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MS Dhoni: A quiet radical who did it his way

Dhoni never became the cricket establishment. He came from Ranchi, played his game to the fullest, did his job to the best of his abilities and talent, and called time on his career in his own style

The Indian team has already unofficially retired jersey number 10, which Tendulkar wore. In all probability, the same will happen with Dhoni's jersey as well.
The Indian team has already unofficially retired jersey number 10, which Tendulkar wore. In all probability, the same will happen with Dhoni's jersey as well. (AP)

The Neeraj Pandey-directed biopic on M.S. Dhoni has a revealing exchange between Dhoni’s friend Param and a manufacturer-supplier of sports goods. The friend is trying to get sponsorship for Dhoni but the supplier is not convinced he should put his money on a relatively unknown cricketer, however talented. The irritated supplier asks: “Is this Dhoni of yours (Sachin) Tendulkar?" Dhoni’s friend responds, “Nahi sir ji, Dhoni is Dhoni!" The supplier is convinced and Dhoni wins his first sponsorship.

Dhoni remained, indeed, very much his own man. Two decades after that exchange is believed to have happened, Dhoni hung up his boots as India’s most unique cricketer, one who steadfastly remained himself throughout a career filled with glories that may have led to a change of character in even extraordinary players. Between his debut and the last One Day Internationals (ODI), when his heart-stopping run-out in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals sealed India’s chances, Dhoni remained a complete team player, detached like a monk from any desire for personal glory. He quit Test cricket when he was 10 games short of a hundred Test outings, an honour most Test cricketers would covet. One could argue—indeed there are reports to that effect—that Dhoni read the writing on the wall and quit just in time since he was anyway no longer being considered by the selectors. But if this indeed is the case, it proves Dhoni chose honour and team interests over a scratchy, frustrating-to-watch and self-serving drag to some statistical summit till the cricket establishment in India politely (or impolitely, as is said to have been the case with Tendulkar) nudged him to stop.

From 2005, when he scored that match-winning hundred against Pakistan, till his retirement, we never saw the personal side of Dhoni on the ground. In Indian cricket, this space of selfless strife and sacrifice is hardly crowded. Dhoni joins his predecessors Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble in that monkish groove as he signs off. Kumble, ever the slogger for the team, announced his retirement right in the midst of a Test series when he thought he wasn’t doing enough for his side. Dravid called it quits at a press conference. No farewell matches, no grateful mega felicitations for these nice guys. Dhoni, too, chose grace and left in the same self-effacing manner in which he played his cricket. India’s most successful captain, who inarguably changed Team India’s approach to cricket with his uncluttered and unassuming ways, is unlikely to have a formal farewell match. After India won the first T20 World Cup under him in 2007 and the young team arrived in Mumbai to a boisterous welcome, a 26-year-old Dhoni had told his overwhelmed teammates to “keep it simple". He kept it straight and simple, announcing his exit without fanfare.

Till Dhoni, rarely had such an astounding talent arrived on the scene almost entirely uncelebrated and unannounced. He came with his own approach to the game and remained throughout his career an unalloyed artist who established his own school of cricket. While his phenomenal imprint on the game and the new paradigms he founded constitute an epic legacy, the space Dhoni created for himself and his uncomplicated cricket may never be filled. There are credible reasons why the Dhoni phenomenon may remain peerless and unchallenged.

Cricket, or any other sport, is not just about statistics and records. If it were, the debate over who is the greatest of them all would have been settled long back, with Don Bradman. But long after Bradman recorded those incredible statistics came a Sunil Gavaskar, who shattered some of the numbers of that seemingly unbreakable set of statistics with his own, apparently unattainable, benchmarks. Then came a magical Tendulkar, a lyrical Brian Lara, a stunning Jacques Kallis, and statistics and records started losing their Bradmanesque aura. And, of course, there was a certain Vivian Richards in between, the rebel whose beautiful rage brought down cricket empires. If cricket was only about statistics, there is no exceptional statistical logic to remembering Clive Lloyd, the great leader of that band of rebels who permanently changed the way cricket was played. The folklore of a Bombay boy who made his Test debut at the unbelievable age of 16 among men twice his age and who stopped only after he had scored a hundred 100s 25 years later, breaking and making several other statistical milestones on the way, was considered safe to be cast in stone as a permanent personal paradigm—till Virat Kohli arrived and scored 70 international centuries in just 12 years since his debut. And if Tendulkar was accumulating statistics, Kohli appears to be hoarding them—22,000-plus international runs in 12 years against Tendulkar’s 34,000-plus in 24. The larger point is that statistics are only one of the yardsticks to measure greatness and impact. Dhoni, like all these greats (except Kohli, since he is still playing), leaves the field not only as someone who made an incomparable impact but who in some ways surpassed some of them.

Wiser cricket analysts always caution against comparisons. But if comparisons must be made for academic reasons, they insist on factoring in the context. It is the element of context that cements our comprehension of Vivian Richards as one of the greatest nearly three decades after he played his last match, when he hardly occupies any statistical peaks that have not been scaled. Dhoni belongs in this league. A raw talent who came from a nowhere place in terms of Indian cricket, a brilliant reader of the game who brought an unprecedented street-smartness that won India matches, a captain who rarely stood in the front row with the trophy for the team picture.

This is not to say that Dhoni’s statistics pale in comparison with past greats as well as his contemporaries. Far from it. Just one number should suffice. Despite batting lower down the order throughout his career in the 50-over format, Dhoni sits at No.10 (50.57) on the list of batsmen with the highest batting average in ODIs, above players such as Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting, all of whom bat, or batted, higher up in the order. The leadership feat of winning all three ICC tournaments for India will likely remain unchallenged for a long time.

That’s the statistical bit about batsman-captain Dhoni. There are as significant, if not more, cultural and social aspects to Dhoni’s cricket and career that should interest us as much as his awesome helicopter shot. For he brought to Indian cricket a style and spunk not seen before, and difficult for others to adopt. A leadership that made the largest contribution towards ending personality cults in the team and respecting players, including his worthy seniors for what they brought to the game, not just for their names. A captain who did not shy away from quietly taking those radical calls that team interests called for, and one who delivered on those calls. Dhoni respected cricket as much as anyone else of his ilk but never let the game overwhelm him. Dhoni’s beauty, unlike most other illustrious Indian cricketers—with a few honourable exceptions— lies in the fact that he never became the cricket establishment. He came from Ranchi, played his game to the fullest, did his job to the best of his abilities and talent, and ended it in his own style. On his Instagram account, Dhoni posted a video message with his pictures with all his former and current teammates. In the background plays the Sahir Ludhianvi song from Kabhi Kabhie, with those philosophical lines, “Kal aur aayenge naghmon ki khilti kaliyan chunane waale, mujh se behtar kehne wale tumse behtar sunane wale." There won’t be another Sahir to write so immortal a line. There won’t be another M.S. Dhoni who will achieve so much and yet stand behind the stumps so shorn of pretension, as if the laurels do not belong to him.

Abhiram Ghadyalpatil is a Delhi-based political analyst.

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