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What India, England and Australia can learn from MS Dhoni as a big Test summer begins

He is the poster boy for all formats of cricket. If only we could have watched him turn out for the WTC final at The Oval

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
MS Dhoni pulls James Anderson, England v India, 1st Test, Lord's, 5th day, July 23, 2007

No fear here: MS Dhoni brought unbridled joy to a format of the game more often identified with the long grind  •  Nick Potts/PA Photos/Getty Images

Last Monday night, when Ravi Jadeja turned the ball off his toes to win the IPL, one door closed for a while and another opened. Nothing quite consumes the game like the ten-team, two-month IPL marathon. A 41-year old wicketkeeper-batter out of Ranchi, dressed in yellow and flying the flag not of India but of Super Kings from Chennai, lifted the trophy for the fifth time to an ecstatic reception - testament, surely, to a game that has a bit of everything for everyone and a whole lot of love.
Of all the cricketers who sparkle, to this onlooker at least, MS Dhoni has led the way. The sum of his parts has been greater than the whole. At once aesthetically thrilling and grittily effective, he has won many a game from nowhere, and lost a few too; he shells the catches that don't much matter and snaffles most that do; he inspires the young and backs the old; always he answers the inevitable questions but somehow keeps his counsel. Have you ever really known what MS was thinking? Imagine the poker player he might have been.
Dhoni captures the essence of cricket without ever becoming its slave. One minute he is an unpredictable ride, the next a sure-footed compadre. He is cool, classy and at times crazy; he is creative and yet practical; he can bat hectic and keep wicket messy, but hands down, he is the go-to guy. Once a ticket collector on the railways and now among the most admired cricketers in a land teeming with them, I've spent hours watching him and rarely focused on much else. Of late, only Tiger Woods and Roger Federer have made me do that.
Cricket is for young and old; slim and less so; athletic and not so; myriad backgrounds, abilities and ambitions. Cricket comes in all shapes and sizes, formats and interpretations. It is no better or worse over five days at the Sydney Cricket Ground than 15 minutes in the schoolyard: it is just cricket, the game of bat and ball that appeals variously to those fortunate souls who have let it into their lives.
Cricket is frequently difficult and mainly frustrating but pleasure can come when least expected, from a single or sudden moment that changes a game. It requires instinctive skills every bit as much as method and relies on eye and commitment. It is fragile. One minute you have it, the next it is gone. Cricket is played out on the edge of nerves, examining character like no other. No one has known this and applied it so well - over a 20-year-career, we should add - than the winning captain of Chennai Super Kings.
Dhoni captures the essence of cricket without ever becoming its slave. One minute he is an unpredictable ride, the next a sure-footed compadre. He is cool, classy and at times crazy; he is creative and yet practical
To take this a tad further and explain where it is going, Dhoni averaged 38 with the bat across 90 Test matches, in which he has also caught batters 256 times and stumped 38 . In one-day internationals - 350 of them - these figures are 50, 321 and 123 - wondrously symmetrical for a man who was anything but symmetrical.
It is an amazing career portfolio. In everything, which includes captaincy, he amazes and delights. I think back to him marching to the wicket in Test cricket - shoulders back, big strides, long hair flowing - to "helicopter" fours and sixes to all parts. How we marvelled at the unbridled joy he brought to a format of the game more often identified with the long grind.
Like Adam Gilchrist, the one wicketkeeper-batter who stands clearly above them all in the stats ratings, Dhoni has been a forebear to the style of cricket England now play - the game without fear. For if you discard fear, you have the perfect launchpad, no? Fancy hitting the ball like it doesn't matter, because in the end, there's the truth: it doesn't really matter. That's MSD, the man with no apparent fear; the man who transcends the formats, sticks with the rough and ready origins of his god-given talent and looks his opponent in the eye in search of the first to blink.
This past week the England players began their summer of six Test matches with a one-off against Ireland. It was an important occasion for both the aspirational and improving Irish team - if in the end a rather dispiriting one - and for Ben Stokes, who has the Ashes to fill his dreams but Ireland to see where it's at.
Cricket matches between England and Australia were first played in 1877 and have long had a visceral quality that affects the supporters of both sides every bit as much as they do the players. India-Pakistan matches would still have the same feel, but sadly, they remain at the gate.
Pretty much the whole of India has been gripped by the progress of their IPL teams since the start of April; now England will spend seven weeks in thrall as five matches are played between old enemies who give no quarter in their quest for a little urn. It was ever thus and is more so when the rivalry appears balanced and the outcome impossible to predict. In 2005 the England captain, Michael Vaughan, said that he didn't sleep for six weeks. Arguably it was the greatest series ever and held the country alive to the tune of this strange old game that sleeps for a while and then bursts into life with a kind of magic.
Good judges, at least most of those outside India, are worried about losing this magic. The extraordinary advance made by the franchised short formats threatens the longer forms, and now that Saudi Arabia seems to be in the mix, terrifies traditional thinkers. If the Saudis buy up all the good players, the question is how can Test cricket survive the exodus forced upon the game by a free market? And, of course, LIV golf is the way in which the question points.
Strong leadership is essential to chart the course ahead; protection and regulation are required to ensure that the game retains its appeal within the principle of a broad church. Regions such as the Caribbean, South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and New Zealand need money (which is not to mention the Associate nations, who feed from crumbs). Without it, their players are ripe for picking. Down the track, there won't be many countries left to play Test cricket against India, England and Australia - the Big Three - because, elsewhere, the cash will have run out and the players gone.
Equally, the governing bodies and subsidiary associations of those outside the IPL need compensation. Not legally, because that's close to impossible to apply, but morally. If you keep producing and then sustaining players at club, county, provincial and state level, who are traded around the world for millions of dollars and occupied abroad for nine months of the year, you will eventually shout "Enough!" It should be a given that the game takes care of its own.
I've been knocking on the door that holds the throne
I've been looking for the map that leads me home
I've been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone
- Bruce Springsteen, "We Take of Care of Our Own", 2012
India's contribution to cricket's modern progress is without compare. The Test team is all-in, the IPL is genius, and the power of television and streaming platforms quite incredible. But is it right to say that the three powerhouses of the world game deserve, respectively, more than 50% of revenue without adding that they receive it at the expense of many others who struggle to survive? The ICC should be on a mission to level up, reduce inequality and work with India to nourish cricket's global reach. Right now the ICC operates as an event-management company, eager to keep its head down and nose clean. The game needs empathy, which can only be found from within.
Cricket is frequently difficult and mainly frustrating but pleasure can come when least expected, from a single or sudden moment that changes a game. It requires instinctive skills every bit as much as method
Meanwhile, Test cricket takes centre stage, which does not yet mean the Ashes. The final of the World Test Championship begins at The Oval on Wednesday, where it all began in 1882. The "Demon" Fred Spofforth bowled out the Poms cheaply and the English game was pronounced dead by the Sporting Times of London before being buried by the rest. A lot has happened since. Cricket is mainly unrecognisable from those early days and the riches now on offer beggar belief.
Thankfully the battle between bat and ball remains much as it ever was; so too the private duels between players who know each other well but beaver away in search of an advantage. Virat Kohli versus Australia is a show of its own; Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill against the Australia new ball will demand close attention. Without Jasprit Bumrah, the Indian fast bowling looks one-dimensional. It is unlikely the Ravis, Ashwin and Jadeja, will both play, especially as there is a nip forecast in the London air. Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne take some shifting; Usman Khawaja and Travis Head some containing. Cameron Green lit up a few IPL nights and from such glory comes confidence amongst the big boys.
Shorn of Bumrah and the recovering Rishabh Pant, India look a little less compelling and this makes the Australians marginal favourites. One imagines The Oval will hum to the sound of thousands of Indian fans who come to the altar and pay their respects in the only way they know how, through the worship of their cricketers. If only Dhoni was playing!
What we know is that were he playing, he would adapt from the needs of last Monday to the demands of this Wednesday morning and the days that follow. Dhoni has played all formats of cricket with his mind running smoothly though the gears. After months of T20 where the game dictates almost every move, we now return to the five-day version, where the player has to think for himself. In Test cricket you make the play, in T20 you react to it. It is the reason we become absorbed: that patient wait to see who breaks from the pack and who is left treading water.
Only the strong survive this examination. It is the unique selling proposition of Test match cricket and not to be underestimated in the growth of a talented player. Without it, a part of the DNA is missing.
Dhoni has been a perfect example, a man for all seasons with a fast and flexible mind. He is a poster boy for all forms of cricket as entertainment and well illustrates that the lessons learned in one will always enhance the adventure in another. A proper hero.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator