September 19, 2013

The Atlas who doesn't shrug

From a thrill-a-minute swashbuckler to a captain whose trademark is his calm, Dhoni has come a long way

Blast from the past: it's not all that often that Dhoni tears into one like in the days of old © AFP

In the beginning, everything was glitter, burst and crackle. And celebration.

There was a time when I thought Dhoni kept more for the fun of running after the ball. You got the feeling he was waiting for it to go past him, say, to short third man, so that he could take off after it, cap slipping off, coloured hair flying all over, him sliding, all flourish, turning with the slide, head thrown back, hair everywhere again, and then the final hurl of the ball. It was a lot like Rene Higuita; it was not the goalkeeping Higuita was really after, it was the dribble past a couple of forwards, dreadlocks flying.

Dhoni's batting was an unending fireworks display. Sparks flew all around, especially in the direction of midwicket. Dhoni walked out in Visakhapatnam against Pakistan in 2005 with the strongest strut I've seen on a cricket field - with the exception of perhaps Matthew Hayden. Hayden's bounding run announced a sort of gladiatorial intent. Dhoni's rapid, muscular walk is purely intended to get him to the crease as quickly as possible. He says it never struck him that he was coming in to bat and returning to the pavilion at that speed. He is absolutely naturally and completely focused on the main event.

Once at the crease, Dhoni took his time. It is as if suddenly there was a slowing of the pulse. Boris Becker morphing into Bjorn Borg. He marked his guard, rested his bat on its handle about his pads, undid his gloves at the wrist, did the straps up again, cleared his vision with gloved left hand and re-focused his eyes. That focusing was seemingly the only giveaway of effort.

Dhoni's bat then turned alternately into a scythe, a bludgeon, a paddle, a ramp, and occasionally a flat block of wood. In his stance, the bat was swung in from so high that it is a wonder it didn't dig a hole in the crease. His head had a slight upward tilt, his weight on the heels of his feet. Behind the wicket leg side, the paddle tapped the ball on its head. Behind the wicket off side, it was sent over the slips on the ramp. Square of the wicket off side, everything was scythed. Leg side front and square, most were bludgeoned. Occasionally, when he needed to defend, he blocked with a curious low, bending block. And he ran like the wind.

Then, just as we thought the works had died down and it was time to go home, came one final shimmering burst. A hammer-thrower's final swing was borrowed to hit yorkers into the stands at wide midwicket. The "helicopter" is regularly seen being practised by kids these days in playgrounds and alleyways, much before they could possibly get to hear of the forward-defensive stroke.

It is no great exaggeration to say the only classical shot Dhoni played then and now - slightly strange for an Indian batsman - is the hook. It is not the forward push that acts as trigger when he does. It probably helps that he is on his heels. Most shots seem to come from the not-inconsiderable strength of his legs, back and forearms, and a furious break of the wrists. Sometimes he swings himself almost off his feet.

There are some cricketers who remind you of others from the past. In Dhoni, I could see no other. There was a bit of Miandad here and there. But no one really similar. This is until recently, when I looked at the photograph in Nicholas Hogg's recent piece on sixes. Botham, head thrown back, was shown hitting Doshi into the stands. There was something about Botham's sixes that advertised power. Having climbed into the ball, his entire body seemed to lift at the point of contact, powering it into orbit.

Now that was Dhoni. No hitter of a six I've seen gives you a stronger impression of power, nearly launching himself along with the shot. Much the same as Afridi now and Botham then. There are no pretensions to timing or anything subtle. Viv Richards had a kind of feline grace and majesty to his sixes. Gayle is so huge that sixes seem to take a mere flick of his wrists. Yuvraj's sixes are about timing, the beautiful arcing downswing makes the hitting look effortless. Botham, Dhoni and Afridi make the six a statement of overpowering, awe-inspiring intent and finality.

There are some cricketers who remind you of others from the past. In Dhoni, I could see no other. There was a bit of Miandad here and there. But, no one really similar

Just after the 2007 World Twenty20 final or thereabouts, though, Dhoni's method changed. It turns out that the Borg impression in his stance held something of the future. Now his first 30 or so came to be built on the quick single and couple. Then appeared the occasional powerful stroke, but generally raw power was reserved for the very end, at times leaving it till you felt it was almost too late. But he stayed absolutely calm through all of it, at least on the outside. The block continued to be low and bending, but far more frequent.

He is still lightning between wickets. The undoing of the glove remains, and so do the other mannerisms. The focusing of the eyes has become more intense. Even now, that remains the only external indication of some form of stress.

His keeping now is steady and effective, safe, not spectacular. The effort that goes into it is sometimes underestimated. Crouching low and coming up 540 times a 90-over day, especially in India's March and April is insane enough. Doing it while captaining in all forms of the game beggars belief. Not to mention the additional load of the IPL.

What stands out now is his extraordinary awareness of body, mind and situation. And confidence in his method. During the IPL last year he kept saying you needed to know your body. Few statements have been pithier.

On that World Cup final night in Mumbai, he kept himself in check other than to put the odd bad ball away. A supremely confident, steadying hand, until the end was nigh. The massive, muscled six was a return to the old Dhoni, head indulging heart for a brief, lifting moment. Through the tournament, Dhoni's contributions were modest, but you felt even with those of Yuvraj, Zaheer and everyone else, things might not have worked as well under a different, less calm, captain.

Soon after the World Cup high followed the first set of real failures Dhoni experienced on a cricket field. Shaken from their all-too-brief perch at the top, India slumped massively. The batting flair that had shored up the bowling finally cracked under sustained pressure, first from pace then from spin. Dhoni, to his credit, took things squarely on an increasingly greying chin. Chennai was in fine balance and could have easily gone the Melbourne way, when Dhoni seized the moment with a brilliant counter-attacking double. This had a touch of Ganguly's 144 at the Gabba, and things turned completely around from that point on.

Then came the dominating Champions Trophy win. This and the comprehensive win against Australia at home showed he could take the lows just as well the highs, marking a sort of second coming of Dhoni as captain. It is too early to tell whether consistent results will follow in away Tests. From a point of view of overall contribution to Indian cricket, though, the progression of Dhoni from the carefree, spontaneous incandescence of a small-town youngster to a cricketing Atlas who never shrugs is complete.

Krishna Kumar is an operating systems architect taking a teaching break in his hometown, Calicut in Kerala