else had failed. He is too proud to rely on something as shaky as luck.
It was this measured and calculated decision when Dhoni asked Ishant Sharma to bowl the 18th over of the ICC Champions Trophy final in 2013. It was this same pre-meditated decision when he asked Hardik Pandya to bowl the last over against Bangladesh in the group stage fixture of the ICC World T20 in 2016.
Dhoni always bestowed faith on the youngsters. Be it Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin or even Virat Kohli, they all owe a lot to their captain. After Dhoni’s announcement, Kohli even went on to say that Dhoni will always remain his captain, such is the respect he has earned off his teammates. This is wherein his biggest achievement lies.
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After the debacle of the 2007 ODI World Cup, the man who hails from a small town in Jharkhand, completely transformed India’s limited-overs cricket from behind the scenes. What Greg Chappell had envisioned, Dhoni implemented, but in a fair manner without emotional upheaval.
In his tenure as the captain, Dhoni made several unpopular calls, but he always stuck with them. In 2007-08, he asked Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman to be dropped because they were too slow and unfit to keep up with the pace of modern limited-overs cricket. He even changed his own approach while batting to do Dravid’s role but at a higher strike rate. Selflessly, he came lower down the order. Why?Because his team would benefit from it. Not giving a second thought to individual records and statistics, he always put the team ahead of everything else. After all, no one can be bigger than the team.
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Again, in 2011-12, which was perhaps the lowest point of his tenure as the captain, India had lost seven consecutive Test matches. Again, Dhoni decided to swim against the tide. He believed that playing Sachin, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir together was costing the team 20 valuable runs. What did he do? Dhoni kept resting one of the three throughout the tri-series in Australia.
The triumphs followed. It is no surprise that he is the only captain to win all the possible ICC trophies that there is to win in limited-overs cricket. But no good thing lasts forever. With time, even the best start to wane.
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It was evident that he had lost his touch when Kagiso Rabada denied him 11 runs of the final over. It became worrying when the out of form Zimbabwe snatched a victory with Dhoni failing to score eight runs in the final over. The hardest blow, however, came when Dhoni was outsmarted by Dwayne Bravo in a T20I match in Florida last summer. With just seven runs remaining, Bravo slowed down the game and forced him to take a risk – a move that we have so often seen Dhoni employ with his bowlers.
And now, stranded at 199 ODIs as the captain of the Indian cricket team, without any pomp or celebration, without any justification, Dhoni suddenly steps down as the captain? Even with the new superficially transparent board, this is unheard of.
But then again, anything other than this would be very much unlike Dhoni. He doesn’t want the glory. He doesn’t want the adulation. He just wants to do what’s best for team India and maybe, he thinks that it is the right time. Because Virat Kohli is ready, because India is ready.
He could have stayed on as the captain for as long as he wanted. But he didn’t. It is now up to Virat Kohli, the star of this generation to take on the mantle while Dhoni does his job as a batsman and as a wicketkeeper, for this is as humble a decision as it is bold.
With this Dhoni is leaving his future in the hands of the new, younger captain. One is left wondering if Dhoni told himself that cricket would not let him down.
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