MS Dhoni’s final ODI: An imperfect finish for the perfect finisher
In an intimate conversation a few months earlier, Dhoni had revealed how haunted he was by his World Cup dismissal against New Zealand. While he was preparing for a final international comeback, the covid-19 pandemic robbed him of his chance
It was late December 2019 and we had just finished a chat show for one of MS Dhoni’s sponsors in New Delhi. I had a flight to catch in a few hours and was looking to grab some lunch before I left the hotel. That’s when the invite came. “Do you want to have lunch together?" asked Dhoni. “Please come up to my room and we can grab a bite," he said and disappeared into the elevator with his team of security personnel. The cricket world wanted to know the mind of the man and this was an opportunity. There was no one else present and we could have a conversation without having to think of what would come out in the media. “Don’t write any of this now," he said and smiled at me as I entered the room. I was okay with it as long as I could understand and decode what was on his mind. While we ordered lunch Dhoni settled into one of the sofas with his iPad and asked me to sit next to him. He wanted to show me something and looked a little more intense than normal. In front of us were some spectacular outdoor photos of Dhoni in the middle of beautiful mountain vistas. “This was the army camp I went to last week. Not many know about it. We slept out in the open and did all the drills. I wasn’t MS Dhoni there and that was the biggest satisfaction. In the army I am just another soldier and I could relax myself," he said.
Was the army an escape from what he had been through at the 2019 ICC world cup? Could he not digest the defeat to New Zealand in the semi-final? Was the decision to move away from cricket prompted by a deep sense of trauma? Was he not as cool as he portrayed himself to be? When I asked him these questions, he did not give me a direct answer. While still flipping through the photos he said, “I think I should have dived. Had I dived I would have made up the two inches and no way would I be out." Seeing me curious and confused, he smiled and continued, “You know what, I had never dived in my life. So when I was going for the second run the thought of the dive did come to my mind but then I had never dived. I felt I could make it. Just if I dived…" His words trailed off and Martin Guptil and his freakish throw was a silent presence in the room. In the semi-final, Dhoni was going for a second run with 24 runs to get in 10 balls. He had achieved similar targets a hundred times before and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t do it for one final time.
The dismissal had come to dominate the conversation and I could sense Dhoni was clearly not over it. “The last over in that semi final was to be bowled by Jimmy Neesham and I was backing myself. While you can’t say anything in cricket, 16-17 runs wasn’t something…" and he stopped in his tracks. Neesham against Dhoni in a world cup semi-final with the world watching could only have one winner and no one knew it better than him. “I had planned the innings all along and with Jaddu (Ravindra Jadeja) we were constantly assessing what we needed to do. An inch stopped us from implementing our plans," he said.
Clearly there was pain and a deep sense of frustration.The army, more than anything, was an escape. He could lose himself in the experience of serving the country as a soldier and try and forget the trauma of England. MS Dhoni, one of the best runners between wickets, was run-out in what turned out to be his last international innings. “As I was walking out of the ground I couldn’t help but think that this was how it all started. I was run out in my very first innings and here I was out run out in what could well be my last," he said.
The cat was out of the bag. I had to ask him what the world wanted to know: was he going to retire from international cricket? “So have you made up your mind?" I said and waited for an answer. He paused for a second before saying, “I will start practicing in January and see if my body holds up. Will do it for a month and more and then decide on what to do." Not once did he say that he’d retire, nor did he say he was confident of making a comeback. He was intent on staying in the moment and see how things panned out. Yet again he was trying to take things to the final over and then take a call. And in fact, he did start practice exactly as he had said, on 14 January 2020. He had ordered new exercise gear at home and started net sessions, which would get him ready for the IPL, which was originally supposed to begin on 29 March. That was the plan. A good IPL could give him one more chance at the T-20 world cup and while it was improbable, it wasn’t impossible. With Dhoni impossible is nothing.
And that’s when covid-19 happened. The pandemic that stalled the globe stalled Dhoni as well. The agency was taken away from him and his last roll of the dice wasn’t in his hands anymore. He lost control, just like we all did. There was no practice and no IPL. The T-20 world cup was pushed back to October 2021 which meant he would be nearly 41 by the time the tournament rolled around. It would mean he would have to push his body for another year and a half for a chance, while fuelling speculation for the next 12 months. The door that was slightly left ajar was now firmly shut because of the pandemic.
With the pandemic raging MSD had no incentive left. As Dhoni played with his daughter Ziva and spent time with his wife Sakshi during lockdown, it may well be that he had made up his mind. The pandemic, which has robbed us of so many things, has now robbed us of the chance of seeing Dhoni give it one last shot. The world’s best finisher wasn’t allowed to finish in the manner he wanted and this wasn’t something he could either help or control.
While we will all remember Dhoni for his incredible leadership and white ball skills, we will also remember the last run-out. One of the greatest cricketers to play the game, even Dhoni couldn’t escape the cruelty of sport. A truly imperfect finish for the perfect finisher. He probably had tears in his eyes as he walked out off the Old Trafford cricket ground on that ill fated day last July. We all were left with lumps in our throats to see a legend denied his last hurrah. But that’s sport. It is never perfect and there are no retakes. Even for the greatest there is no rewind button. In what has been a truly remarkable career, which will forever be remembered in the annals of Indian cricket, there will always be that one inch to lament. As Dhoni said, “Only if I had dived."
Boria Majumdar is a sports journalist, academician and author of multiple books on Indian sports.
FIRST PUBLISHED16.08.2020 | 04:00 PM IST