Michael Hussey has seen MS Dhoni from close quarters - as teammate, opponent and part of the coaching staff. In a chat with ESPNcricinfo, Hussey provided insights on how Dhoni the cricketer operates, how Dhoni the captain commands respect, and how Dhoni the person always radiates calm
Among all the cricketers you have played with or against, or captains you've played under, what's unique about MS Dhoni?
I'll have to say probably how calm he is, particularly in a place like India, where it can get very crazy with the fans, media, the cricketers. Normally, the captains I have come up against have been very… not aggressive, that's not the right word, but they are vocal and they lead by example. They stress the importance of certain things, whereas MS is very calm and chilled out. He has the great ability to take the pressure off players, particularly young Indian players. Quite often he just impresses on them to relax and go out and play the game - some days you win, some days you lose. It was very different playing under him from anything I had experienced before in Australia.
Did he never lose his calm in the middle?
I think I've only seen him lose his temper once in all the times I've been around Chennai Super Kings. There are times when he gets frustrated, of course. Everyone does when the team is not winning, but MS is not a reactive person. He always looks at the bigger picture. He won't make changes just for the sake of making changes or after a couple of losses. He knows things balance out in the long run. It was a strength of his leadership and it certainly gave a lot of faith, trust and backing to the players.
Him losing his temper - was that the game against Rajasthan Royals this year where he walked onto the pitch to argue with the umpires?
The funny thing was that even after the [Royals] game, he was quite chill and calm about it. He even had a joke about it. It was so out of character. We couldn't even believe it, sitting on the side.
No, there was a game two years before, when he wasn't scoring runs, the team wasn't playing really well, and he wasn't happy with the level of effort the guys were putting in on the field. He certainly let us all know we needed to lift our effort. Not so much worrying about the result but the effort we were putting on the ground.
"After every IPL game there would be one or two guys from the opposition wanting to come in and talk to him about their performance and what they could do to improve. He was very giving of his time"
Was the calm always a part of his leadership from the beginning? Or did that evolve as he got older?
I think it was always there. I'm talking about the time I was playing for Australia against him. You always got the feeling that he was one step ahead - whether he was or wasn't was another thing, but you got the feeling he was.
He tried some things that were a bit unconventional where we all felt: why is he doing this? And more often than not it would work and you'd think, 'Well, that was unbelievable foresight to do that.'
He has said he doesn't believe in data and stats, so when you say he gets things, where do you think he got that from?
I think he is a very observant person, very intelligent, very perceptive of what's happening in the game. He reads the game extremely well, and he is his own man as well. If he makes a decision, it will take a lot to change his mind. You will have to be someone who he really respects and trusts for you to change his mind. But it's incredible how many times you think: what is he thinking here?
Did he come back and acknowledge that something he tried didn't work?
That's the other thing that stands out about MS. He is a very humble person. He doesn't big-note himself at all. He is not arrogant, and that is one of the things I really admired about him - the way he handled success as well as failure. He was a very consistent person. He wasn't too high when things were going well, he wasn't too low when things weren't going well. He always treated everyone equally. If there was someone perceived to be important in the room, he wouldn't treat them any different than the cleaner coming in at the end of the day.
Was he any different before a big game or a final?
No, he was basically exactly the same person whether it was the final or any other game. So much so that I felt that he was too relaxed sometimes (laughs). Even while sitting on the sidelines during the finals, he would just sort of sit there and soak in the game, and you would think: does this guy have any emotions?
I remember before one big game against RCB at Chennai, the crowd was rocking and we had the little huddle before we went out to play. MS pulled the team in and said, "Right guys, big game today against RCB, but the fair-play award is really important to me. We've got to make sure we play the game in the right spirit so that we get full points on the fair play." I remember looking at him like: Are you serious? This is a massive game and we have to win it. But he was very big on playing with the right spirit and he wanted us to be known as a team that was very good with results but also a team that was very fair.
What did he usually say in his pre-game talk to the team?
He wasn't big on meetings at all, so we didn't have a lot of preparation meetings and things like that. There will be a couple of minutes literally as the team walked onto the field. He basically gave a little bit of direction but it was more about taking the pressure off the players. I remember a chat before a game and it was, "Guys, just go out there and play tonight. Just smile at the crowd. Some days you win and some days you lose. Just try and execute the skills the best you possibly can." You could almost see the tension coming out of certain players. You could see their shoulders relax, knowing he would back them to execute their skills.
How could you convince Dhoni about something he didn't believe in?
I do remember one occasion. This was my first year as a coach at CSK and we were coming up against Sunrisers Hyderabad in a Qualifier. Our analyst found this great photo of Rashid Khan, who obviously is a great bowler. It was a split-screen and he said that when Rashid Khan runs in with his fingers like this, he is going to bowl a legspinner, and when he runs in with his fingers like this, he is going to bowl his googly. I'm sitting on this information and thinking about what to do. Do I send it out to the batsmen on the night before a big game or do I let it be?
I sent out the information but I said in the message that you may want to use this or not. Do with it what you want. I didn't really get a message back from MS, which I rarely did anyway, but he went out to bat and he was playing Rashid Khan.
Sure enough, we are under pressure, losing wickets. The run rate was getting away from us. He went for a cover drive, wrong'un straight back through the gate and clean bowled. He walked off the ground and came straight up to me and said: "I'll bat my own way, thanks."
"MS is very calm and chilled out - just let the guys play. He has the great ability to take the pressure off players, particularly young Indian players"
In the middle of a huge game, I was a little bit worried to hear that, but to talk to him afterwards was very good. He said: "No, the information was correct but I hadn't had a chance to practise it, so if we have that time again, definitely give me the information. I saw him running in with the fingers like this, so I didn't even bother watching the ball after that, but if I had a chance to practise it in the nets, knowing that I still need to watch the ball out of the hand and play accordingly, then I would have been okay."
When he comes in to bat, he loves to take his time in the middle, just to knock it around and get himself in. We'd often encourage him to back himself a bit more, go a bit hard a bit earlier. He wants to do that, but because he is so set in the way he wants to play the game and he wants to take that responsibility of being there till the end and finish the game off, he won't allow himself to just sort of free up and play. That's just how he is.
Towards the end of his career, did all the talk about how he took too much time to get settled in, or that his hitting powers were on the wane get to him?
Not really, no, and certainly we didn't discuss it. Because in the last couple of years in the IPL, he has probably been almost at his best. The criticism has come more from when he has played for India in one-day internationals, where he probably has got more time.
How did you view him as an opposition player, and how did that change after getting to know him more intimately?
I just couldn't believe how calm and relaxed and chilled out he was. I thought as an international player, there's always a level of anxiety and stress, particularly in a place like India, where it's just cricket-mad. But honestly I felt as though the game wasn't even that important to him at certain stages. He didn't seem to care too much at all. It was like: let's just go and play this game. We love it and that's why we play the game. He never really seemed to put a lot of pressure on himself. I couldn't understand that until I played with him in the same dressing room. That's actually how he lived his life and how he put everything in perspective.
Do you think he actually didn't quite care enough about winning or losing?
Yeah, it's a difficult one. I actually think, internally he definitely did care an incredible amount, but externally, maybe it was just a façade. I don't know. You would have to ask MS that. But the way he handles the pressure, the stress, the anxiety of being a top international player, especially someone so famous in India where you can't leave the hotel without getting mobbed by thousands - just to be able to take that in your stride is pretty phenomenal.
It seemed like even if Dhoni didn't have the best team, he got players to perform better for him. Things that numbers and data can't really explain. What do you think that was down to?
A number of things. I think he has a fair understanding of how a winning team works and how to put together a winning team. Part of that is that he shows enormous faith and gives enormous backing to the players. Even if you have had a number of innings when you haven't performed, he would still keep picking you and showing that faith in you. That gives you enormous faith in yourself. You believe that you want to go out there and play for him because you know he's backing you so much.
The other side of it is that he is very observant of players. He knows how to pick a really good player. It may partly be down to the character and then he identifies a very good player very quickly and brings him into his family. And once you are part of the family then, well, you are part of the family.
How much cricket did he talk off the field?
A fair bit, but not day in, day out. His room was open almost 24 hours a day. You see players sharing some food or sitting around, having a chat. The game was always on TV. He loved to watch the game. There would be little things he would pick up that others wouldn't see, and that's the sort of thing he would talk about. Very perceptive in how he watched the game and spoke about it.
Did he predict things sitting in the dugout? Or was he the guy who would say, this is what they should do and this is what they have?
Not really. Out in the middle, he would. I remember batting with him quite a few times, and I'm sort of a panicky person in the middle. MS has got so much power, he doesn't have to panic at the end, I guess. He would quite often say that he who panics last will win the game.
He was very perceptive in the way he knows that this bowler will bowl at this time, and he'd say: "Don't worry about him, I'll be able to take him on as he doesn't know where to bowl to me. You can take this guy, you can hit him here." He basically had it all mapped out.
"I remember a chat before a game and Dhoni said, 'Guys, just go out there and play tonight. Just smile at the crowd. Some days you win and some days you lose. Just try and execute the skills the best you possibly can"
Dhoni or Ricky Ponting? You have played under both.
It's hard to rank them one and two. They are definitely the best leaders I have played under. They are very different in a lot of ways but very similar in certain ways. They both have a great understanding of the game and they both read the game well. The way they back and trust players, you think that they are in your corners and they are fighting for you. The differences are that Ricky is a very competitive beast and he would go bull at the gate to win, win, win. He can get quite emotional at times as well, whereas MS is very calm - unemotional, really.
Did Dhoni have a good sense of humour?
Yeah, quite quick-witted.
Was he a prankster?
Not really a prankster. However the relationship he and Sakshi [his wife] have is quite hilarious. I love the banter between the two. Sakshi doesn't put him on a pedestal. She is very happy to give it back as he gives it to her, and it's all in good fun and good humour. They have a wonderful relationship. It's fascinating to watch.
Did youngsters in the squad warm up to him immediately?
Yeah, I think they were really intimidated to begin with, and very shy, but once they saw how he is around the team, how relaxed he is, then those barriers were broken down.
After every IPL game there would be one or two guys from the opposition wanting to come in and talk to him about their performance and what they could do to improve. He was very giving of his time. He would always encourage the youngsters to sit and have a chat with him while he had his food or drink.
There is a lot of hostility between India and Australia in cricket. Did Dhoni naturally command the respect of even established internationals? Was he one of those captains who people would automatically warm up to?
Without a doubt. I think it was because of how perceptive he was on the field, the moves he made. It seemed like he was in control of the position. Whether he was or not, I don't actually know, but he put out that impression that he was in control.
The other side of it is that the other big Indian senior players seen from outside looked like they really respected Dhoni as well. Guys like Sachin [Tendulkar], [Rahul] Dravid, [VVS] Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh. They all seemed to hold him in high regard. Plus, of course, the results he was able to get as captain of the Indian team. Winning the T20 World Cup, the 50-over World Cup, getting the team to Test No. 1 in the world. The results commanded a lot of respect from the community as well.
What do you think is the legacy he leaves behind?
I think he bucked the trend on how to lead teams. He did it his own way. He did it in a different way to other leaders in history - not just in cricket but even gladiator times, where the fiercest leaders were leading the way. You think of the emotional leaders who just rant and rave to lead by example. He has done it by just being so relaxed and calm. It's refreshing that someone can have so much success doing it in a completely different way.
Did he ever admit he got lucky at times?
Yeah, he was very honest and open that some days he would get lucky, other days he wasn't. But that is him in a team. He is very humble doesn't get too carried away. He knows you need some luck in this game sometimes.
The other legacy he would leave is the way power-hitting came into vogue at the end of one-day and T20 games. If you got 250-280, that was pretty much a winning score. But whenever we played India and Dhoni was still there, no score was safe because he had this amazing power that he could hit any bowler out of the ground at the end of the innings. Other teams, seeing the success Dhoni had, started to develop players in the same mode. I think he was probably one of the first pioneers of power-hitting that came into the game.