The hurricane with calm in his eye
It's two days before India's first Test of the English summer. At Lord's, six Indian cricketers are entertaining media requests. The experienced Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly recall their favourite Lord's moments, an upbeat Yuvraj Singh relives the epic final in 2002, a slightly nervous Dinesh Karthik admits to "goosebumps" and a highly emotional Sreesanth is on the verge of letting out tears of joy. The message is loud and clear: playing at Lord's is mighty special.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, meanwhile, has spent more than half an hour talking of his non-cricketing life. He's spoken of his Kawasaki ZX14 and how he supports Manchester United. Finally, almost as an afterthought, he's asked about the "anticipation" ahead of his first Lord's Test. His response is both unexpected and witty: "I think the food is amazing and the desserts are excellent. I'm enjoying my ice cream. And after this discussion I'm going back for more." Laughter.
Six days later Dhoni came up with an uncharacteristically stodgy 76 that helped India hang on for a draw and leave Lord's with the series scoreline still 0-0. Put Dhoni in the spotlight and he has the knack of coming up with the unexpected.
Now he has the captaincy of the one-day team - but he will probably not be overawed by it. He was asked, on becoming India's Twenty20 captain, if leading one's country was his childhood ambition. "Not really," he said, matter-of-fact. "It's not about leading but about playing."
Despite having little leadership experience, he has the attributes in plenty. He's keen and observant, to an extent that he makes a note of those interviewers who look him in the eye and those who don't. He's impressively assured, rarely uttering more than he needs to. "He's very quiet, goes and sits in the last seat in the bus, doesn't interfere with anything," Dinesh Karthik had said in January this year. "He doesn't say much in team meetings, but whatever he says makes a lot of sense." Greg Chappell had said something similar a year ago. Saba Karim, the former Bengal wicketkeeper who observed Dhoni from his younger days, had highlighted this attribute two years earlier.
|He's popular with his team-mates, yet not too entrenched in any particular group. In fact he was one of the few who remained relatively neutral during the divided Chappell years|
He's popular with his team-mates, yet not too entrenched in any particular group. In fact he was one of the few who remained relatively neutral during the divided Chappell years.
Those team-mates have been impressed with the strokes he manufactures under pressure. One of the reasons for not promoting him up the order involves his ability to handle the heat. Everyone remembers Robin Uthappa's 33-ball 47 that sealed The Oval humdinger earlier this month but it wouldn't have been possible without Dhoni's low-key 35 at the other end. There were just three fours in there but the calm manner in which he guided Uthappa along wasn't lost on his team-mates. His 33 last week, setting up India's competitive total against Pakistan in another form of the game, had the same veneer of responsibility.
His wicketkeeping has gone from average to safe back to average. But the ability to back himself has done him good. As a senior player said during the England tour: "He struggled behind the stumps in the Tests but took every single catch that came his way. It's all down to his mental toughness."
That mental toughness can partly be explained by his evolution as a batsman. He's spent half a lifetime trying to convince people that his batting style can actually work. Throughout his early days he was told to not be so attacking, tighten his technique and not loft spinners. A miserable season in 2001-02 (just one score of more than 25 in four first-class games and 45 runs in four one-day matches) brought him to the crossroads. But his decision to trust his game when under tremendous pressure made all the difference.
The next season proved to be a watershed. In late 2003 he was picked for his zone, within six months he'd been elevated to India A and a further four months later he was playing for India. Three years down the line he's entered uncharted territory for an Indian wicketkeeper (Syed Kirmani led in a solitary one-dayer back in 1983 when Kapil Dev was injured). A list of India's permanent one-day captains reveals that Dhoni is the least experienced (84 caps) when appointed leader.
None of this should come as a surprise. Whether he's at the crease or facing the press, Dhoni comes with an element of the unpredictable. He isn't fazed and readily adapts. Most importantly, irrespective of the situation, he likes to smile. He'll have three former captains as sounding boards but, if his development as a batsman is anything to go by, will want to lead entirely his way.
Some years ago Dhoni's habit of walking fast to the crease caught a team-mate's attention. "Why are you running so fast?" Mihir Diwakar, who also played for Jharkhand, asked him. A similar question can be asked of Dhoni regarding his career. But, as he told Diwakar that day, "It's not as if I planned it."
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo