India require 31 off 12 balls with 3 wickets in hand – a stiff task- but millions of people glued to their TV screens still have hope. The first ball of the penultimate over is deflected towards the square leg. The batsman reckons he has enough time to comeback for the second, but an accurate throw at stumps catches him short by a fine margin. All hopes are shattered and a dejected MS Dhoni, who normally doesn’t give away much from his expressions, walks back to the pavilion. As it turned out, it was his last walk back in the Indian blue. One of the greatest finishers of the game could not finish his career on a high that a champion like him deserved. But that’s life, not every story gets its ideal end and if experts are to be believed best stories are those that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This is certainly the latter. His last run out was, in my humble opinion, one of the saddest moments for Indian cricket and that video clip is enough to dampen our mood anytime. However there is an antidote to that, another video clip involving the same person and same event but a different year.
The World Cup that had evaded Indian team for 28 years is just 4 runs away with 11 balls on offer. On strike is a well settled batsman on 85, who in unison with Gambhir has brought his team on the brink of much awaited victory. It’s a full delivery, right up his alley. A familiar swing of bat that completes a 360° arc, right from a high backlift to its completion behind the back. He holds the pose, his unfluttering eyes following the trajectory of the ball that has sailed into the stands as if trying to soak in the moment in which a long awaited dream is getting fulfilled. As the reality dawns upon him, he lets go of his pose unloading his bat and with a smile on his face pulls out a stump as the souvenir with Ravi Shastri’s voice on the air- “Dhoni finishes off in style”.
Since Nayan Mongia’s ouster from the Indian team in 2001, following the match fixing allegations, India had been searching for a regular wicket keeping option. Several players were tried for the position like MSK Prasad, Sameer Dighe, Ajay Ratra, Vijay Dahiya and others. However none of them satisfied Ganguly’s expectations. He wanted his wicket keeper to fulfill the role of a batsman as well, similar to what Adam Gilchrist was doing for Australia. Lack of options forced Rahul Dravid to don the keeper’s gloves for 2003 World Cup, but it was only a temporary solution.
Just around that period, a name would regularly feature in our local newspapers in Ranchi- MS Dhoni, for his batting exploits in domestic games. Coincidentally he was a wicket keeper too. Luckily his performances did not go unnoticed and the national selectors picked him for India A’s tour to Kenya. With every match report from the tour, our eyes would search for only one name in the newspaper and he did not disappoint. In fact his extraordinary performance gave us hope for something that had not happened till that time. No one from Jharkhand had represented India on the national level in cricket. We were of the opinion that people from middle class that too from a weak domestic team, don’t make it to the big stage. But a resurgent river finds its way even through the hardest rocks. It would have been difficult to ignore such top notch performance from MSD, especially when the national team was in dire need of a wicket keeper with such batting abilities. And finally it happened, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s name featured in the squad named for Bangladesh tour. We all felt elated- that’s the thing with small cities- even an individual’s achievement feels like that of our own and we rejoice it together.
Introduction to the World
In the first ODI against Bangladesh, at the fall of 5th Indian wicket, out came a well built 23 year old with long hairs and a peculiar gait- quick steps, rapid hand and shoulder movements- adorning No. 7 on his jersey. He had come with the reputation of a good striker of the ball and many expected him to be the answer for India’s wicket keeping woes. But everyone’s expectation met an anti climax when Dhoni got run out on his very first ball of international cricket. He deflected Rafique’s delivery towards square leg and set off for a single only to be sent back midway by Kaif. The three match series was not meant for the proper introduction of MS Dhoni to the world. However in the 3rd ODI, he came in to bat with only two balls left in the innings. His captain Ganguly told him to finish it with at least a six and he obliged. The first ball he faced from Mahmud was hoicked with a high backlift just over long off fielder for a six. The first glimpse of what was about to come in the future- Dhoni finishing off innings with sixes.
It was the next Pakistan series where Dhoni truly announced his arrival on the big stage. Ganguly decided to give him ample time to showcase his talent. Dhoni was sent one-down in the second ODI at Vizag and what followed was the batsmanship of highest order. With his firm bottom hand grip and high backlift, in his unique style, he played his shots all around the park. The lofted drives over cover, the punches off back foot, the sweeps and the best of all- down the ground with a slight shift in orientation, hoisting spinners over mid wicket boundaries. He scored his maiden century and eventually ended up with 148 with 15 hits to boundary and 4 towering sixes.
Dhoni ensured that it was not a one-off innings as few months later, when again promoted to No. 3, he surpassed his previous best. His 183 not out at Jaipur helped India chase down Sri Lanka’s 299 with 4 overs to spare. We could have witnessed the first ODI double century that day, had Sri Lanka scored more runs.
The confidence from these innings at the top helped him perform better at his usual place too- the lower middle order. In company of Yuvraj, Kaif and later Raina, Dhoni evolved as one of the best finishers of the game. With time, he made the art of batting down the order and finishing the game, his own. He would put great value to his wicket, take the game deep into the last overs, always keeping in mind the bowlers who would bowl those last overs and then attack at the apt time. Mike Hussey, who himself was one of the better finishers, rated Dhoni quite highly because like Bevan, he would analyze the chase quite well- running well between the wickets, forging partnerships with lower order batsmen- but additionally he had the unique ability to play big shots too and the confidence to pull it off at crunch moments.
Although known more for his batting skills, Dhoni continuously improved his keeping skills too. He honed his unconventional techniques with rigorous hard work and also incorporated the best keeping practices around in his game as well like collecting throws in front of stumps, taking a glove off during death overs. His glove work against spinners was second to none, especially those stumpings that he pulled off in a blink of an eye.
Soon Dhoni became the permanent face in Indian side in all the formats. What followed was a flurry of awards and accolades- Man of the Match/Series, ICC ODI Player of the Year, No. 1 ranked ODI batsman and India’s highest sporting honour as well- Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award.
Celebrations in Ranchi
Every time Dhoni came back from a tour, he would get a magnanimous welcome at the airport. People came in large numbers at the Airport arrivals and both sides of the connecting road as well to get a glimpse of their favourite hero. Many would spent hours in front of his home expecting him to wave or greet them. The local media would follow him everywhere providing details of every breath that he took. The newspapers would feature everything he did that particular day like visit to his alma mater, playing football with Sudesh Mahto- a politician from Jharkhand, long drives on his new bikes/cars etc. His stay would not end without his customary visit to Dewri Mandir- a temple of Goddess Durga- to take blessings for the next tour.
“If you can meet Triumph and Disaster– from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If
And treat those two impostors just the same”
Cricket, like life, has its ebbs and flows. 2007 World Cup was the lowest point in Dhoni’s career and probably a turning point too. For the first time he got to face the fickle nature of fan following in our country. The enraged crowd, after India’s early exit from the tournament, attacked his under-construction home at Ranchi and at several places in the country, effigies of cricketers were burnt. They had to wait in West Indies to return back to India as it was considered unsafe at the moment. When they returned, they were hounded by the media as if they had committed some serious crime. It affected Dhoni a lot but he did not take it negatively, instead he decided to channelize the anger and aggression into making himself a better cricketer and a better human being. Probably this was the time he would have decided to take cricket as a game only and not some battle. He would give it his best every match but would not let the result of the game bother him. This approach of his later became one of his clichés at post match interviews- focus on the process and the result will take care of itself.
With the senior members- Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly- withdrawing their name from the inaugural T20I World Cup, India needed a new captain. Sehwag, Harbhajan and Yuvraj were amongst the most experienced in the remaining lot. However Sachin’s recommendation of Dhoni to BCCI worked in his favour. The master must have observed MSD’s astute mind while accompanying him in slip cordon and discussing various game situations. Dhoni got the reign of a young team and with everyone’s support formed a unit that was eager to perform being not considered tournament favourites. Throughout the tournament, Dhoni impressed one and all with his tactical decisions. In the bowl out against Pakistan, non-regular bowlers were given the ball as they had better strike rate in the practice. He sat just in-line of stumps, rather than the customary wicket keeper’s position which helped bowlers aim better. In the finals too Dhoni showed nerves of steel as he handed over the ball to Joginder Sharma instead of Harbhajan because the latter was not confident to bowl the last. It was probably his confidence in Sharma that paid dividends and India- considered an underdog at the start of the World Cup- won the Cup.
Soon he got the captainship of India’s ODI team from Rahul Dravid and eventually the test team too from Anil Kumble. His calm demeanour irrespective of match situation, a clear thought process and the ability to assess the games meant he was the apt man for the job. His records speak for themselves. India reached new heights under his captainship- World No. 1 rank, series wins abroad and the coveted ICC trophies- only captain to bag all three. The 2011 World Cup was the pinnacle of them all. Though he did not have much contribution with bat throughout that tournament, he decided to lead from the front in the final. With three wickets down, and India chasing in a high pressure World Cup final, Dhoni decided to promote himself ahead of in-form Yuvraj Singh. His self belief helped India win the Trophy as in partnership with Gambhir, he steered India home comfortably.
It was England’s tour of India in 2006. Slog overs were in progress in the third ODI and Anderson bowled a perfect delivery for the situation- a near yorker, hoping it would either be defended or dug out for a single. But to his and everyone else’s amazement, the ball sailed for six over mid wicket. With high backlift and a quick arm whip, as if someone wielding a mystical mace, he generated enough power to provide the required elevation to the ball. This became his trademark go to shot in the final overs. Pepsi later branded it as the helicopter shot for its advertisement. Dhoni credited his shot to his long time friend and fellow Jharkhand all rounder Santosh Lal. Incidentally it was at his residence that I got to meet Dhoni once during his Ranji playing days.
Under Dhoni, Indian team underwent transformation from experienced seasoned campaigners to talented young guns with little experience of international cricket. The void left by the likes of Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly, Kumble, Laxman and Sehwag was not easy to fill. Dhoni believed in the youngsters and gave them ample opportunities to prove themselves despite a few failures. It was Dhoni’s faith in their capabilities that the current lot can boast of top class players like Virat, Rohit, Ashwin and Jadeja. Be it middle order batsmen like Manish, Hardik or Kedar; or the young bowlers like Bumrah, Chahal or Kuldeep- everyone has benefitted from MS’ advices both on and off the field.
In late 1990s and early 2000s, India was heavily dependent on one man- Sachin Tendulkar. If Sachin got out, it was more likely that India would lose that contest. With several match winning performances, MS gathered the same confidence from this cricket loving nation. The presence of MSD on the crease gave us hope that he could rescue India from any dire situation. A hope that his fans carried till his last ODI. There was certain charisma in his personality, a swag in his presence on the field. Be it his fast stumpings, cheeky comments, match awareness, helicopter shots or remaining unperturbed in tense situations. The introduction of IPL meant that his popularity would know no bounds as he captained one of the most successful franchises.
Very early in his career in an interview he had mentioned that he would like the people to remember him as a good human being apart from being a good cricketer. Instances like- giving captaincy to Ganguly in the final moments of his last test; giving away trophies to younger members while himself standing in some corner; after winning the World Cup, let Sachin have the moment without ever caring for the limelight; letting Virat score the winning runs after his hard work had brought India to the verge of victory; relinquishing captaincy midway in a series, when he thought Virat was ready for it- clearly indicates the gem of a person he has been. Before his debut, India were searching for a wicket keeper who could bat as well but additionally we got one of the greatest cricketers to have represented our country- one of the legends to have played the game of cricket.