Dhoni — Limited-overs cricket’s very own Don

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the most calculating and compelling limited-overs captain India has ever had, and his stepping down from a throne he practically owned happened because he is a man who knows not only his own mind, but also the pulse of Indian cricket.

No Indian cricketer has understood the mechanics of limited-overs cricket better than Dhoni....   -  AP

I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.

The calmly chilling tone in which those immortal words were uttered by the incomparable Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, The Godfather, reverberated in cinema halls around the world in 1972, a good nine years before limited-overs cricket’s very own Don was born. Make no mistake about it, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the most calculating and compelling limited-overs captain India has ever had, and his stepping down from a throne he practically owned happened because he is a man who knows not only his own mind, but also the pulse of Indian cricket.

The winds of change were blowing in December 2014, when India was in Australia, and Dhoni, not wishing to be a withering stalk bending in the breeze or snapped by a gust, gave Test cricket away in typically understated fashion after the Melbourne game. He flew into the game under the radar, and left it just as stealthily, giving nothing away in a 45-minute post-match press conference, allowing a media release from the Board of Control for Cricket in India to do the talking for him, having decided to silence his captaincy, bat and big gloves in the longest form of the game. It’s fair to assume then, that the one-time Railways ticket-checker realised that his train was leaving the platform, and exited the stage before he was forced off it, politely or otherwise.

As a captain, Kapil Dev liked to take the ball in hand and bluster with the bat, leading from the front; Sourav Ganguly preferred to lift others, getting the best out of the young men he thought could do the job; Rahul Dravid chose to bring his latent aggression to the fore, coupled with tactical nous, leading with head rather than heart. But Dhoni?

No Indian cricketer has understood the mechanics of limited-overs cricket better than Dhoni. While he has been accused, often unjustly, of being a defensive captain in Test cricket, it is hard to find fault with the way he conducted his orchestra in One-Day Internationals or Twenty20 cricket.

It should surprise nobody that Dhoni is the only cricketer in the history of the game to have led his team to victory in all limited-overs global tournaments on offer: the World Twenty20 in 2007, the World Cup in 2011 and the Champions Trophy in 2013. The manner in which he understands how to control the game, whether when he is marshalling his troops on the field or when shepherding a chase — and he is the one finisher who puts Michael Bevan to shame — is something the world game has never seen before.

To speak of Dhoni in generalisations does him a disservice, but picking out examples of his limited-overs mastery is just as inadequate because there is so much to choose from. And yet, it is required.

In the 2007 World Twenty20 final against Pakistan, with 13 needed from the final six balls, Dhoni charged Joginder Sharma with bowling the final over, despite having the experienced Harbhajan Singh in reserve. Joginder started with a nervy wide, sent down a wide full-toss that Misbah-ul-Haq clattered for a six, and might have been on the verge of a breakdown. But he kept his nerve, repaid the faith, and delivered a five-run win.

In the 2011 World Cup final the case was a bit more complex. With Yuvraj Singh being India’s talismanic match-winner, he was the obvious choice to send out when India was 114 for three, chasing 275 against Sri Lanka. Instead, Dhoni walked out himself, taking the challenge head on, because some jobs are too important to leave to anyone else. Unbeaten on 91 from 79 balls, sealing the win with a sensational six and a piratical twirl of the chunkiest bat ever wielded, Dhoni sent out a message to world cricket that was impossible to ignore.

But, the moments that best sum up Dhoni’s love for cricket, and the fact that he was born to play the game, although his first flirtation was with football, are from his cheekiness behind the stumps. He does not look a natural wicketkeeper, and uses his pads more than any stumper, but rare is the occasion when he drops an edge or fails to gather the ball and whip the bails off when the batsman has wandered out of the crease. Too many batsmen have pushed their luck and paid the ultimate price. Paul Collingwood took on a throw at one stump and lost, Ross Taylor figured the keeper was not in position, but was done in by a no-look reverse flick, Mustafizur Rahman, with a head-start, ran for his life, but could not beat him in a 22-yard sprint.

There is a large section of India’s cricket-watching public which found reasons not to warm to him: he was an outsider, his batting was agricultural, his wicketkeeping rustic, his Chennai Super Kings association unsavoury, and yet when he is not around, Indian cricket will miss Dhoni more than Dhoni will miss Indian cricket.