Inscrutable, infuriating and in control
There is a little story from the World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007 that tells you as much as any about MS Dhoni the captain. He was leading a side of young unknowns into the unknown - a format India hadn't accepted yet - when news came from India that Rahul Dravid had given up the captaincy and that Dhoni had been made the ODI captain. Captains usually publicly accept the job. Steven Smith did four press conferences in the first week of his Australia captaincy. The first two were on successive days: first he was unveiled as captain, and on the next day he showed up for the pre-Gabba Test discussion.
Smith is 25. Dhoni was 26 back then. And ODI cricket is big deal in India. You just couldn't get him to do a press conference or talk about captaincy. He was reluctant to the point of being shy. I don't want this exposure. I haven't even done anything as captain yet. The team manager tried, some senior journalists tried, phone calls from home arrived, and eventually he gave in, agreeing to read out a statement while coming out of the nets in Durban. He didn't take any questions.
The template was being set. Dhoni was taking up a job that would ask him questions every step of the way, but he wanted to answer few of them. He hadn't gone out seeking the job. He saw it as any other job that he wanted to end at stumps. He wanted to enjoy the captaincy, not the paraphernalia that comes along with it.
Dhoni's Test captaincy began similarly, without much scrutiny or intrusion, but not by design. Anil Kumble was on his last legs, missing as many Tests as he was playing. Dhoni didn't even do a press conference on the eve of his captaincy debut, for Kumble pulled out only later. India won easily in Kanpur. To the toss Dhoni wore a blazer two sizes too big. He'd soon get one made for himself, but he was never a blazer man.
Later that year Dhoni and Kumble shared the reins in a series once again. The matches that Dhoni captained, India won. Kumble managed draws. It is instructive again that in his first Test as full-time captain, against Australia in Nagpur, Dhoni was hailed as a tactical genius for a move bedded essentially in defence. Australia were trailing in the series, they had to do all the running, and Dhoni gave them an 8-1 off-side field and asked Ishant Sharma to bowl well out of their reach. Frustrated, Australia threw away their wickets, and 1-0 became 2-0.
It was a clever move. There are many ways to skin a cat. This one was skinned through denial. Then again this was a finite environment. Dhoni knew if he could deny Australia runs for long enough, he would ensure a series win, and then take the rest as a bonus. Dhoni is spectacular when cricket is finite. Limited to 20 overs. To 50 overs. When there is a result in sight. It was when the possibilities were thrown wide open that he showed he was limited.
Dhoni's ambition was limited too. He showed a great fear of losing. In Wellington, in the last Test of his first away series as captain, Dhoni sat on the series lead again, and set New Zealand 617 to win with forecast of rain on the final evening. Until then New Zealand had scored 600 only three times in their history. And only one team had ever scored 600 in the fourth innings: England in the timeless Test in 1939. In the first innings of this Test, New Zealand hadn't even reached 200. India had taken eight wickets when rain arrived, giving them just the draw.
Dhoni expressed no regret at setting New Zealand such a ridiculous target. Some New Zealanders still rib India about their declaration. This was pragmatism taken to frustrating extremes. This was the story of a majority of Dhoni's career as Test captain. Too easily he would let games drift, control his only means of taking wickets. Sometimes the batting bailed him out, like at P Sara Oval, when he had let Thilan Samaraweera and Ajantha Mendis run away with the game. Sometimes he let golden opportunities go, like at Newlands when he sat back on defence too early in the injured Jacques Kallis' second dig. Sometimes it worked, but mostly at home, when his spinners and Zaheer Khan provided him the control he was after.
There would be passages of play when Dhoni would make you want to pull your hair out. In Nagpur, December 2012, India were behind in the series against England. This was the last Test of the series. India had to do everything to force a result. It was a slow pitch that made run-scoring extremely difficult. In response to England's 330 in 145.5 overs, India were 297 for 8 in 130.1 overs at the end of the third day. We were getting into the moving day, the fourth day. India spent the first hour, 62 golden minutes, scoring just 29 runs. The lack of match awareness was mindboggling. In the previous Test England had brought the fields up for R Ashwin for the last two balls of the over. Here Ashwin said he was surprised they didn't. The dressing room remained cool.
This cool became infuriating. Dhoni had taken India to soaring heights in limited-overs cricket by remaining cool. In Tests, sometimes, you have to make things happen. Under him, India didn't make things happen. They accepted fate too easily. They accepted too easily that some of the seniors had the right to decide when they wanted to go. They accepted too easily that some players had the right to choose IPL even if it jeopardised their chances of winning or drawing Tests. They accepted too easily that a 1-0 series lead was enough in the West Indies, and they called off a chase with 86 required in 15 overs and seven wickets in hand. You felt like holding Dhoni by the shoulders and shaking him up.
There is more, though, to India's captaincy than just tactics, bowling changes and field sets. The previous long-term captain quit because he couldn't handle all that. Sachin Tendulkar's recent book has proved how difficult even such a consummate professional could be to handle at most times. Dhoni managed all that brilliantly. He rid most of his players of any insecurity. Players found it hard to break into the side, but once they did they were assured decent runs before playing themselves out of it. Outsiders ceased to be a factor in the dressing room. Trust was a big factor. A regular occurrence in the past, players now hardly sulked to journalists. A youngster was left out of the side because he leaked what happened in a team meeting to a journalist.
Dhoni could demand all this because his control was absolute. He had a board president in whose company he was a vice-president, for whose company's team he played IPL, and who vetoed a move to sack him as captain after 8-0. Dhoni was untouchable now. He stopped squatting in his wicketkeeping stance. He stopped going for catches between him and first slip. This is not about integrity and commitment, but sometimes you need a nudge from the rest of the team and the selectors. You wondered if he was being reminded of this. Trevor Penney, the fielding coach at one time, said in a press conference that the slips have to realise that Dhoni won't go for those catches.
As a batsman he applied himself much more even though he didn't seem to always trust himself outside Asia. He showed his more talented batsmen what could be achieved through application. In England, in 2014, he took the responsibility of batting at No. 6 in order to force results, and faced the second-highest number of balls among India batsmen. At home, he could set up declarations, he could counterattack as he did in his superb double-century to take the series decidedly away from Australia in 2012-13. He became a regular No. 6 at home, allowing the luxury of another spinner. That will surely be missed now.
Dhoni was India's captain. He let others bask in glory when matches were won. He gamely took all responsibility for losses, although he still didn't answer questions. A lot of it he deserved, but no appraisal of his Test career will be complete without looking at the other side of the story. Since he took over the captaincy full time, against England at home in 2008-09, India have spent 120 overs or more in the field on 36 occasions. That's six more than the next-worst, Sri Lanka. Over the same period, only Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been more profligate than India.
Dhoni's fast bowlers have rarely given him what is required of Test bowlers. The quick ones don't remain fit, the fit ones don't bowl quick, and the in-between ones keep bowling loose balls to release the pressure. His spinners were outplayed by England's at home. Did they fail to respond because the captaincy was defensive, or was the captaincy defensive because the bowling was ordinary? The circle of Dhoni's Test life.
No other wicketkeeper in the history of Test cricket has captained in 20 Tests. Dhoni did so in 60. All the while he also captained in as many ODIs, T20Is and IPL matches as he could. In a period of seven years, Dhoni has gone up and down in his keeping stance 1,13,120 times with captaincy also on his mind. Slow fielders at times. Inconsistent bowlers almost always. Fading seniors. Erring juniors. Over-rates. Overenthusiastic sledgers. Around fifty squats per day, without counting IPL matches.
No other player has put himself through this strain over the period. The price of this effort is paid by the body. For a long time towards the end of his Test career, Dhoni has been shaking hands softly and carefully so as to not hurt his fingers. His lower back has begun to give him trouble, which he has kept to himself and to the team. He has continued, though. He has maintained he doesn't want a long career in the sport. He wants to make the most of it while his body supports the strain, play as many games as possible before it gives up.
By all means it is a super-human effort. But was it necessary, was he so indispensable in Tests?
On the last tour of Australia, Dhoni was asked pointblank why he was still captaining, what excited him about the job. He had lost seven away Tests in a row. His captaincy was being panned. There were issues in the dressing room. Dhoni didn't get flustered. He didn't shoot back. He waited and then said, "It's an interesting responsibility given to me. The challenge excites me. The challenge to be with the senior guys, the challenge to groom the youngsters, to keep the dressing-room atmosphere good. Leading a side is all about when the team is not doing well."
Dhoni had been inconspicuous as the team rode the success of the seniors and of Zaheer to rise to No. 1 in Test cricket. The foreign tours broke the team's back. Dhoni had now decided to become more in charge. He wanted to build his own team. To win home Tests and then given a better account of himself and of his side in the next cycle of away tours.
Dhoni asked for turning wickets at home. The ordinariness of his spinners cost him the series against England, but they whitewashed Australia. On the away leg he came a desperate man. He pushed himself up to play another bowler, who always turned out to be ordinary. His bowlers weren't giving him much control, but Dhoni had become too funky. Leg slips, silly mid-offs, fly slips, all kinds of positions would be tried too early in an innings. The bouncer became his new friend. It won him a Test at Lord's, but cost him two in Australia, including his last. It seemed a bit of an admission that he doesn't have the bowlers who can win him away Tests in conventional manner.
Apart from that he has left a mostly settled team behind him. The last four debutants were signs of desperation, but 10 of the 12 previous ones were and will continue for some time to be part of India's Test squads. There is continuity to the side. Dhoni deserves credit for facilitating this transition. The near-misses over the last year will rankle him. Maybe they took a heavy toll on his mind. Maybe his body just couldn't take it anymore. Maybe he wanted to end it after this series, but his body gave him signals he could risk his World Cup prospects if he kept straining his lower back or bad hands for another Test. We don't know. We have never known with Dhoni.
It was about time, too, many think. India needed newer ideas on the field. They had come as far as Dhoni could bring them. It was now time for someone else to see what he can do with these bowling resources. Resolve the egg-and-chicken situation. Every time India have let a Test slip, every time India have lost an away series, every time there have been tactical errors, we have said to Dhoni what rebellious adolescents say to their parents: you are old school, we can look after ourselves better, we are better off without you. And he has smiled back like all-knowing parents, infuriating us further. He is no longer there now. We'll soon find out how much better off we are without him, but that smile will be missed.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo