The tournament: IPL 2017. Captaincy of the Rising Pune Supergiant team has passed on from Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the most successful Indian captain across formats, to Steven Smith, Australia's then Test skipper.
IPL 2016 had seen the newbie Supergiant, led by Dhoni, finish seventh, just above Kings XI Punjab. The Chennai Super Kings had dazzled for years with Dhoni in charge. This was the first time a team led by India’s T20 and ODI World Cup-winning captain had failed to make the last-four stage of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
On a day when wishes flow in for Dhoni on his birthday, a man with a ringside view of the cricketer shares his thoughts on how the Ranchi man operates to turn things around and what makes him tick.
“The thing with great players is they can summon form when needed,” says former national selector Surendra Bhave, referencing Dhoni’s two years with the Supergiant team, which was disbanded after the 2017 IPL.
Bhave, who was the west zone selector from 2008-12 when Dhoni was going from strength to strength with the national team, says the wicketkeeper-batsman didn’t give an inch while batting in the nets at the Gahunje Stadium in Pune during IPL 2017 season.
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“I saw all the practice sessions very closely and some of the sixes he hit in the nets were undoubtedly the longest ever struck on this [Gahunje] ground. Suddenly you could tell from the sound of bat on the ball that he was starting to work his way out of a little rough patch,” recalls Bhave, who coaches the Maharashtra Ranji team and is also a certified pitch curator.
Those days, Bhave, a prolific former opening batsman for Maharashtra, was assisting Pandurang Salgaonkar in preparing the Gahunje pitch.
Dhoni’s first five innings in IPL 2017 saw him score 61 runs off 73 balls. Then, the turnaround started. He struck a match-winning 61 against the Sunrisers Hyderabad and a crucial 26 against the Gujarat Lions. The Supergiant made the final, where it lost to the Mumbai Indians.
Words of appreciation for Dhoni’s ways come easy to Bhave. “The greatness of a cricketer is best judged when he can (a) use his brains very effectively under immense pressure and (b) act (the right way) even when he has completely lost his temper. People who can keep using their cricketing brains in such circumstances are outstanding cricketers.”
Bhave, who was India's manager on the tour of Bangladesh in 2007, shares his view of the Dhoni poise and confidence that went on to become the hallmark of his captaincy.
“Whenever we met, he was extremely respectful. Dhoni was always in tune with his core values, which is very important,” says Bhave. “Respect and responsibility for each other both on and off the field... he always looked a class apart. He stood out as someone who conducted himself in a very organised way. You could see the X-factor.”
Later, in the early days of Dhoni's captaincy, his clever use of resources and a liking for innovative field positions caught Bhave’s eye. “What instantly comes to mind is the IPL final in 2010,” says Bhave. “Mumbai Indians were playing Chennai Super Kings in Mumbai, and Kieron Pollard was threatening to take the game away from CSK with some late hitting. Dhoni, spotting his tendency to hit straight, kept a straight mid-off, where Pollard was caught and Chennai won the title.”
Dhoni’s biggest weapon is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his team-mates, and he chooses the right moments to unleash or defend, according to Bhave. “He would be counting his bowling arrangements from over 50 to 1, not from over no. 1 to 50. That is why many a time, you were left wondering why a particular bowler was bowling in the middle overs out of nowhere… maybe he was just trying to arrange the bowlers in such a manner that he would be assured of which bowlers he can use after 40 overs ...I think that is how his mind worked.”
Behind the stumps
The conversation moves on to Dhoni’s obsession with the leg slip and leg gully, initially a plan just for tackling strong leg-side play that eventually became a source of frustration for many, especially when it became a constant feature for both spinners and fast bowlers.
Bhave says it’s easy for an outsider to criticise Dhoni without knowing how his mind worked. “That (having a leg-slip) was amazing, to be honest. Apart from taking that 25 per cent scoring area away from the batsman, he could also use that saved area to stack up fielders on particular boundaries. With that leg-slip, MS brought the attack from outside off to the stumps and hence, if the batter played a wrong shot, more lbws were coming through: just to think and execute it efficiently and to get the bowlers to know what he is thinking, what he wants them to do, is simply brilliant.”
Bhave feels amid all the talk about Dhoni’s captaincy and his finishing skills, his wicket-keeping doesn't get the recognition it deserves. “Although his keeping never had the flourish of Syed Kirmani, he is just so effective behind the stumps. I’ve seen so many outstanding stumpings and catches through the years… His knowledge of where he is with the stumps is phenomenal. The way he deflects a throw, from in front of the stumps, and hits the target is amazing.
Bhave has saved some flourish for the finish. “This complete package of a great captain, a proven finisher, and an outstanding wicketkeeper makes him one of the best players of our time.”