Man from the East with wild West practicality

DHONI WITH VIRAT KOHLI AND RAVINDRA JADEJA... leading his own brand of men.-AP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has earned his team’s respect by the sheer weight of his collective achievements in ODIs and Tests. But the sands of time are catching up with him and the 2015 World Cup is seen as a sort of benchmark that will decide his cricketing future, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is not a man prone to emotional displays. You wouldn’t really know if India has won a game or is struggling to stay afloat, by just watching his close-up visuals on television.

This despite his larger-than-life aura and the belief he engineers in his team as well as the Indian Diaspora that when he is around, anything is possible. It is a rare gift and only Sachin Tendulkar and briefly Virender Sehwag, had those traits.

You do get a rare peep when at times his inscrutable mask slips, like the glint in his eyes when he hammered Nuwan Kulasekara for the World Cup-winning six at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium in 2011. Or the punch on his helmet when he single-handedly won a critical Indian Premier League game for Chennai Super Kings at Dharamshala, a few seasons back.

But mostly he is the cowboy in old western films. He does his job with a matter-of-fact style and just moves on while the audience gapes.

However, recently, he did show some feeling at cricket’s heart — Lord’s — during a gripping second Test when Ishant Sharma scythed through England.

On Dhoni’s insistence, Ishant shed his reluctance over bowling short-pitched deliveries and reaped his rewards and one key scalp was Matt Prior. The batsman pulled and holed out at deep mid-wicket and Dhoni with a ‘we-got-our-man’ glee, leapt, shook his right hand and was all smiles.

Later, when India won, he was back to his phlegmatic ways, just picking a stump as a keep-sake and letting his team-mates enjoy their historic moment. A grateful Ishant said: “Actually all my wickets belong to the captain.”

For a skipper, who has never been lauded for tactical genius and has been accused in the past for letting games, especially Tests, drift, Dhoni showed that he does have his ear to the ground. Lord’s 2014 is truly a king-size feather in his cap, coming as it did with a back-story of a disastrous 2011 tour when England swept everything in its sight.

The wheel has come a full circle for India and reassuringly, Dhoni is still at the helm. For a team that is moving through transition and seeking fresh heroes, the familiar face of Dhoni has been the classic lighthouse offering hope to ships on stormy nights. The man from Ranchi, has led India the maximum in Tests. The third Test at Southampton was his 56th as skipper in the longer version and at the time of going to press, he has 27 victories and 14 losses.

He is well ahead of other leading Indian captains like Sourav Ganguly, Mohammed Azharuddin, Sunil Gavaskar and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, both in terms of matches led and in the winning percentage (48.21). And all this despite suffering the worst drubbings in 2011, when both England and Australia whipped India by identical 4-0 margins.

Dhoni the limited-overs captain set a legacy dipped in glitter and longevity ever since he won the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007. The halo just quadrupled when the main World Cup was secured in 2011. As for Tests, where he occupied the hot-seat in 2008 following Anil Kumble’s retirement, the early years were all about him reaping the benefits of having legends like Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman excelling for the squad.

Importantly for India, he also softened the blow of the sudden waning of the bridge-generation — Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh. A clutch of supremely talented men, who were expected to muffle the misery when Tendulkar and company bowed out, actually faded even before making it easy for the Virat Kohlis and Cheteshwar Pujaras to find their feet.

But on the flipside it also worked for Dhoni because once the big names retired and the others ebbed away, he finally had a team which was truly his. He is the senior-most player in the present squad and only when Zaheer Khan plays in fits and starts, does Dhoni have someone, who is senior to him, both in terms of age as well as time of international debut.

The current lot are his men and finally he has begun to carve an identity as a Test leader too. After the losses in 2011, primarily due to the career-ending stages of the golden-era greats like Tendulkar, Dhoni came into his own and partially assuaged many critics’ heart-burning about him not doing enough as a batsman while wearing whites. His 224 against Australia at Chennai, last year, set the tone for a domineering series (India won 4-0) and showed that he can coat his ODI bravura with Test durability.

Overseas too, the team began to chart a revival path. Yes, two-Test series in South Africa and New Zealand were lost by 0-1 margins each, but twice India had its chances of humbling the host. The Lord’s triumph showed that progress is on a set-path with Dhoni being the critical spine. “I believe in getting the process of playing right. As a team, we don’t look at the past, we don’t look far ahead. Being in the present always helps,” he said.

He may not necessarily show the raw aggression of Ganguly or the innate wisdom of the late Pataudi, but in his own inimitable way, Dhoni has shown that he can guide the team and help it stand above the slumps that transition inevitably bequeaths. He is not inferior in terms of tactics too and the short-ball theory that he unleashed at Lord’s found its mark though the same strategy didn’t work in the first Test at Trent Bridge. Dhoni has shuffled his fielders around, tried to choke the rivals with unusual formations and has constantly exhorted his lads.

These days in England have shown that he is his own man. When James Anderson allegedly pushed Ravindra Jadeja at Trent Bridge, it was Dhoni, who took the initiative and forced the management to lodge a complaint with the ICC. He did this despite being aware of the recent fostering of close ties between the BCCI and the England and Wales Cricket Board.

He has earned his team’s respect by the sheer weight of his collective achievements in ODIs and Tests and as coach Duncan Fletcher said, ‘he is a man of principles.’ India does have a sobering thought to deal with though as Dhoni clearly said his latest appearance at Lord’s might be his last at the hallowed venue.

The sands of time are catching up with him and the 2015 World Cup is seen as a sort of benchmark that will decide his cricketing future. India would want him to continue in both formats as its supreme leader, but his earthy intelligence will guide his moves. When the time comes, he will walk away with that half-smile and perhaps find cheer on one of his super-bikes on an Indian highway at night. You cannot get a more grounded cricketer than Dhoni and that has helped him and India.