Bold and bald

Lady Luck smiles… Mahendra Singh Dhoni has a personal moment with wife Sakshi Singh Rawat during a tea party hosted by the President, Pratibha Patil, in honour of the World Cup winners.-PTI

A captain needs emotional intelligence and fierce personal pride to guide a team as varied as India. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has both qualities in ample measure, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

The arms swivelled, the bat painted an arc that rippled with power and the ball sailed high for six. A signature Mahendra Singh Dhoni moment ushered in India's historic World Cup triumph at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium on April 2, a day that will resonate with June 25, 1983 and will forever be a special milestone when nostalgia grips an entire nation in the years to come.

The big-hit may fit in with the Dhoni persona but he has proved that he is much more than the beefy strikes and the long mane that became his identity when he first burst into the international arena. (The captain went for a new bald look immediately after the World Cup triumph.) Over the years, Dhoni has remained a malleable personality, coping with challenges, willing to change but firmly rooted to that fierce desire of winning. He has farmed the strike, strung partnerships, gambled on his instincts and backed himself and the team to the hilt.

As a captain he has stayed calm while everyone around tended to lose their heads and his biggest asset is the sheer lack of insecurity. He respects the seniors but keeps his counsel. When it comes to seniority, names like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid might spring to mind but it is a fact that even Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh have more international experience than Dhoni, but be it legendary men or his peer group, the Indian skipper has carved his own space.

The assurance was again evident after India defeated Sri Lanka and champagne moments were uncorked, tears were shed and warmth lingered. Tendulkar was chaired by his teammates and in the background Dhoni walked with a smile, letting the maestro hog the limelight. Tendulkar's 482 runs in the premier tournament proved an invaluable ally for the ‘Men in Blue' while they marched ahead.

In 2008, when Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble walked away towards their cricketing twilight, Dhoni did two gestures that spoke volumes about the man. He let an overwhelmed Ganguly lead the side briefly against the Australians and also chaired Kumble on his massive shoulders. Making the seniors feel cherished has helped him reap the dividends as the elder statesmen have clicked in unison be it in Tests or in the limited overs format under his captaincy.

Dhoni surely has a sense of perspective and the ability to trigger off a laugh has also helped him cope with the hottest seat in the Indian landscape, just below the Prime Minister's chair. In the lead-up to the World Cup, the Indian team was stationed in Bangalore for a short preparatory camp marked by rigorous practice and the odd press conferences. In one such media-interface, Sehwag and Yuvraj were addressing the press when Dhoni walked in discreetly and sat with the scribes. He then joined the television crews and tweaked the cameras amidst laughter. Later Sehwag was asked about whether he was nervous after sighting the Indian skipper among the scribes. “Not really, I am his senior,” Sehwag replied.

Dhoni's ability to be respectful and friendly with the seniors and juniors alike, has given him enough breathing space in the Indian dressing room. A few years ago, he was playing catching game after India won against England at Bangalore. As the night wore on, Dhoni chased players like Ishant Sharma and Rohit Sharma and tried to spray soft drinks on them. He was one among the boys despite being their leader but equally he has proved that while making decisions, he can be tough and keep emotions at bay. Ask R. Ashwin, who was Dhoni's trusted bowler in a crisis while playing for Chennai Super Kings but in the World Cup, the off-spinner gained limited exposure that was restricted to just two games.

Dhoni has proved that he has the heart to admit his mistakes. He said that he read the pitch at Mohali wrong. He opted to play S. Sreesanth ahead of Ashwin in the summit clash and even that shows Dhoni's ability to split a professional choice from a personal prejudice. In many matches between overs when the television audience is seeing an advertisement, Dhoni has had a stern word with Sreesanth. The speedster's antics has time and again earned Dhoni's ire but the captain truly believed that Sreesanth can add teeth to the Indian attack in the final and pencilled in his name. It is another matter that Sreesanth's performance remained lukewarm.

A captain needs emotional intelligence and fierce personal pride to guide a team as varied as India. Dhoni has both qualities in ample measure. When things were on the boil against Sri Lanka, Dhoni did the unthinkable and walked in ahead of Yuvraj at number five. Coming in with just 150 runs in the previous games of the World Cup, he displayed no sign of nerves or poor form. He hustled the singles and when the occasion demanded, unearthed that silent big-hitter residing within him. His unbeaten 91 truly became a captain's knock.

Dhoni needed that to silence the whispers about his poor run with the bat. He also needed to leave his imprint like Kapil Dev did in 1983 with that sprinting catch to send back Vivian Richards. Kapil from Haryana and Dhoni from Jharkhand have been the men who have gifted euphoria to a hungry nation craving for sporting success. Perhaps their respective upbringing in two states that have never been cricketing powerhouses in India has bred in the needed steel to cope with the high pressures of international cricket.

Dhoni often uses the word “street-smart” to define players like Praveen Kumar and Suresh Raina. Perhaps “street-smart” defines Dhoni too and he along with coach Gary Kirsten have shaped a great pathway to take Indian cricket to greater glory. “I am not the one to make big statements in press conferences,” Dhoni had said during an informal chat with journalists during India's tour of Bangladesh in early 2010.

He makes his statements on the field and there can be nothing bigger than a World Cup triumph. Add to it India's World Twenty20 victory in 2007 or leading Chennai Super Kings to an Indian Premier League and Champions League T20 title and the Dhoni-effect acquires a steady halo that will gain greater weight with anecdotes and bigger deeds in future years.