Before he led India to a World Cup victory, MS Dhoni's earliest identity as a cricketer had been attached to the Twenty20 format. It was India's victory in the World Twenty20 under Dhoni that was one of the factors that led to the speedy launch of the Indian Premier League. Dhoni then led his team, the Chennai Super Kings, to a double last year, winning the IPL and the Champions League Twenty20 in South Africa.
Yet, more than once during this World Cup, Dhoni has demonstrated that he is conscious of the course taken by Indian cricket in the last three decades and where Saturday's victory now stands.
At the media conference following India's six-wicket victory, Dhoni was asked by an English reporter to explain what the World Cup victory actually meant to Indians who, Dhoni was told, did not enjoy much success in other world-level sport. Yuvraj Singh, the World Cup's Player of the Tournament sitting next to Dhoni, raised his eyebrow, and his captain took the opportunity to say that India had been growing as a nation that supports sport, citing the examples from shooting, badminton, hockey and football.
But cricket, Dhoni said, "was special" to Indians because of the change that the 1983 victory achieved for Indian cricket. "People started loving the sport and you then saw two individuals making their debut, Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar." He then said that the successful careers of Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, which began in 1996, marked the next step. "This was the chain of players because of whom we are in this position right now. We earn a lot of money, we get a lot respect and what we are trying to do is to pass it onto the next generation."
Three of the players mentioned by Dhoni were at the Wankhede Stadium on Saturday night; Tendulkar a part of Dhoni's team, Kumble in the audience and new commentator-columnist Ganguly, who stood at the boundary on the far side of dressing room from where he watched the Indian team go past on its lap of honour with Tendulkar sitting on Yusuf Pathan's shoulders. Ganguly, who led India to the final of the 2003 World Cup and who still responds to India's performance as if he were a part of the team, was beaming. "What a win," he said, "what a performance."
Dhoni was asked to compare his two biggest victories as India captain and said, that while every format was "special" in its own way, "I have always loved the ODI format. Because I always think you see a lot of variety in one-day cricket." The final he said had been the best example. "In this game, we lost a couple of early wickets and then you have two batsmen struggling to get runs." He said that the one-day game showed "a glimpse" of what may not be Test cricket but was a shortened version of its demands.
"Two batsmen looking for survival and looking to get runs at the same time. At the end you saw a slog, from Yuvraj and me. And at the end of it," Dhoni said, "you see a result." It is a summary that would please the ICC enormously which, after the unfortunate 2007 event in the Caribbean, has needed a successful World Cup to prove to its community that the three formats of the sport could survive. Between that World Cup and this one, there has been a mushrooming of the Twenty20 leagues, and was seen as a threat to the 50-over format. Now with the captain of the 2011 World Cup winners, and the biggest audience and market in the sport, enthusiastically endorsing the format, the ICC has further proof of what it has always maintained: that the 50-over game can play a few more innings.