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.
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.