There's something about Dhoni
What’s not to like about MS Dhoni? Even as an outsider, a neutral, someone who just watches cricket for the sheer pleasure of the sport without any patriotic leanings, I find myself drawn towards a character like Dhoni. He is hard to dislike.
Reading his post-match interviews after India’s surprising exit from the World T20 Championship, it is clear that Dhoni is a man who is comfortable in his own skin. He offers reasons, not excuses. He accepts blames, shares it sometimes but never looks to shift it. He concedes mistakes, both by himself and from his team without appearing to be too self-effacing or disloyal. He has a quiet dignity that is able to accept defeat with relative grace whilst still showing the right measure of pain and disappointment. The captain of India needs to walk this line carefully. Too many self-recriminations and the knives will be out. Too blasé and they’ll accuse you of not caring enough. Dhoni looks to have found the right balance.
It was interesting to see that the first person he singled out for blame was himself. He admitted to not doing as well as he would have liked, to not playing the sort of explosive innings that his early reputation was forged on and for getting it slightly wrong with certain tactical decisions. He wasn’t necessarily apologising because he doesn’t need to. Why apologise? He didn’t mean to bat poorly or make tactical errors – it just happened. That's T20 cricket for you - it's a very fine line between winning and losing. So he didn’t apologise but he still expressed regret and took responsibility.
Even on the field, there’s a lot to admire about his captaincy style. He manages to strike that delicate balance between being animated and excited without crossing the line to becoming hyper-excited or irrationally emotional. Watching from afar, you sense the players trust him, respect him but do not fear him. Chris Gayle errs on the side of being ‘ultra cool’ although the word on the street is that his players adore him. To be fair, his style tends to suit the West Indian cricketing culture where almost all of their captains were strong men who rarely got flustered. I can’t think of the last Windies skipper who ‘lost it’ in public, despite some terrible floggings in recent times. Even Lara, tortured genius that he was, displayed great manners and dignity throughout his difficult reign.
Back to Dhoni though – I just hope that the post-mortem from the T20 disappointments don’t go too far and see him removed from the job. He’s a breath of fresh air for the game and it continues India's recent tradition of captains who command respect. Dravid and Kumble were both men who believed that to be strong did not mean you had to throw your weight around like a bully. Both quintessential gentlemen. Like them, Dhoni appears strong enough to stand up to any international captain but affable enough to make every effort to get on with them too. You get the sense that he commands genuine respect from the opposition.
He might have to look at his own game and ponder on whether the captaincy is curbing those wonderful attacking instincts that announced his arrival on the world stage. He is probably more reliable these days but does India need that from him? I would prefer to see someone else playing the Mr Reliable role and Dhoni returning to being the powerhouse middle-order batsman who can transform a game in a few brutal minutes. He is probably less feared today than he was two years ago. Ask most opposition teams which Dhoni they’d fear more and I suspect it would be Dhoni Mark I.
The partnership with Gary Kirsten should be a good one for India. Kirsten was an uncomplicated player without frills or ego but his effectiveness as a very fine batsman was never questioned. Like Dhoni, he seems to be an essentially decent man who operates without histrionics and public displays of petulance or triumphalism. For India’s sake, I hope the partnership is allowed to continue. For the sake of world cricket, it’s important to have two strong men of integrity leading the most influential team in the world, on and off the field.
I just hope the team balance allows the real MS Dhoni to show himself again. I’m talking about the man with wrists of steel who uses a short backlift to muscle the ball over the boundary. India has plenty of others who can play the percentages but when a player like Dhoni comes along, it would be a crying shame to shackle his instincts. Maybe that’s what captaincy does for you. Maybe that’s why Adam Gilchrist never really fancied the job. Mind you, it hasn’t worried Chris Gayle too much – he still only knows one way and it is that reputation that makes teams nervous. Just knowing that Gayle might go off is enough to put you off your game. Dhoni has that same power but it's been locked away for some time. Unleash the beast I say.......
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane