Six months into his stint as India's captain in the shorter forms, Mahendra Singh Dhoni can afford to look back in satisfaction. Two of India's most momentous wins in recent times - in the World Twenty20 and the CB Series - have come on his watch. Along the way, he has nurtured a young side he is justifiably proud of. It's about the spirit in the dressing room, he tells Cricinfo in this interview. "I've got a successful team who want go out there, who want to enjoy cricket, who want to give more than 100%."
When you were appointed Twenty20 captain last year, you had said, "It's not about captaining but playing." Do you still believe that?
I still believe in that. One of my theories is to be captain on the field and off the field you need to totally enjoy each other's company. I don't like discussing cricket off the field.
As captain you'll take vital decisions and your thinking or decisions can have a big impact on the game, but a lot depends on the individuals you give jobs to. That's why I've always said the captain is the guy who accumulates all the pressure and then channels it to different individuals - bowlers or allrounders or batsmen. Basically he's a selfish guy who picks guys to do the job for him. It's very important for him to motivate others who'll do loads of jobs for him.
For me, fielding and running between the wickets are two things that are very important. For that you need to motivate the guys about how much of an effect it will have on the game. I was very glad to see the team field and run the way they did throughout the CB Series. Even when they got out for a low score, the fielding and running was great. The emphasis was there. They reacted in a great way - that's what I wanted: it was not about winning all the games. It was not like if you lose you get demoralised.
One of the best achievements from the victory was the dressing-room atmosphere. It was very calm and cool throughout - even when we lost the Twenty20 game ... right till the last game. It's very important to get that balance because you are playing a game in which you can't control everything. If your dressing-room atmosphere is great then most of the time you'll get a favourable result. That was very important and I was actually marking it. Of course, a bit of disappointment will be there [when you lose], a bit of excitement will be there when you win. But if it's calm and cool it's great, and there are more chances of being successful. Especially guys who've not played at the international level - when they see a relaxed dressing room that's what stays in their mind.
You speak like an experienced campaigner in terms of captaincy. You seem to have a real pulse of what's going on. Have you captained at any level before?
At a bigger level, I don't think I've captained anywhere.
At school I used to score regularly but I think they were quite afraid of my temperament. I was very aggressive with the guys who were not really 100% on the field. Once, in a senior district tournament game, we were playing a comparatively weak side on a matting wicket. There were some guys who dropped catches and were laughing around and all that stuff. I said, "Okay, I'm bowling." I told those three or four guys: "You stand at midwicket and do all the talking. I'll manage with the six others."
I believe in giving more than 100% on the field and I don't really worry about the result if there's great commitment on the field. That's victory for me.
After that I don't think I captained much ... got selected for the first-class team and started playing for the Ranji, Duleep and Deodhar Trophy teams for my state. Twenty20 was my first opportunity.
Instinctively, have you thought like a captain even before you became one?
Not really. It came to me quite late. Till class 10 or 11 I wouldn't really go up front and say things. I would wait and watch. As the wicketkeeper, you always are in a position where the captain comes up to you and asks different things. In a way it goes on in the subconscious. Being a wicketkeeper really helped me more than anything. Whatever was in my mind I used to speak. I never used to just go through the motions and follow whatever the skipper said. Whatever I felt, I used to say, but if I was not sure I wouldn't really answer. I didn't believe in confusing the captain more. I was pretty clear in my thoughts and it came to me gradually, watching the game from behind the stumps - how it progresses, how it is played in different parts of the world.
In India you have to make quite a few bowling changes, because at times when a partnership is going and the wicket is flat and you are playing with four bowlers, it gets tough for the skipper. That's the time you step in - being the keeper you read the wicket well. That really helped me more than anything else.
Strange you say that, because in the history of cricket there haven't been that many successful wicketkeeper-captains. I can think of only Alec Stewart recently, who did the job for a while. Mark Taylor said it is tough for a wicketkeeper to captain because keeping is a laborious process where one needs to focus constantly. But you seem to have turned it to your advantage.
More than being a successful captain I've got a successful team who want go out there, who want to enjoy cricket, who want to give more than 100%. They take everything as a challenge, whether it's fielding, bowling, batting, off-the-field activities or anything. It's not about the captain, because once in a while you take a big decision that has a big impact. It's more about the individual - how they respond to you and what kind of relationship you have with your team.
Whatever responsibility I've given to any individual, they have responded in a great way. That's what helped me. Whether it was Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma, Irfan Pathan, Piyush Chawla, PK [Praveen Kumar] or any of the other guys, each one performed. That's what you want: you know if you give responsibility to any of the guys they'll come up and they'll perform.
Then there were individuals in the side who never got a chance - in ten matches there was hardly any rotation of the batsmen. It is very important that the guys who are not playing take it in a good way and don't start thinking negative things, because ultimately they'll get a chance to play. I believe in giving a guy a consistent period to perform, not make him think, "If I'm not performing in this game or a few games, I won't be part of the team". I like taking all the guys into a comfort zone and creating the best atmosphere where they can perform. Till now I've been successful.
Was that one of the first priorities when you became captain - the loyalty aspect? One of early statements you made was: "I want a team that can stand before a truck." That really brought out the fact that you wanted people to be able to give anything to you. You thrust responsibility onto people at big moments - Yusuf Pathan [opening the batting in the World Twenty20 final], Joginder Sharma [bowling the last over in the same game], and Praveen Kumar [opening the bowling in the CB Series finals]?
That's one of my priorities, of course. The Twenty20 was a big stage and the best part was, nobody expected us to win as we had just played one game before that, so nobody was really counting on us. There were guys who wanted to perform, who wanted to get into the side, wanted their team to win. That's what happened - there was some guy or the other who stood up to the task with the ball or with the bat or on the field.
After that we started enjoying each other's success. If I score a hundred, of course I will enjoy it. But if your team-mates start enjoying your hundred that's when you know you are moving in the right direction.
In the Twenty20 World Cup we were thirsty. We tasted victory and we knew how it feels to be victorious. That really worked for us. After that, though we lost against Australia at home, we still set standards. The aggression was there and everything went off well and if we'd batted better in Nagpur then things would have looked different. The World Twenty20 win was the starting point - not from the victory point of view but the way we performed, the way we enjoyed each other's success. Even some of the senior guys who'd missed out, their involvement was great. Everybody was coming up with ideas, everybody wanted to win each and every game. That was the turning point. That's what is needed.
In the South Africa game in the World Twenty20, you sent Rohit Sharma up the order when he thought you were going in to bat instead. Where do you get the confidence to take such a decision?
I always had faith in Rohit ... and it's not like I don't have faith in anybody else. In the one-dayers I follow overs, in the sense that I want to bat after the 20th over. In the same way in Twenty20 one of the theories for me is to bat after the eighth over so I can play a few overs and stay till the end when the bowler is under same kind of pressure. And when you have a batsman who is a strokeplayer, who without taking too many risks can easily score more than a run a ball in that format of the game, then you'll always push him up. It worked for me and Rohit also gained very valuable experience out of that.
That's the way it's going to happen, whether in India or abroad. At times you'll see me or Yuvraj [Singh] going up the order if there's a nice performance or if there's a nice partnership of 20-25 overs. If you have guys who can really bat at any number, it's great. That's what happened with us when we did those 17 consecutive run-chases where we had Yuvraj, me and various other batsmen who were willing to bat, and performed, at different positions. So rather than having a fixed batting order, we had guys who could bat anywhere. At times you want to keep a left-right combination on the field, which means that Yuvraj might have to bat at five instead of four. All these things make an impact on the game. But one of the main things is how the guy who has been demoted takes it. If he takes it in a positive way, he can only get better.
So how do you explain it to him?
I keep it very simple: "This is the thing I want and that's the way it'll go." So instead of going there and explaining too many things and confusing yourself and confusing him, it's important to make it very simple. At the international level you have guys who've played a lot - either at the domestic or at the international level - so I don't really believe in telling them too many things or making everything clear - they are clever enough to know what is happening and what are the demands of the game. That's one of my theories. I think it's working.
People talk about leading by example. You have increasingly been tempering your batting. Have you felt the need to change your game as a captain?
If you see, I've always done that. I made 183 against Sri Lanka and immediately after, in the next game, in Pune, I completely changed my game.
If we are close to 10 or 12 runs needed per over - that is the time I go after the bowler. One of my beliefs is to play according to the situation and what the situation demands. If you need 30-odd runs to win and if you have 45 or 70 balls, you don't really have to play big shots - especially when you are playing at 5, 6 or 7, when you know how much batting is behind you and that if you play a rash shot the guy who comes in is under pressure. I realised that when we were playing in the 2006 Champions Trophy against England in Jaipur, where I went for a big shot, got out and immediately, after one ball, Suresh Raina played one onto the stumps. Then Bhajji [Harbhajan] and Yuvraj were batting. That's when I realised how tough it can get. That's when I said that unless it gets real close I'm not going for my shots. If you are open-minded and if you are learning from each and every game, that really helps you.
A famous Australian selector said that country cricketers, people who come from smaller places, have always been fine captains. Do you also think they come with extra hunger, extra smartness? In a way, you are India's first small-town captain. Has that worked to your advantage?
In a way, I believe in that, because if you are from a smaller place where the cricket infrastructure is not good, you have to struggle a lot. You don't get good practice facilities, you don't play too many games on turf wickets, and even to get into your home side you have to struggle a lot. All of these things do have an impact on the guy's playing style or the way he thinks of cricket. He is very clear about one thing: if he performs, only then is he going to stay there. It's not like the guys from the metros or big cities are not good enough or mentally tough: the guys from smaller states or smaller cities, they struggle a bit more.
You've broken the theory that cricketers only come from the bigger cities. Was it a challenge to come through to the first-class level to the level you've risen to now?
To me, even to get into my Ranji Trophy side was a big thing. Fortunately we had a selector who believed in youngsters. We qualified for the Under-19 that year and made it to the finals, so there was a big change and all of a sudden we saw five youngsters getting into the Bihar Ranji squad. That was a start. Bihar was considered a small state and for you to be a part of the zonal team, specially to be in the XI, it is tough. You have to perform consistently for that. So every stage, wherever you are playing, it gets a bit tough. You have to be very consistent.
For me, being a wicketkeeper really helped. The only guys you compete with are other wicketkeepers. So in your zone you actually compete with four other guys.
I believed in perfomance. I never picked up the newspapers to see if I was picked for the Duleep Trophy or Deodhar Trophy matches for East Zone. For me, it was more about playing cricket, enjoying cricket. I knew if I'm good enough I'll get a chance, and for that I have to be consistent. In my mind I was very clear that if they don't give me a chance for Duleep or Deodhar Trophy, it doesn't really matter - I'm happy playing for my state. If I can play consistently well for my state that's good enough for me because I love playing cricket more than anything else.
We heard a story of you turning out for Railways and keeping for three balls and being rejected.
I don't really know the exact year when the trials were held at the Karnail Singh Stadium [Railways' home ground, in Delhi]. Before that, I think, Railways had done really well. I was part of the trials, I played a few balls, I kept wicket, and I was turned down. It never really bothered me. Later, when I got selected for the Duleep Trophy, I got a call from Railways asking me to play for them. I said, "No, no, I'm not coming." That's what happened. Perhaps I was rude or whatever, but it had a big impact on me as well.
That incident really pushed me to do better. I was neglected in a big way at that trial. I got more determined to be at a level where you are performing consistently and you are recognised by everyone.
All your experiences - did they bring home to you the fact that players have to be given a extended chance? That you can't keep chopping and changing, you need a settled side? In the CB Series you said that irrespective of what happened, Yuvraj would play every game. Is that partly because of your experiences?
In one game you really can't decide whether a guy is good or bad. If he scores well, you cannot say he is excellent or he is not really good. Most of the guys in the past have proved that wrong - in the sense that they have come back. They struggled but came back and performed. So you cannot judge from one game or one series whether he is good or bad.
This [giving players an extended run] is one thing that will go on. It gets really tough because of the amount of cricket we play and the amount of competition that is around, but I think at the same time a fair chance must be given to the individual.
How intense a student of the game are you?
I'm not really a keen watcher of cricket. Even in the last World Cup, in South Africa, I just watched Sachin [Tendulkar] bat. The last game we played, we lost to Australia, and I only watched Sachin bat. I cannot sit in a chair and watch. I don't study cricket too much. Whatever I have learned or experienced is through cricket I've played on the field, and whatever little I have watched. And statistics, I know nothing. If you ask me "Who is the first player to do this or that?" you won't get anywhere close to a correct answer from me.
Do you look at matches played at venues previously?
Of course. My video analyst supplies all the facts to me ... but everything changes, you know. In Australia the wickets were very different. To start with, I had great difficulty reading the wickets but by the end I was quite good. You keep in mind what happened in those conditions before, but normally you look at the wicket and decide what will happen or what may happen. We played with a couple of spinners on more than one occasion and some people thought that those were not wickets where spinners would get any sort of help, but they ended up helping them.
So would you say it is through experience that you interpret the conditions and opposition?
I don't really sit in front of a laptop and analyse everything. I attend the bowlers' meetings and all and most things get into my head. I don't have to push anything into my head. Reading and getting anything into the mind is tough for me. If I visualise something or if I see something, it gets more quickly into my head. Instead of wasting four hours reading something, I would rather see something in clips and get output out of it.
Why do you think that is? Is it impatience or restlessness?
It doesn't attract me. It's not restlessness, because I get glued to video games for three or four hours.
Cricket - I could never sit down for three and a half hours to watch a whole innings. When I started understanding cricket, back then it was mostly the first 15 overs, depending on start. If Sachin and Sourav are batting and they don't get out for five overs then you know that till the 15th over the match will be interesting. If either of them carried on - they were aggressive and used to go after the bowlers - I used to watch till the game was interesting. After that I would wait for the 40th or 42nd over. I have never watched a game from the first over to the 50th over.
But you keep wicket, where focus is so important.
Yes, but that involves me. Your interest is there, you know what you're doing. Sitting and watching the game is not an attraction for me. When you're behind the stumps in the game, you are involved. You want to give more than 100 per cent. If you have not scored, you have to help others with the gloves, in the fielding department, stopping runs.
You don't seem to communicate too much on the field but one of the bowlers said recently, "If the plans are fine he is okay, but if the plans change, he will immediately come up and talk."
I give first preference to the bowler. I ask them for their fields and they say, "Okay, this is the field I want." And if it's a first-change bowler, for example, then I will tell him, "Look, this is what is happening." Maybe Irfan or Praveen Kumar ... I will tell Irfan, "Very little chances of you bringing the ball in, maybe the ball will slide away. So you can think of this field." Whatever I can suggest. The initial balls he will bowl according to his field - according to what he thinks will happen. Then if he's not successful with his field, that's the time I step in and say, "Okay, this is it, now you have to bowl according to my field. Because your plan is not working. So this is the plan that's been given to you and you should be bowling to it." He may be happy about it or not.
At times even if the bowlers are going for runs, if the batsmen are clearing the in-field and there are no catching opportunities, I would rather have one slip and a floater instead of having a catcher at midwicket or a catching cover. Because ultimately the batsmen are trying to go over the top, hitting sixes and one-bounce fours. It's a bit different, but that's what I do. Some of the guys come up to me and say, "Remove the slip" but I say, "What's the need? Even if I remove the slip, the batsmen are hitting sixes. You can have as many fielders but if they're going for a six it will still be a six."
You seem to call a spade a spade. When you compared Sreesanth and Munaf Patel recently [Dhoni said that he gave Munaf a chance in one of the CB Series games because, unlike Sreesanth, he would bowl to his field] it wasn't taken that seriously. But if the team was under pressure, would you consider doing that? It could be construed as too cocky.
If you see, in India things depend on the result. Most things are commented upon after you see the result. Most of my statements are based on what goes on in the field. So if you're seeing the game, you know whatever I am saying is mostly what happens on the field. Not point camouflaging things or defending anyone because whatever is happening or has happened, everyone has seen it. Of course, you need to support your players. That I will always do, whatever happens.
So you say those things with the confidence that the player you are talking about won't mind.
Of course. That's the kind of response you should get from your side. After all, he also knows that if I'm batting badly I know what's happening. So he shouldn't be really upset about it if anybody says anything about him. Of course, as I have said, I will defend my players till the end.
You are seen as composed and calm. There are a few members of the side who some people say go over the top. Are you someone who believes in limits?
I just tell them, "Look, the ICC is there. They have guidelines. You are not dumb or stupid not to know the limitations. If you overstep that, everybody feels you have crossed the boundary." And the guy who oversteps also knows that.
I'm not the guy who will go up to the match referee and beg and say, "No, no, it's his first time." If you have done it knowing everything, then whatever punishment is there, you should get it. Everybody realises, everywhere in the world, that there are certain guidelines that need to be followed.
And being a professional cricketer, playing at the highest level - you are earning most amount of money over here - you have to be at your best. People may provoke you to do something but if you do something, one thing is sure: if you cross the boundary you will get punished. Personally, I believe if you get punished a few times, you know what's happening and what your boundaries are. There are times with young bloods, they don't know much about it. You need to be careful and you have to say things to them. Most of the guys know. If you've played ten or 15 games you know each and every thing about international rules and regulations.
Do the public, or some people who are criticising the players for going over the top, need to realise that this is the way it is - that there's so much hard work, so much tension involved, that things tend to spill over some times?
We play according to the opposition as well. In the CB Series you hardly saw any conflict between the Indian side and the Sri Lanka side. It's the way the game goes on. There will be a bit of a verbal fight even if it's Sri Lanka or any other side. But you know ...
Was it a premeditated strategy, to give back as good as you got?
We had set the standards back in India. Back in India when we played against Australia, we had set the standards of aggression - what we really wanted to do on the field. If we were not up to the mark in Australia, people would have said, "Fake aggression, just for when they were playing at home". But we went with the same set of standards even when we played Australia in Australia. It was not fake aggression. That's what the team can do and that's how we should be playing our cricket.
Enjoying the successes, celebrating the successes, is very important. If you get a wicket, you express yourself - of course, being within the boundaries is important again. But that's the way you've got to enjoy cricket. And that was one of the points I made during the World Twenty20.
You talked about playing according to the opposition. Do you think the Indians have learned from the Aussies and beaten them at their own game?
I've always felt that if you're playing against an aggressive side you have to play an aggressive game. Especially against Australia. You can't just look to play and win - it's batting, bowling, fielding, aggression, everything. Fortunately, this side has got a few players who can speak and do well at the same time and won't get disturbed by it. And there are others who don't speak that much. You need to identify those who can be pepped up and do well while they're speaking. In a way I'm fortunate to have those players in the side, rather than having to ask those who are not comfortable doing it to do so. If you have a guy who is able to do it and who should do it, I make it a point that he does it.
You seemed very calm at the end of the CB Series. You seemed to go into a zone.
It was good to see the reaction of the other players. Of course, I could have reacted in the same way but seeing others gave me more pleasure. I had back pain as well - whenever I tried to do anything it was paining a bit.
It was great to see each and every one enjoy the success, enjoy the victory. Not only the guys who were playing, even the outsiders, support staff, the 17-member squad.
Your team seems to believe in expressing themselves and enjoying themselves. Has this been a conscious strategy?
Not really a conscious effort but it's really about being yourself. This is the highest level and different people have different natures. They speak different languages but one thing is sure: everybody wants to have fun. That's where you don't want restrictions. On the field you have restrictions, but off the field it's very important to enjoy. And after all, it's a sport and this is the life you've got. If you're not enjoying it, then when there are few a series where you're playing under pressure, you won't enjoy it at all. And that would be the point cricket will start getting into your head. So it's very important to enjoy. To be yourself.
There are a few jokers in the side - those who have a better sense of humour compared to the others. So they are the guys who make the dressing room great or the practice arena great. Got to enjoy whether you're batting, bowling, fielding. You can keep the intensity level high with all the talk and fun that goes around.
You seem to be pretty keen on your players going to watch movies
Movies are a big part of our Indian culture. Everybody wants to go and watch a movie in a theatre - especially with the types of theatres we've got right now. You don't want to watch it in on television, you want to go out there and enjoy. It can be a bit of a hassle. You can get mobbed. But we inform the mall owners or theatre owners that we are coming.
Anil Kumble leads as much by example and presence. Has he been an influence on your captaincy?
He's a great guy, leads from the front. He's the sort of guy, if he's on the field, he's always there to win a game. Even if the opposition needs one run to win and they have 55 balls, if he's bowling, he will look to get the batsman out. He's like, "Till they win, I'm not losing." His communication is a lot better than mine. It's one of the things I'm learning and should learn. The rest I think we're the same. I think communication-wise he's a lot better than me.
There's talk that you are keen on players that you want. Was that one of the reasons why there was not enough of a fight when it came to retaining the senior players?
I was pretty clear about the players that I wanted in the side. That's what I said to the selectors as well. You can see the kind of team that I got. I can't really say much more than this but ...
Was there an extra effort when you reached the finals - an extra incentive to show that this team could do it?
The process was criticised, when the one-day team was selected, and the timing of the selection ... At times it is important to send the message across. At times people neglect the answer. They had asked the question, but when they got the answer, they didn't really put anything on the question they asked ... In a way I made it clear: these were the questions that were asked and now that we have performed, why aren't people asking those questions?
If the result wasn't in our favour, what would have happened then? Would people have really been behind this side? You questioned this side and now that this side has performed, you should back them; you should say good things about them as well. We all knew what would have happened if the side didn't win in Australia. It would have been, "Oh, we all knew this side wouldn't win". But now that it has done well, why don't you appreciate this side?
Of course, we had one of the worst flops in the Twenty20, and one of the best wins in the one-day series - beating Australia. You can have a good day and you can beat them but beating them in two consecutive finals in three days, that's a significant achievement. Of course, you can't really live off that. You need to keep performing, raising your standards - you have to keep doing that.