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A uniquely remarkable man

MS Dhoni left his Test team much like he led it - without fanfare and an overt display of emotion. Indian cricket will know what it has lost only after he is gone

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
A few minutes after MS Dhoni had seen off a tense last hour to secure his team a draw at the MCG, I walked down a floor from the press box to the press-conference area to find him strolling along the corridor. Alone. It was an unexpected, nearly startling sight. For a few seconds, it was he and I alone in that space. Then Dhoni turned and started walking away. For a moment I thought of following and saying hello to him. But a minder emerged and sort of stood in the way. It would have been awkward to try to go past him, so I entered the hall instead where Steven Smith was in the middle of his press conference.
A few minutes later my phone rang and I stepped outside to take the call. Dhoni was now sitting on a window ledge, looking down at his phone, perhaps, or just contemplating. It was an arresting sight of one of the most high-profile cricketers in the world, perhaps the single most in that category after the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, sitting outside in a hallway, waiting for his turn to take part in a banality that often passes as a post-match media conference. I thought of ending my call and taking a photograph with my phone. I don't recall a single instance of seeing Dhoni alone in what was effectively a public place. It would have been a rare and striking portrait. But I didn't. It felt intrusive.
There is always sadness when a sportsperson retires. Even when you know his time was up. If we, as sports writers and sports fans, were not moved by such moments we might as well be writing about fishing. Or mining. Or banking. Writing about sport invariably involves caring about sportspersons and what they do. We might never fully comprehend their actions and we might sometimes completely misread them, but the quest for empathy is central to writing about sport.
Dhoni wasn't India's greatest Test captain. But then who was? After leading India to its first World Cup win in nearly 30 years, he presided over India's worst run in Test cricket overseas, including a 0-8 washout in England and Australia in 2011-12. He didn't seize the moments that mattered, too often he hung back, played the waiting game, took the feet off the pedal, let the game drift, and gave the appearance that he didn't care enough about winning and didn't hurt enough about losing.
Of course it is our job to assess and judge. But about the last two things how could we be sure? How could we tell that he didn't care? That he didn't hurt? Or even that he was not trying to win?
He could be judged on his methods of course, but only he could have been privy to his motivation and his desires. And how much could he really be blamed for a serially malfunctioning batting group that consisted of four of India's greatest? Or a group of pace bowlers who simply couldn't construct a few sessions of bowling without losing their lines, lengths and the plot?
That said, though, as borne out by results, a case can be made that he was in his element, in his comfort zone, leading India in one-dayers and Tests at home. He had worked out his limited-overs strategy to perfection. That he was India's best ODI batsman and one of the best finishers in the history of the game allowed him to captain in his own tempo for he knew if everything failed he could back himself to win a game off his own bat. And in home Tests, he had found a way to make optimal use of his limited bowling resources because he could rely on the certainty of the pitches.
But captaining India is only partly about tactics. Increasingly, as Virat Kohli will soon discover, it is about keeping your wits and your sanity. Early in his career Dhoni grasped the futility of adulation, because he was also exposed to the repercussions of failure. While researching his profile on Dhoni for The Cricket Monthly, Sidharth Monga made an important discovery about what shaped Dhoni's outlook towards success and failure on the cricket field.
In 2007, in a matter of months, Dhoni had the taste of two extremes: the over-the-top celebrations after he had led India to an unexpected win the World Twenty20 in South Africa, and the depraved vilification in the wake of India's early exit from the World Cup in the West Indies. It convinced Dhoni that in order to stay real, he had to develop a detachment, that he couldn't take either success or failure too seriously. From this emerged a cultivated air of indifference and what he regarded as a healthy cynicism towards the media.
Anybody who has attended a Dhoni press conference would know how he spoke a lot without really saying anything. Just when you thought you had managed to extract a newsy quote from him he would go on to contradict himself in a manner that would render both his statements practically useless. Dhoni wasn't being too clever by half, he was just making it impossible for you to pin him down. In India, where the media was often part of the circus, Dhoni, an intelligent man, built his defence around deliberate banality.
Early in his captaincy he gave an interview to ESPNcricinfo on the premise that we were a media organisation that focused on the game. He was candid and spoke openly about the challenge of managing the older players. That was newsworthy and we led a story with it. It promptly spread across television channels, which gave it their twist. Dhoni was upset, denied the quotes and didn't speak to us, or anyone else, for the most part of his captaincy. It worked up some of my colleagues, but it didn't bother me: his main job was to lead India as well as he could, not explaining it to the press.
In fact, one of Dhoni's biggest contributions to his team-mates was his ability to create a cocoon around the young team for the intensity of public scrutiny and inquisitions by the media could easily distort impressionable minds. And his ability to stay focused on the present, without the burden of the past and worry about the future, allowed him to conduct the most high-pressure job in cricket with a calm that was nearly surreal.
It is futile to guess what prompted his decision to leave Test cricket at his juncture and whether it was carefully thought out over the past few months, or came about in recent days. After Nasser Hussain watched Michael Vaughan lead the England ODI side with refreshing vigour in 2003 he instinctively knew his time was up. Did Dhoni go through a similar moment of epiphany watching Kohli lead the team in Adelaide?
Whatever the reason, Dhoni's decision is well timed. The series has been lost. He is not abandoning a team in disarray because despite the score line India have fought hard, and there is a captain hungry and waiting.
When he was appointed captain Dhoni was the leader India needed. And at the moment of his departure, if only from Test cricket, it's hard to escape feeling that Indian cricket will know what it has lost after he is gone. Despite everything that can be held against him, he was a uniquely remarkable man. A lot is said about his proximity to N Srinivasan, but Dhoni didn't owe his position in Indian cricket to that. He created it through the force of his personality.
In light of what happened barely a few minutes after the press conference, I now wish I had walked up him in the corridor and then taken that photo. But perhaps it's just as well I didn't. It makes those few moments more poignant for me. Just what could Dhoni have been thinking in those solitary, idle moments?

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal