October 28, 2008

Easy lies the head

Dhoni is different from other India captains, principally in the poise and calm he brings to the role

Dhoni may not be as talented as the likes of Yuvraj and Irfan Pathan, but he has made more of his abilities © AFP

There's something special about Dhoni.

It can't just be that he's a provincial from Jharkhand who's made it to the top. There's been a cohort of "provincial" players who have represented India in recent years: Mohammad Kaif, Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina, the brothers Pathan, come to mind. It can't even be that he's the outstanding player among them, because he's not. Sehwag is the greatest natural talent Indian batting has seen since Sachin Tendulkar's debut.

Dhoni, judged purely as a batsman or a wicketkeeper, is a limited player who has made the most of his abilities. He was a middling-to-poor keeper when he was first selected to play limited-overs cricket for India in 2004, and it wasn't till India's tour of the West Indies in 2006 that his work behind the stumps became reliable. He was a better batsman than he was a keeper when he began his international career. It's worth remembering that he was lucky to play for India at all. Had Parthiv Patel or Dinesh Karthik made the most of their international opportunities, Dhoni might have laboured in the salt mines of domestic cricket for the whole of his career. Patel and Karthik are both several years younger than him and they made their ODI and Test debuts before he did.

In fact, the first thing that distinguishes Dhoni from the generation of players that debuted for India in the 21st century is that unlike Irfan Pathan or Patel or Sreesanth, he was not a prodigy. He wasn't a teen sensation plucked out of obscurity and planted on the world stage. He ground his way through all the tiers of competitive cricket: the Under-19 teams battling for the Cooch Behar trophy, the obscure matches played for Bihar in the Ranji Trophy, the India A sides, and then, eventually, when younger, more touted players failed, he was picked to play for India. He was 23 years old when he played his first one-day international and 24 when he made his Test debut.

His first claim to the world's attention was the savage 148 he struck against Pakistan in the ODI in Vizag in April 2005. This was exactly twice the number of runs Sehwag made in the same game, and Dhoni's century helped India win the match. He followed this up with an even more remarkable 148 against the same team, this time in a Test match in Faisalabad; the hundred took him all of 93 balls. But while Dhoni has consolidated his claim to being one of the most effective one-day batsmen in the world, his Test form has remained modest. He hasn't scored another century; unlike his great contemporaries, Adam Gilchrist and Kumar Sangakkara, he has been a battling batsman rather than a dominant one, and sometimes not even that. On the tour of Australia earlier this year, Dhoni played all four Tests without scoring a fifty. He averaged under 18 and looked out of his depth against first-rate fast bowling on brisk pitches. Harbhajan Singh made more runs in fewer matches at a higher average and a superior run-rate.

So why is Dhoni special? It is because he is the first Indian cricketer whose persona is more important and more valuable to his team than his cricketing abilities. And what does that mean? It means several things, so it's best to itemise them.

Dhoni's most striking characteristic is his poise. As a batsman and wicketkeeper he leaves no one in any doubt about his competitiveness, but he doesn't sledge, he doesn't curse, he doesn't make like a drama queen when he's given a dodgy decision, and if he has to play through injury (as he did in the CB Series in Australia) he gets on with it.

Dhoni's most striking characteristic is his poise. As a batsman and wicketkeeper he leaves no one in any doubt about his competitiveness, but he doesn't sledge, he doesn't curse, he doesn't make like a drama queen when he's given a dodgy decision

He is the only Indian cricketer in the last 40 years (apart from Sehwag) who actually does what Kipling prescribed in that corny but resounding poem, "If": he meets with Triumph and Disaster and treats those two imposters just the same. Think of the great players who play alongside Dhoni: Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble. They're all more gifted cricketers than Dhoni will ever be, and they've all captained India with varying degrees of success, but not one of them conveyed the sense of reassurance and calm that Dhoni brings to both his demeanour as a player and as a captain. Of all of them, Dhoni is the least likely to suggest by his manner that winning and losing are matters of life or death. Despite the enormous rewards that come with playing for India today, his body language, his lack of visible agitation, make it clear that he knows that in the end it isn't war, it's only a game. After winning the World Twenty20, as his team-mates leapt about, Dhoni was caught by the camera walking up to the stumps, close to expressionless. His matter-of-fact acceptance of defeat in the final of the IPL, which was won by the Rajasthan Royals, led by Shane Warne, was the obverse of his calm at moments of triumph. And Indian selectors and spectators and sportswriters, traumatised by decades of knotted tension, respond to that sane maturity. It calms us.

He's the only Indian captain in recent times who doesn't stamp his feet and scowl when a fielder lets him down on the field. Kumble, Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar were all masters of visible reproach when they were leading the team. Dhoni will occasionally ask a player to get his act together, but it's done without knitted brows and theatrical questioning; it's cricket minus Kathakali. His take on controversies involving his team-mates is relaxed and dispassionate. When Sreesanth became known as a serial offender for his antics, Dhoni was content to observe that players learn to rein themselves in once they're disciplined and suspended.

He is also undeferential. Nothing in his early career suggested that he considered himself a "junior" member of the team, and nothing in his present manner suggests that he takes himself seriously as a "senior" member, despite being captain of the ODI side and heir-apparent to Kumble in Tests. He doesn't refer to the team as "my boys" nor does he hesitate to press for youth in the limited-overs squad, despite the risk of alienating "senior" players. It isn't an accident that Dhoni became captain of the ODI team inside three years of making his debut: from the start he carried himself as a mature adult who could deal with responsibility without being weighed down by it. The contrast with Yuvraj Singh, who made his ODI debut four years before Dhoni, couldn't be more striking. Yuvraj would have been India's ODI captain had he lived up to his early promise: he chose, instead, to live a prolonged adolescence.

None of this is to suggest that Dhoni doesn't deserve our attention for his cricketing ability. He bats like a self-taught caveman, and when his homemade brutality comes off, it's thrilling. The two-handed top-spin forehands he uses to counter yorkers; that hernia-inducing mid-air shot, legs scissoring violently to make momentum; those ball-flattening lofted smashes that leave the bowler wondering if he needs a helmet, enliven the game. And should he manage to translate his new-found ability to accumulate runs briskly without risk in ODIs to Test cricket, he may yet rival Sangakkara as a wicketkeeper-batsman. But even if he doesn't, he will live in the history of Indian cricket as the country's first adult captain since MAK Pataudi.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in India Today magazine

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Pratyush on October 30, 2008, 13:18 GMT

    There will always be doubters, first these people who said "Why Dhoni as a T20 skipper?" , then asked questions when he was appointed the ODI captain and even when India has won 2 tests out of the 2 he has captained , people will ask "Why ?" My answer is simple, you either are a good captain or you are not, and all the evidence that is out there is that he is a GREAT captain. His demeanour how he handles his team is exceptional.He consistently performs and no one can say he ever gives anything than his 100% . Still if someone criticises MS Dhoni, then he is just watching a wrong game.

  • Pratyush on October 30, 2008, 13:05 GMT

    The poise and demeanour of MS Dhoni, as a captain has been so heart warming and fresh that you sometimes are compelled to think why was he chosen so late for India ? But whatever the reasons its been a wait worth the performances. He does not get flustered by failure or go bonkers when he wins. His performances speak more than he does, which is a welcome break from the overly self praising cricketers of India. Mukul does a great job of summing up his career and it has been a pleasure to follow MS Dhoni and we hope he brings more laurels for India.

  • Pari on October 30, 2008, 6:57 GMT

    Fantastic Mukul. Dhoni is calm head on strong shoulders. Most people are pretty certain that in years to come he would emerge as most successful captain in Indian cricket.

  • jayanta on October 29, 2008, 13:36 GMT

    Simply I dont agree to his comments. He has not been tested yet. The real test of a captain depends on how he performs in Tests and he has not been tested yet in this fornt. he has been lucky, he seems to be cool but in pressure he would crumble. More over the Australian team is not at its peak and with out some key players who had performed well. T 20 is not a bench mark to judge him. let him do well in test match cricket then we may consider. jayanta

  • varun on October 29, 2008, 8:25 GMT


    I would be very worried if Dhoni was treating Indian cricket as "just a game". When these guys are getting paid substantial sums for their cricket, and reaping rewards through advertisements and movies and punditry, why should they treat it as just a game - the Aussies certainly don't! Just look at how seriously they took their "game" after their loss in the ashes.

    At the end of the day, the rest of us have jobs - we don't see them as "games", if we make mistakes, we can't laugh and say "it's just a game", so why should the cricketers. On the contrary, they should be like the corporations and companies that people work for - losing money is not an option, so losing a game shouldn't be either. After all, if your going to get paid for using a stick to hit a ball, you better do it well!

  • varun on October 29, 2008, 8:15 GMT


    As a seasoned indian cricket commentator and viewer, you should know better than to glorify a captain before he has achieved results consistently.

    We as Indians, maybe due to some insecurity of somesort, relating to national pride, really feel the need to prove ourselves internationally. Maybe it is because we feel that intellectually, culturally and socially, we equal the west, but are still linked in to the degeneracy of the "third world". That is why we proclaim to the high heavens that Laxmi Mittal is the richest man in the world, Tata have just bought Jaguar..etc

    Therefore, whenever we see our team win a match against the Aussies, we, subconsciously, link the victory to our supremacy, rather than the opposition's failures. Let us be objective here - We have won ONE test match, we could dreadfully lose Captain Dhoni's next test- Hayden or Lee could hit form and we could be Toast. And then we'll see how "cool" Dhoni is; the team makes the captain, not the opposite.

  • mmm on October 29, 2008, 2:56 GMT

    Agree plus the most important fact is - He plays when India needs him most. He takes the load on himself. Doesn't matter whether Sachin makes maximum test runs, there are only few people who plays when team needs them and Dhoni is one of very few in Indian cricket team.

  • Dilip on October 28, 2008, 21:41 GMT

    Totally agree with What Mukal had to say.Dhoni brings lots of assurance with him.As Mukul pointed out the reactions or the lack of it that Dhoni possesses during defeat and triumph is the best character of a captain who knows what is he doing.Keep going Dhoni.With him at the helm i can see a World Cup triumph much sooner than latter.Indians would be thrilled if that happens in 2011 with the greatest batsman of our times providing the impetus for the one last time.

  • FIroz on October 28, 2008, 19:54 GMT

    Mr.Mukul Kesavan has put forward his points rather emotionally than statistically. No doubt MS Dhoni is a prolific batsman, and became a good wicket keeper over a period of time. But still one can't judge his test captain capabilities from as little as 2 test matches. I never watched MAK Pataudi captaining India, I must be not even born or very small to watch cricket at that time, so I can't say how good or bad Mr.Pataudi was, but I can definitely stress on the fact that Mohd.Azharuddin was as cool as Dhoni, or even freezing coolest! He never shouted at his team mates, never animated angrily at fieldsmen. If that is the criteria Mr.Mukul Kesavan is giving, then I am sure Azhar will be on top as complete adult captain India had ever seen!

  • Ashok on October 28, 2008, 18:58 GMT

    A fine portrayal of Dhoni, Mukul. Yes Dhoni has the poise,maturity and dynamism to be one of the greatest captains of India of all times. Both Karthik and Patel had their chances when Dhoni did not play in Sri Lanka. Their keeping & batting was poor by comparison to Dhoni's. Hence contrary to your opinion, Dhoni has fully earned his place in the team on the strength of his W/Keeping and batting. In fact he is easily the best WK/batsmen in the world today after the retirement of Gilchrist. You say his batting is ordinary. Yet he batted so well in the second test at Mohali contributing over 160 runs in the match at a strike rate of over 80. This was also a major factor in India's victory. Dhoni also saved India in Lords test in England contributing around 90 runs when the "Fab 4" failed. So Dhoni leads by example and personal contributions. He has excellent knowledge of the game and is as unruffled as former Indian Test Captains V.S.Hazare or Pataudi. He fully deserves to lead India NOW.

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