“Dhoniiiiii finishes off in style” This epic line from Ravi Shastri after Dhoni hit the winning six in the final of World Cup 2011 still resonates in the minds of billion fervent fans of Indian cricket. “From a ticket collector, he has become the collector of trophies now”. Be it fighting his father to risk his job as a train ticket collector to play cricket or dropping senior players from the Indian team to make way for future match-winners. No decision would have been easy, but all made with a calm head and logic that is his very own. Luck wasn’t too far from the mix, either. In the age of one-Virat-selfie-a-day, MS Dhoni still manages to do what MS Dhoni wants. Younger match-winners are now waiting to pounce on any chance he gives them for his spot, but the skipper is unfazed. Strong as ever, at his spot in the order and behind the wickets.
For all his accomplishments and successes, three things about the man stand out for the statistician in me: 1) his fitness levels, 2) his decision-making skills as captain, and 3) the fact that he never let success change him.
From the time he made his India debut, until his retirement from Test cricket in December 2014, India had played 104 Tests, 293 ODIs and 53 T20Is. MS Dhoni had featured in a staggering 87 percentage of those 450 matches. Not to forget, he also played several matches outside international cricket. For a wicketkeeper – which is perhaps the most demanding job in cricket – to play so much cricket, and yet not miss too many matches speaks volumes about Dhoni’s fitness levels.
What makes Dhoni’s feats special is that he was also captain for most part of that period. While wicket-keeping by itself is a demanding job, Dhoni also wore the hat of the captain and the team’s finisher, and yet to stay so fit physically, and be so alert mentally all the time, illustrates Dhoni’s supreme fitness levels and his commitment levels.
I am a huge fan of Dhoni’s captaincy, especially in the T20 format, where he has been proactive all the time and several steps ahead of the opposition. T20s are similar to rapid chess, where one wrong move can cost a player a match. So too in the T20 format, there is very little scope for error; one wrong move and it could all go pear shaped for the team. But Dhoni generally got his calls right in T20 cricket. And whenever he got the opportunity, he’d strangle his opponents down.
The one other thing that I have liked about Dhoni is his personality; no matter all the success, he remains the same person he was when he started playing cricket for India. Despite all these years of playing cricket, his levels of commitment are still the same whenever he takes the field. Off the field too, he still carries that smile and is approachable. And finally, despite all the successes, he has not been the one to bask during moments of glory, but has generally slipped to the sides to remain one of the boys.
Very early into his time in the international game, Dhoni decided to cocoon himself from the inevitable spotlight that chases a superstar. He understood the world around him would not be normal, but Dhoni embraced an eerie normality in the running of his life.
More than anything else, journalists crave access. Dhoni was a shut shop. He would be endearingly friendly at press conferences but rarely available beyond the requirements of his role as captain. His uneasy relationship with mobile phones became the stuff of legend.
Remember the time VVS Laxman’s repeated attempts to contact Dhoni to inform him of his decision to retire ended in failure and spawned a news cycle of ridiculous conspiracy theories. When asked about it later, all Dhoni did was guffaw self deprecatingly, chiding himself by saying he was “trying to improve but not improving” in this area.
We learnt of a faltering first encounter with Tendulkar in a Duleep Trophy match where as 12th man for the opposition team, Dhoni was tongue-tied when Tendulkar asked for a drink. We were told of how he continued to be “shy” when speaking to Tendulkar away from the field despite many years of being colleagues and sharing a dressing room. He spoke of the pride of learning that he had Tendulkar’s endorsement when the selectors considered his candidacy as captain.
I was fortunate to meet him once when I went to Sri Lanka with my family and met at the hotel lobby. I was awestruck and dint know how to react but the man himself gave a wide smile and moved on to his room with high security around him. 3 years later when I was flying to Chennai, I saw the man again and this time before I could move close the entire area was zoned out by security.
Probably Brendon McCullum was right: – MS Dhoni is the only leader in a team of captains.