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Dhoni didn't play to please the aesthete, he played to win

The value Dhoni brought to the field as India’s captain was calmness. This is possible only among those supremely confident of their abilities and yet aware of their limitations

Cricket - ICC Cricket World Cup - South Africa v India - The Ageas Bowl, Southampton, Britain - June 5, 2019 India's MS Dhoni in action (Photo: Reuters)

In the end, there is that towering shot, the majestic six, hit over the bowler N. Kulasekara’s head at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, the ball soaring as if to reach the sky, and then the arc bends as the ball goes beyond the boundary, giving India their second triumph at the World Cup, a good 28 years after the first unlikely win at Lord’s in 1983. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s face shows little emotion other than the barest flicker of a smile. Everything has gone as planned. The calculations have worked. Tensions had indeed risen—this is cricket, after all, the game of glorious uncertainties.

Watching the match with friends in London, I was biting off what remained of my nails. Mahela Jayawardene’s century had threatened to take the Cup out of India’s grasp. The early departures of Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar had unnerved some of us. But Dhoni knew better. He was calculating. He showed the nerves of steel that India would come to rely on. And with his unbeaten 91, he took India home, brought the Cup back, a fitting gift to his superhuman teammate Tendulkar on his home ground.

A century eluded him that day, but that wasn’t part of his plans. For Dhoni’s guiding philosophy has always been equanimity. He was not the most athletic of wicket-keepers but when you tallied his statistics, you realized that he had done what was expected. He was not the most elegant of batsmen either, but more often than not you could rely on him to steady an innings or put India back in the game. And he did not seem to want to dominate the team—yet he shaped the team into an amazing winning combination.

His strokeplay wasn’t necessarily eye-pleasing but he didn’t play to please the aesthete; he played to win. He was workmanlike, even as the wicket-keeper—not mercurial like Syed Kirmani, or flamboyant like Farokh Engineer. But he got those catches, whipped off the bails when it mattered.

Dhoni led India in more Tests than any other captain (although Virat Kohli will soon overtake him) and has left behind a better record than most of his predecessors. Captaining India is not for the faint-hearted. Cricket has been India’s passion, an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British, as the scholar Ashis Nandy put it once, and victories eluded India for decades. When I was growing up, victories were remembered and savoured because they were so rare and so few. First Sourav Ganguly, and then Dhoni (and now Kohli), made winning seem commonplace, certainly on home pitches.

A stroll through the record of India’s captains shows the evolving nation and its history, of an underdog that has transformed into a bloodhound. There are the early captains: C.K. Nayudu, who led India with grace, and the prince of Vizianagaram, the man of monumental ego whose sole contribution to India’s cricketing lore is sending Lala Amarnath back from the 1936 tour for insubordination (although Amarnath had good reason to be piqued). It was only in the mid-1950s that India began to win the occasional Test match: Polly Umrigar was the first captain to win as many matches as he lost (as did the courageous Nari Contractor, felled by Charlie Griffith’s bouncer in the West Indies). Contractor’s abrupt departure meant India got the world’s youngest captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who won many matches, but lost more, and yet brought a certain dash and elan to the captaincy. Ajit Wadekar would then lead India to victories abroad for the first time, but it seemed like a flash in the pan. And Srinivas Venkataraghavan spoke too soon and would not be able to live down his famous last words—we are here to win everything—in England in 1979. Then followed the Sunil Gavaskar years—the little master knew India’s weaknesses and limitations and settled for draws rather than risk defeat—of the 46 Tests he led India in, India won nine and lost eight. Kapil Dev brought more energy, but lost three more Tests than the four he won.

In this Dec. 17, 2005 file photo, Dhoni practice bowls in Ahmedabad
In this Dec. 17, 2005 file photo, Dhoni practice bowls in Ahmedabad (AP)

It was only when Ganguly took charge that Indian victories did not seem exceptional. In the 49 Tests he led the side in, India won 21 and lost 13. But it is Dhoni who had the best record (until Kohli disrupted it), with 27 wins, 18 defeats and 15 draws (Kohli has done better, with 33 wins in 55 Tests, with only 12 defeats). But Kohli’s chutzpah is the icing on the cake Dhoni has baked, and Dhoni’s success draws from the batter Ganguly prepared, and that tasted right because of the ingredients Mohammed Azharuddin, Kapil Dev, Gavaskar, Wadekar and Pataudi brought. The Indian saga is a continuing one, one building on another—it was Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote in another context, that India was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. The Indian cricket team, in its own way, exemplifies that, with each succeeding captain writing his own script on the scroll, retaining its essential characteristic.

The value Dhoni brought to the field as India’s captain was calmness. This is possible only among those supremely confident of their abilities and yet aware of their limitations. Combine that with a shrewd, calculating mind—a mind that found the complicated Duckworth-Lewis method exasperating but one which could figure out the number of overs left, the number of runs needed, and which understood the vulnerability of the opponent well enough to know just the precise moment when to launch the counter-attack and upset the rhythm the bowler was trying to acquire. And in the ensuing chaos, alter the balance of the game permanently, securing a win that had seemed impossible a few overs earlier. He would play defensively when the crowd wanted sixes because his mind told him the time was not yet ripe to seize the initiative. Chases mattered to him, but on his terms; he wanted to minimize the risks first, and open up when the bowler had a false sense of security, to make a mistake which Dhoni would punish gleefully. For Dhoni, cricket was as much a game of chess as one played with a bat and a ball. The tactics didn’t always succeed; the heart-breaking run-out against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final won’t be forgotten easily, but that was an older Dhoni, only able to show glimpses of the past.

That, and his sense of detachment. After the last ball was bowled, after India had secured another victory, while his teammates jumped and danced and pranced around, uncorking champagne bottles, Dhoni may have seemed removed, in another world. There was that smile on his face, aware that his calculations had paid off, but just as easily the calculations might not have; cricket is a game. Heroism on the field matters, heroism elsewhere—such as India’s borders—is more important. That is why he saluted the men and women in uniform, for he knew that real courage is different. That patriotism seemed in-your-face and mawkish but it was genuinely felt. It was the alternative career he may have wanted, a mountain he had not climbed. He knew what he did not have, and celebrated what he had.

Dhoni saw victory and defeat on the field as part and parcel of life. Everything is not, and cannot be, under your control. You aren’t perfect. So use your skills, your mind, study the opponent, indulge him, exploit his vanity and weakness, and then at what you consider to be the right moment, play your best shot. If the stars are aligned, you will win; if not, there is another day, it is only a game. That may sound fatalistic and karmic. And Dhoni may not mind such an interpretation.

But even if cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties, the scoreboard, at the end of the day, tells the story. And once in the pavilion, there is the silverware he has won for India. It is a record of which he should feel mightily proud, and the nation should feel gratitude.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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