Dhoni and the art of staying in the present

Pics: PTI

One of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s many great traits is that he doesn’t make an effort to be what he is. Dhoni’s icy-cool avatar could have well been a golden cage, a hard-to-escape image trap. Rather than sweat over identity issues, Dhoni’s focus has been on channelling his resources to win games of cricket. He, and his legion of fans, wouldn’t have it any other way, writes Arun Venugopal.

It doesn’t take much to understand why Dharamsala-2010 is celebrated, almost revered as an epochal event, by loyal supporters of the Chennai Super Kings. Following significant wins or defeats of CSK, a mash-up of the Dharamsala game’s final stages with goosebumps-inducing soundtracks on the internet — either as a re-iteration of supremacy or a vehicle of inspiration — has become increasingly popular.

Call it a show of triumphalism, if you may — and it won’t be altogether inaccurate — but the fervent and frequent invocation of THAT match tells us a thing or two. On the surface, it was a spectacular jail-break. But to dwell on just that and ignore its impact in the long run would be missing the wood for the trees.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s decimation of Kings XI Punjab that evening, in a must-win encounter, powered his side to the semifinals for the third time in a row. Needing 16 runs in the last over to go past Kings XI’s 192, the CSK skipper rammed into Irfan Pathan with all his might.

Dhoni, with a bit of luck, put to bed the contest in four balls.

It was the game that birthed the team’s prototype of last-gasp victories from improbable circumstances. It was also an irrefutable affirmation of Dhoni’s unique finishing skills that involved approaching the chase like a marathon — a measured build-up culminating in a furious burst.

In this regard, CSK has taken after its leader, its methods mirroring those of his. The team’s sangfroid in nervy climaxes has had a lot to do with Dhoni’s characteristic calmness. At the core of his unflappability is a passionate desire to romance the present.

Right from philosophical discourses to management texts, the importance of ‘staying in the present’ has been sufficiently driven home. While it’s immeasurably easier said than done, the man from Ranchi has almost perfected the art. That quality, buttressed by immense cricketing awareness, has helped him clinch games like the one against Sunrisers Hyderabad in Chennai recently.

Dhoni’s unbeaten 37-ball 67, underpinned by a thunderous attack on Dale Steyn, extracted triumph from a tricky situation with 15 runs being achieved in the last over, bowled by Ashish Reddy. A similar attempt in CSK’s opening fixture against Mumbai Indians, where he waged a lone battle (51 off 26 balls), didn’t materialise. Dhoni fell to a brilliant catch by Kieron Pollard off the first ball in the last over, with the team requiring 12 runs.

However, Dhoni’s, and as a result CSK’s, success-rate in doing things the way he does has been on the higher side. Watching him perform the escape-act, taking the game to the end, isn’t for the weak-hearted though; there’s no guarantee that your fingernails will last the distance, not to speak of the ensuing cardiac arrhythmia. Annoyed fans are often heard crying aloud, ‘Why does CSK have to take every match to the last ball?’ Dhoni would only smile, convinced that he’s betting on his strengths.

Recently, CSK’s bowling coach Andy Bichel offered his two cents on what was required of a finisher and also drew a parallel between Michael Bevan and Dhoni. “If you look at Dhoni’s innings the other night (against Sunrisers Hyderabad), he was zero off six balls. The good finishers need that time. If Bevan was in with 15 or 18 overs to go, he would work the ball around, find out where the twos where. MS (Dhoni) does the same and he picks his targets well. Steyn, the other night, was a massive target.

“While Michael had more time, MS is probably more explosive because he doesn’t have the time. It’s a tough one comparing eras and the formats as well, 50-over and 20-over cricket.”

The 31-year-old Dhoni’s astonishing fitness-level doesn’t often get the attention it deserves although it’s seen in every facet of his game. Keeping wickets, batting, and captaining the team would doubtless drain him physically and emotionally. His equability coupled with a knack of compartmentalising things has seen him don each of the hats sans any fuss. Does he feel pressure at all?

Dhoni... super king of the slog-

“There’s always some kind of pressure. It’s only that I don’t show it on my face as I don’t want that to affect my teammates,” said Dhoni at a promotional event last year.

A valuable associate in the CSK dressing room has been Stephen Fleming, the player-turned-coach. Fleming and Dhoni have chiselled a team culture that entails a balanced attitude to highs and lows. When the players struck a morose note after CSK lost the final of the inaugural IPL to Rajasthan Royals, Dhoni apparently took Rudyard Kipling’s ‘triumph and disaster are imposters’ route. He demanded that his troops smile and enjoy the moment.

Players, senior and junior alike, are handed over the licence to express their natural talents; negativity and knee-jerk reactions aren’t welcomed in the side. Dhoni chose to back Ravindra Jadeja all the way despite the latter being castigated in the media. That’s probably one of the reasons why Dhoni commands the same kind of respect from a Mohit Sharma and a Michael Hussey. Dwayne Bravo said nearly two years ago how Dhoni the “great leader has now become a great friend.”

Fleming has made no secret of his admiration for Dhoni. “MS has a relaxed style of captaincy and his decision-making is very instinctive. He has a very good cricket brain and most of the times, his decisions are right. He gives the players confidence, allowing them to explore what they can do. As a person, MS is unbelievably considerate towards the people around him... Everybody wants a piece of him, but he remains so obliging,” he said in an interview to The Telegraph last year.

Not always conventional, Dhoni’s strategic fluidity presented itself in its finest form in the 2010 IPL final against Mumbai Indians. Spotting Kieron Pollard’s appetite for the straight-hits, he employed an ultra-straight mid-off in addition to a long-off. The move led to Pollard being snared, thus clearing the way for the title.

Notwithstanding the criticism he’s faced, at times, for being visibly passive, Dhoni’s hardly ever chosen to be demonstrative. Even admonishments are conveyed with a straight-face. A striking exception was his celebration after the Dharamsala success. Launching into a few fiery monologues, he punched his helmeted head with his glove. “It was an emotional moment. Your franchise pays so much money for you; you should at least make the semifinals. After that you can say it is a lottery,” he said candidly after the match.

One of his many great traits is that he doesn’t make an effort to be what he is. Dhoni’s icy-cool avatar could have well been a golden cage, a hard-to-escape image trap. Rather than sweat over identity issues, Dhoni’s focus has been on channelling his resources to win games of cricket. He, and his legion of fans, wouldn’t have it any other way.