Matches (34)
IND v AUS (1)
Abu Dhabi T10 (6)
BAN v NZ (1)
Legends League (2)
IND v ENG (W-A) (1)
Hazare Trophy (18)
Sheffield Shield (3)
SA v WI (A tour) (1)
WBBL 2023 (1)
Sanjay Manjrekar

Does Dhoni care about winning now?

He seems to have let the pursuit of results change his captaincy

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
Dhoni no longer seems a secure captain  •  AFP

Dhoni no longer seems a secure captain  •  AFP

I think a disclosure at the start is in order. I am a big MS Dhoni fan, and have been since 2005, when the long-haired version of him arrived on the international scene and he got that 148 against Pakistan in Vizag in grand style. Today he is one of the greatest one-day batsmen the game has seen, and certainly the best finisher ever.
A couple of years into his international career came the inaugural world T20 in South Africa, where he impressed us with his leadership. What struck us was how different he was from the Indian captains we were accustomed to seeing - Sourav Ganguly, for example, a fine captain himself.
When Ganguly captained, one look at him and you would know which team was winning. Dhoni was cool in victories and defeats. After the Ganguly era, he brought a sense of calm to Indian cricket and we all loved him for it.
Dhoni is now in his eighth year as India captain. And with familiarity comes... well, better understanding. We know Dhoni really well now, his strengths as captain and player, and so also his weaknesses. Of late, I have been seeing some changes in him.
Over the years, I have maintained that Dhoni's greatest strength as captain was that he didn't mind losing. At least, defeats didn't seem to hurt him as much they did other captains. He talked about processes being more important than results, and I think he genuinely believed so. Until now.
I think a little weakness has crept into him. He now seems to really care about winning; a few incidents in this India-South Africa series make me think so.
Dhoni is instinctively an honest cricketer. He generally walks when he is out and appeals only when he is sure a batsman is out. There was one instance in this series, though, at a crucial moment in the second game*, in Indore, when he appealed for a caught-behind down the leg side off Farhaan Behardien. The appeal, by Dhoni's standards was vociferous. Behardien was shocked when he was given out. The ultra-edge technology on the broadcast confirmed what we heard in the commentary box through the stump microphones: silence. There was no sound at all when the ball passed Behardien. The appeal was upheld by an Indian umpire.
I guess if I had been the umpire, I would have done the same: "If Dhoni is appealing so confidently, the batsman must surely be out."
Then there was the public criticism of umpire Vineet Kulkarni, which too was so unlike Dhoni.
He badly wanted a winning start in the series, and he was right to think that a couple of decisions by Kulkarni had sealed India's fate in the Dharmasala T20 match. But the Dhoni of old would not have made such an issue of it - it has just never been his style. It was clear to me that he was annoyed with Kulkarni for denying him a win that he badly wanted.
Defeats didn't seem to hurt him as much they did other captains. He talked about processes being more important than results, and I think he genuinely believed so. Until now
When Bhuvneshwar Kumar struck JP Duminy on his pads, Dhoni appealed hard and long. It was a plumb lbw, mind you, and when the umpire, Kulkarni, said no, I saw Dhoni ask him why he had not given it out. Dhoni was not convinced and seemed to brood over it. That, again, was quite unlike him; normally he would just shrug his shoulders and move on.
After India lost the game in Kanpur, where Dhoni was unable to take India home in his usual fashion (the top hand coming off the bat when trying to hit Kagiso Rabada for a six in the final over also showed a hint of desperation), I asked him in the post-match interview if he was worried that his big shots were not coming to him at will, at they used to.
He proceeded to give a detailed explanation about how big shots are not that important, and how even leg-byes that came off his pads were runs that counted towards the score. He was being uncharacteristically defensive and clutching at straws, I thought.
In Bangladesh a few months ago, he said that he was going to bat at No. 4 in ODIs, but though he batted at that position in two games in that series, against South Africa he batted at five in the first two games and at six in Chennai. The Rajkot game was perfectly set for Ajinkya Rahane to come in at No. 4 and Dhoni at six, but there Dhoni batted at four. Is he a bit confused these days and trying to cater to popular sentiment? I wonder, because that's a trait he never had before.
"Maybe I use my brain too much when I am batting," he said after the Cuttack T20. That, for me, was clearly a man with some self-doubt. Again that's not the Dhoni I knew.
When talking about team failures, the undesirable use of "they" instead of "we" has started creeping into his vocabulary as captain. In 2011, when India were being walloped by England in England, Dhoni bravely fronted up at every press conference and made no excuses for his team's failures. He went to the extent of saying that he as captain was the main culprit in the defeats.
That was a Dhoni who was very secure as Indian captain. People who are secure talk about their own failings quite easily; insecure people don't.
You get the impression when you watch him, especially these days, that he is all alone out there, doing things his way. Not that he was ever one of those Indian captains who had an advisory council around him. From what I know, he has never sought counsel. I don't know of a single senior cricketer that Dhoni has gone up to for advice; I have asked quite a few if he has done so.
He has learnt the game his own way and that's how he wants to run it too: his own way. This approach has fetched him exceptional success, but I believe the time has come to change that a little, as success is not coming to him as easily as it used to, as captain and player.
Before he calls it a day on his glorious one-day career - which I am sure he will do suddenly, without warning, like he did with his Test career - I wish he would try something that he has never done before.
Allow a few people to put their arms around him, and let them a whisper a few words into his ears. It might just help him relax a bit and not care about winning and success so much. That might help him rediscover his main strength and his unique recipe for success.
* 1130GMT, October 24, 2015: The article originally erroneously said this incident was in the third game.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here