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Andrew Miller

A clash of unlikely equals

The world watches with interest as Dhoni and Pietersen, two greenhorn captains, both perfect fits for their jobs, face off

14-Nov-2008


Kevin Pietersen: a self-made man, an entrepreneur in the most literal sense © AFP
The first time English audiences took a proper look at Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the light in which he was cast was not remotely flattering. The venue was Mumbai, the occasion was the final day of the decisive third Test of the 2005-06 tour. A tenacious England, led by Andrew Flintoff (and inspired by Johnny Cash), had pushed their more fancied opponents to the brink of defeat. Dhoni, in only his ninth Test but with Yuvraj Singh for company, had a chance to dig for the series-winning draw and cement his place in the team for the foreseeable future.
Instead he opted to make the name of another rookie, England's Monty Panesar, in one of the most farcical passages of play imaginable. In the space of three balls Dhoni twice charged at Shaun Udal and produced carbon-copy miscues that spiralled off the leading edge to long-off. The first was hideously misjudged by the hapless Panesar, who allowed the ball to land unchallenged five metres to his right. The second, however, was not, and as an English cult hero was born there and then in the outfield, an Indian pantomime villain departed by the side exit to peals of mocking laughter.
The following day, the Sun referred to him as "Mahendra Singh Doughnut", which pretty much summed up the prevailing opinion. Here was just another fancy-Dan cowboy cricketer with a flashy haircut and a penchant for bombastic hitting, who was sure to drown in a sea of his own hubris. Instead, three years on, Dhoni is not merely hitting the ball as hard and as far as ever, he is also the uncontested leader of one of the finest Indian teams in many a vintage - world champions in the shortest format of the game, and quite possibly the best on show in the longest as well.
Which just goes to show what a nonsense first impressions can be. As it happens, Kevin Pietersen was also playing in that contest, another man whose up-front demeanour invited a raft of preconceived notions. Like Dhoni, admiration of his ability to produce ludicrously brilliant strokes was tempered by the assumption that he was always one false move from getting his comeuppance, and sure enough, there have been numerous occasions when his judgment has invited condemnation - most recently against South Africa at Edgbaston last summer. But instead Pietersen too is now a leader, and by all accounts a very fine one at that. At Rajkot today, and for six weeks thereafter, the pair will be pitted against one another in a clash of unlikely equals.
By the culmination of England's tour at least one 100% record as Test captain will have fallen. It is a misleading statistic but an instructive one - Pietersen has one win from one, against South Africa at The Oval last summer, Dhoni three from three, though none yet consecutively. It is hard to recall a series that has pitted two such greenhorn skippers against one another, and yet it is equally hard to imagine that any two rookie captains can have come across as such perfect fits for the job.
So much for experience being the ultimate factor in selecting leaders of men. Pietersen, the more abrasive of the pair in his junior years, was never trusted in authority until England came calling, and admitted his prior captaincy experience was "zilch". Dhoni, as an interloper from the backwaters of Jharkhand, was barely any better prepared for office. But in both instances the character of the men has carried them way beyond the barbs that are attracted in their position, which is incredible when you consider the status of the men they have succeeded - Michael Vaughan, the most successful Test captain in England's history, and Anil Kumble, whose slow-burning brilliance made his brief time at the helm hugely popular.
 
 
At the outset of their careers Dhoni and Pietersen both gave the impression that they were men in a hurry, and their statistics in limited-overs cricket are revealingly similar. But now that they've arrived at their respective pinnacles, their overwhelming message is one of calm authority
 
At the outset of their careers Dhoni and Pietersen both gave the impression that they were men in a hurry, whether it was the love of motorbikes on the one hand, or the (now tempered) fondness for bling on the other, and their statistics in limited-overs cricket are revealingly similar (both average 47 in ODIs, but only 24 and 27 respectively in the helter-skelter atmosphere of Twenty20s). But now that they've arrived at their respective pinnacles, their overwhelming message is one of calm authority, and it's been readily transfused throughout their teams.
And yet, once again, the perception perhaps deviates from the truth. The most remarkable thing about the two players is not how rapidly they've managed to temper their instincts to meet their new roles, but how utterly ordinary they were in the first place. Dhoni's equanimity is aided by his provincial upbringing and the consequent anonymity of his years in the youth ranks. He was not a trailblazer in the mould of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, or even his rival for the gloves, Parthiv Patel, who was 17 going on 12 when picked for the Trent Bridge Test in 2002. Instead Dhoni was 23 when he made his first international appearance in December 2004, a grizzled veteran by Indian standards.
As for Pietersen, the tale of his transformation from an offspinning No. 9 for Natal is oft-repeated. Back in 1999, the year he decided to throw in his lot with South Africa, his only world-class attribute was his unshakeable self-confidence - a fact that Nasser Hussain remarked upon during England's tour that winter, when Pietersen collared him during a warm-up match to ask for a trial with Essex. Like Dhoni, he is a self-made man - an entrepreneur in the most literal sense. He has got to where he is today after huge personal investment and risk - transferring one's nationality on a whim, at 20, is quite some leap of faith. It is all the more reason why he is so comfortable now that he's been saddled with the ultimate responsibility.
By the end of the year the personality traits of the two captains will have become all the clearer, and no doubt there will be one or two hands reaching for knife-hilts if the margins in either series are too wide for the media's comfort. But from what we've already seen of the two men in action, it is safe to predict that they will grow in their roles and endure long into the future. For as Graeme Smith warned when Pietersen took over from Vaughan, it is not the victories that shape a leader but the setbacks - the "bumps on the head" as he termed them. And already it's clear that both men have a control over their emotions that will serve them proud when the moment to front up arrives.
It's safe to say that Pietersen's first "bump" was avidly awaited by the English media. A maiden Test triumph and a 4-0 rout of South Africa were just too cushy for some. But when the moment arrived, on a humiliating and costly evening in Antigua two weeks ago, it has to be said he fronted up magnificently. He was gracious, honest and happy to share in the joy of his newly minted opponents, even if some of his comments about "not needing the money" were not reported in quite the spirit in which they were uttered.
Dhoni has yet to suffer a bump quite so high-profile, though there is every reason to believe he'll take the moment in his stride as well. His demeanour at the moment of victory - a regular occurrence of late - suggests as much: from his impassive reaction as Misbah-ul-Haq holed out at the World Twenty20 final last September, to his instinctively thoughtful gesture as Australia succumbed to a record defeat in Mohali last month, when he took the stump he had claimed for himself and handed it to the centurion and soon-to-be-retired Sourav Ganguly.


Dhoni: remarkably equanimous, and no longer a fancy dan © AFP
That gesture aside, Dhoni's attitude to the senior men in his dressing room is markedly different to that of Pietersen's, although through their differing approaches the pair actually achieve the same objective. Deference to one's elders is a trait that binds Indian society but weakens its sporting teams, for rare is the man who has the courage to upset the pecking order. Dhoni has no issue with bruising egos for the greater good, as he showed when he promoted himself up the order at Mohali - ahead of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ganguly and VVS Laxman - to pursue quick runs and force an aggressive declaration.
Pietersen's approach, on the other hand, has been far more conciliatory - the love he pumped into the air at The Oval was tangible, because in his estimation egos are there to be massaged (and, let's face it, he should know). Whatever the logic behind his strategy of timely bear-hugs and morale-boosting text messages, the upshot has been impressive. Flintoff is happier than he has been since the 2005 Ashes, and so too is Steve Harmison, who was coaxed back from the brink of retirement in the most resounding endorsement of the new regime. With those two fit and firing, England can take on the world. And because Pietersen knows it, he's not afraid to go out of his way to ensure it.
The world awaits for both of these leaders. They are flushed with recent success, and further buoyed by the natural optimism that is generated at the start of long journeys. They are two men who began as outsiders, but who have worked their way to the summit through talent, tenacity and sheer good timing - and not allowed the rare deluges of doughnut-bearing headlines to deflect them from their objectives. If the remainder of their stories are half as interesting as their beginnings, then England and India will be well served in the coming years.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo