January 9, 2015

An Indian original

As captain, MS Dhoni was wholly himself, unflappable, and a desi to boot

MS Dhoni: calm, decisive, not deferential, and hysteria-free in victory and defeat © Getty Images

Self-made doesn't begin to describe Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Nearly everyone comes from somewhere; some lineage, some school, some silsila. Take Sachin Tendulkar. He was a genius but recognisably of the Bombay gharana. Or Rahul Dravid, who had a very individual technique, but could, at a pinch, be assimilated into a southern tradition of wristy stylists. Even Anil Kumble, the legspinner who lived off fast googlies, had a recognisable ancestor in BS Chandrasekhar. Dhoni, though, turned up on our television screens fully formed, untouched by influence, wholly, weirdly, wonderfully himself.

Srinivasa Ramanujan, another great provincial who came out of nowhere, was described by his biographer as svayambhu, not so much self-made as self-invented, created out of nothing by will alone. The great mathematician, self-taught and poorly schooled, shared with Dhoni the hero's ability to transcend context. The advertising men spotted this quality early: one of Dhoni's most striking television commercials plays with the idea that he might have settled for being a ticket collector in the railways had he not been driven to realise himself.

Dhoni realised himself by becoming the captain of the Indian cricket team. His standing in Indian cricket turns, to an extraordinary degree, on his charisma as its captain. Dhoni had great contemporaries like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid who never completely came to terms with the burden of leading India. Dhoni in his pomp wore the Indian captaincy like a comfortable sweatshirt. He made leadership seem such light work that when he won the World T20 in 2007, he didn't seem like Atlas, shouldering some great burden, he came across as a karmayogi in blue: his superpower was unflappability.

There's something desi about Dhoni. Even before he became captain, his legend was built on Indian archetypes. He was Eklavya, a boy from the backwoods of Jharkhand, who taught himself his craft, worlds removed from metropolitan Dronacharyas, like Achrekar, who helped urban prodigies like Tendulkar fulfil their talent. He was Bheema with his legendary appetite for milk and his fearsome club. Those two 148s against the old enemy, Pakistan, one in long-form cricket and one in the limited-overs format, and both defined by berserker strokeplay of thrilling brutality, were seen as the consolidation of the provincial's progress in Indian cricket.

What Virender Sehwag from Najafgarh had begun, Mahendra Singh Dhoni from Jharkhand carried forward. With Viru opening the innings and Mahi following after the last specialist batsman, Indian cricket seemed to have both its Hayden and its Gilchrist. It didn't hurt that Dhoni with his (then) shoulder-length hair, his widely touted passion for motorcycles and his all-round cool, was a heaven-sent gift to marketers trying to woo cricket's young public.

His purple patch began with the 2007 World T20 title © Getty Images

This portrait of the batsman as a young brute changed, but never quite went away. As he grew into the team, Dhoni's batting style became more calculated. This was partly a function of responsibility - he succeeded Kumble as captain - and partly a function of the limitations of his technique. Dhoni's eccentric front-on, French-cricket methods and his patented shots (the horizontal smash over the bowler, the off-side force hit with both feet off the ground, and above all, the great whipped "helicopter" shot) worked better on flat, slow subcontinental pitches than they did on livelier ones elsewhere.

So instead of growing into a Gilchrist or a Sangakkara, Dhoni became a determined lower-order batsman in Test cricket with a more than respectable away record and a sporadically brilliant one at home. The savage double-century he hit as recently as February 2013 in Chennai to pound Michael Clarke's Australians into the ground (224 in 265 balls) was a reminder that the brute within, locked away for the most part, still lurked and was sometimes given an outing.

In the one-day game Dhoni was quite simply the greatest finisher in the history of the format. His average of over 50 runs an innings testified to his extraordinary consistency: while he could smash the opposition out of the game, more often than not he won by timing the acceleration with such last-minute nicety that it left a whole generation of desi fans chronically breathless.

But while his batting was a crucial part of his persona, it wasn't the most important part. More than Pataudi or Ganguly, Dhoni's success, his standing in the eyes of the desi fan, had to do with leadership, with his tenure as captain of India in all three formats of the game.

You got a glimpse of that old brutal batsman during his double-century against Australia in Chennai in 2013 © BCCI

His legend began on September 24, 2007 in Johannesburg, when Misbah-ul-Haq, having nearly taken Pakistan home in the final of the first World T20, scooped a ball from the now-forgotten Joginder Sharma into the hands of the now-disgraced Sreesanth. The principal actors in that last tableau - Joginder, Misbah, Sreesanth - play supporting roles, because, in retrospect, the crucial business in this play occurred immediately after the match was won. As Sreesanth and the Indian fielders exulted in a famous victory and as Misbah knelt slumped at the crease in agonising defeat, Dhoni walked up to the stumps from his wicketkeeping crouch, impassive, looking for all the world as if he was changing ends at the end of an over.

For four wonderful years, Dhoni turned the three-ring circus of Indian cricket into purposeful cricketing spectacle. Bowlers stopped stamping their feet like drama queens every time a fielder misfielded, the captain stopped knitting his brows in wrath, the unbearable tension of watching the Indian team play dissipated till it became bearable. And it was all entirely down to Dhoni. He was calm, decisive, not deferential, he backed his players and his hunches, and best of all, was hysteria-free in defeat and victory.

And there were victories to celebrate. No Indian captain has ever had a purple patch that begins to compare with the one that began in September 2007 and ended in April 2011. Not only did Dhoni and his men win the inaugural T20 tournament, they inched up the ICC table to become the No. 1 Test team in the world for the first time since the rankings were officially established. Then they topped things off by winning the World Cup in Mumbai in 2011.

Dhoni made sure they did. Having done little or nothing with the bat through the tournament, he promoted himself in the batting order when his successor-to-be fell, and personally scripted this famous victory.

He summoned that savage doppelganger he mostly kept hidden away and allowed him to bludgeon a match-turning 91. He shoved India across the finishing line by driving the ball out of the ground with such cathartic violence that all India grunted in unison. It was that once-in-a-generation communion that makes the torment of being a desi spectator worthwhile. And Dhoni did it… with a little help from his friends.

In ODIs, Dhoni averages 52.85 with nine hundreds and 56 half-centuries © Getty Images

Enoch Powell famously said that all political careers end in defeat. So did Dhoni's career as Test captain. It's tempting in retrospect to wish for another ending but the World Cup victory was never going to be his perfectly timed swan song. He wasn't even 30 when the final happened. He was bound to go on, but the years afterwards saw India slide disastrously in the Test rankings and saw his reputation as captain tarnished by a series of humiliating routs in England and Australia. The great IPL scandal about Gurunath Meiyappan and betting drew Dhoni in, and his testimony to the Mudgal Commission, his own perceived conflicts of interest and his proximity to N Srinivasan, had spectators and journalists wondering if this supremely self-made individual was, in fact, his own man.

But that's another story. What no one can take away from Dhoni is his achievement as captain and the preternatural calm that informed that achievement. After he hit that winning six in Mumbai, he stepped aside and let Tendulkar and Kohli and the rest soak up the crowd's adulation. Asked about the victory he didn't resort to the easy nationalism that ruins such moments: he said, with unerring discrimination, that they (the team) had won it for each other. The players came first; their countrymen came later. He always understood - in a way that we didn't - that it was, in the end, just a game.

For most of his time at the top, Dhoni was that rarest of divas: he delivered pitch-perfect performances minus tantrums and narcissism. He wasn't just a remarkable leader: he was an original. I'd like to see him win the World Cup again. Not only because I'm a greedy Indian fan but because it would be a pleasure to have this great finisher score his own farewell.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi

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