Man with the Midas Touch

In charge... Dhoni has a word with pacer Praveen Kumar as Suresh Raina looks on. The Indian skipper has immense faith in youngsters.-AP

A captain is only as good as his team and Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been blessed with a squad, especially in Tests, where there is smooth synthesis of seniors, who cast overwhelming shadows, and juniors, nursing the bravado and irreverence that define youth. But that does not take away the credit that is due to a man who emerged from Jharkhand and now leads a team with an astute head, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has defied conventions with a sense of remarkable rush like the manner in which he used to bat in his early days as a long-haired lad. A wicket-keeper who is safe with the gloves and a batsman who can bruise bowlers, Dhoni has now acquired the added sheen of being a skipper, who senses the pulse of a match and largely stays ahead.

Recently in the West Indies, Dhoni emerged as the second most successful Indian captain in Tests with 15 victories from 26 matches. Dhoni has gone beyond past masters like Mohammad Azharuddin (14 victories) and Sunil Gavaskar and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who notched nine victories each. The Indian skipper is now behind only Sourav Ganguly (21 triumphs from 49 matches) and it is no mean achievement for a 30-year old man, who is now analysed for his successful leadership traits by management students.

It would be simplistic to just say that Dhoni has the ‘Midas Touch' because that would mean paying veiled obeisance to intangible factors like luck and fate. Yes, a captain is only as good as his team and Dhoni has been blessed with a squad, especially in Tests, where there is smooth synthesis of seniors, who cast overwhelming shadows, and juniors, nursing the bravado and irreverence that define youth. But that does not take away the credit that is due to a man who emerged from Jharkhand and now leads a team with an astute head.

A few months ago, at a private function in Bangalore, Dhoni said: “You see I grew up in a small town like Ranchi and I hardly got a chance to meet big cricketers.” It is indeed special that the same man now guides the team huddle ahead of a match in which the circle is made rich with the presence of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh.

Honouring his skipper…After Anil Kumble played his last Test, at the Kotla in New Delhi in November, 2008, Dhoni carried his skipper on his shoulders back to the pavilion. Dhoni has always shown great respect to the senior players.-S. Subramanium

Dhoni has been blessed with team-mates who are driven by their loyalty to former coach Gary Kirsten's preamble — ‘be the best team in the world.' An Indian dressing room can at times be a medley of high-strung egos and regional chasms but that, thankfully, has become a fallacy that now stains only the past. Former skippers Tendulkar and Dravid have lent a helping hand to Dhoni. V. V. S. Laxman, who once stunned an interviewer by asking, “is it so difficult to be nice?”, has staged Houdini Acts in Mohali and other venues to bail out India. And men like Sehwag, Zaheer and Harbhajan have given their best.

The man from Ranchi has created the right environment for all his key players to express themselves. Usually the man at the top, in most fields, suffers that peer-over-the-shoulder mannerism while the second-in-command snaps at his heels. Dhoni, however, seems to have no such fears. In 2008 when he took over as the Indian Test captain, he allowed Ganguly to lead for a while in Nagpur. It was the former skipper's last Test and Dhoni's gesture showed that even in the perform-or-perish world of sport, there was space for gratitude and respect. In the same series when his then captain Anil Kumble bowed out after the Test in Delhi, Dhoni chaired India's greatest bowler on his shoulders.

Dhoni has also reaped the benefits of the change in heart in a few talented youngsters. Ishant Sharma, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina, have all embraced a stronger work ethic and the quartet has also figured out that the India cap is the greatest blessing. Kohli may have lost his Test spot for now but there is no mistaking the hunger within him.

Truth be told, Dhoni has also benefited from helming a team that has evolved well under Ganguly, Dravid and Kumble. An overseas tour was no longer considered a great stumbling block and belief remained a key accessory in the kitbags that went past immigration counters. Dhoni's reign has also coincided with the final phase of Australia's decline while teams like England, South Africa and Sri Lanka have found consistency to be a fickle ally.

Dhoni and Ganguly, with their respective ability to back unheralded talent like a Praveen Kumar, a Joginder Sharma or a Harbhajan Singh (in 2001) in crunch situations, are two individuals sharing that fierce desire to win at all costs and an uncanny extra sensory perception of the inner fires in fresh cricketers. But they are different men — Ganguly wears his emotions on his sleeve, Dhoni remains an inscrutable man.

Two shirt-removing incidents tell a tale about the contrast in their personalities. Ganguly bared his upper torso and whirled his shirt at Lord's after India won the NatWest Trophy in 2002 and it was a moment that rippled with anger and a sense of vengeance. Dhoni removed his T-shirt too and that was after he led India to title triumph in the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007. He smiled and handed over his attire to a young fan. There was grace and a quiet delight in that moment.

The script is not entirely perfect though as there were whispers of Dhoni miffing a few BCCI officials due to his earlier habit of not attending phone calls. There was also talk about a hint of frost between Dhoni and Sehwag as the latter never fully came to terms with the captain's brief preference for Robin Uthappa. The media's fertile mind also spawned tales of how the musical chairs between Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha stemmed from the divide between captain cool and his explosive opener. Those blips have now been sorted out and Team India has steadfastly marched ahead.

More milestones surely beckon a leader, who has this ability to stay remarkably grounded. Dhoni's friend, who prefers to stay in the background, spent a large part of that delirious night on April 2 with the Indian captain after the World Cup was won in Mumbai. “It was just amazing to watch him. He was so remarkably calm. The man was not emotional at all, obviously the sense of pride was evident but he was very composed,” the friend said.

The forthcoming tour of England offers a stern test. Andrew Strauss has already turned on the verbals by saying that defeating India would be bigger than an Ashes triumph. In conditions that aid swing and seam, James Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Stuart Broad can be a handful and India as usual would bank on the seasoned hands of Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid. Thankfully for Dhoni, Zaheer Khan has been declared fit and that peps up the attack.

In a sense, the wheel has come a full circle with India visiting England on the 40th anniversary of that epochal 1-0 series victory registered by Ajit Wadekar's men in Old Blighty in 1971. Being the best is about staying atop the heap and being alive to latest trends in the game. Dhoni surely has an unenviable task on hand but he can be trusted to deliver though a few worries will snuggle beneath his forehead — what next when Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman leave? The surprising decline of Murali Vijay, Kohli and S. Badrinath in the West Indies points out to that eternal truth — the journey is never over and more work needs to be done. For now, Dhoni will shepherd the team with poise and street-smart thinking besides chipping in with the bat while rallying the tail around him. As for the prospects on the distant horizon, that can wait.