Kolkata: Is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, then, the greatest leader we had and how did he transform the game he lorded over for a decade and-a-half? The question now begs to be answered as he announced his retirement from international cricket last Saturday.
It was the last over of a humdinger. India and Pakistan had given it their all but after 39 overs, there was nothing to separate the two sides. If anything, Pakistan with Misbah-ul Haq at the crease were favourites to win the inaugural T-20 World Cup. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the newly appointed Indian captain for the tournament, stunned all by throwing the ball to an unfancied Joginder Sharma.
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Running up to Joginder, Dhoni said a few words before running back to take his position behind the stumps. Sharma, inspired by the faith reposed in him, produced the over of his life and Dhoni, the man with the Midas touch, had lifted himself to Indian cricket’s folklore. India were World T-20 champions against all odds and the long-haired Dhoni was Indian cricket’s new pin-up star.
Unruffled under pressure and with an uncanny ability to finish a match from any situation, he soon became India’s go-to man in white ball cricket. Winning the Commonwealth Bank series in Australia against a very strong Australian side in 2008, Dhoni had started to raise the bar and things had started to change in Indian cricket under him.
Commanding respect and loyalty from within the team, he was soon the undisputed leader that Sourav Ganguly once was. Only his record in the shorter format was better and it became unsurpassable when he won the 2011 World Cup on homesoil. Despite a poor tournament, he had the heart to push himself up the order in a pressure cooker final and played a real blinder when India needed him the most.
When he hit that final six out of the park, Dhoni knew he had elevated himself to a pedestal few would be able to match. But the surprise had not ended. Shaving his head the first thing next morning, Dhoni turned himself into India’s most loved picture postcard with World Cup in hand and that amiable smile to woo millions of fans. The Dhoni fairytale had reached the halfway mark.
After losing the plot in England and Australia in 2011-12, many had started to doubt Dhoni the skipper. As Test skipper, I will argue that Sourav Ganguly was better. The defeats to England and Australia exposed some chinks in Dhoni’s armour, who often seemed to falter in the five-day format and was allowing Test matches to drift.
Under Ganguly, India had broken new ground in Test cricket. Be it winning the toss and batting on a green top at Headingley in 2002 because he was playing two spinners to leading from the front by scoring a majestic 144 at the Gabba in 2003-4 or beating Pakistan in Pakistan for the first time in 2004, ‘Dada’ did to Test cricket what Dhoni did to the white ball format. Taught India how to win - and more so overseas.
That’s why India managed to draw against England in England, almost beat Australia Down Under and beat Pakistan in their backyard under him. Nurturing young talents including Dhoni, Ganguly laid the foundation of a Test team that eventually scaled the peak under Dhoni to become the No.1 team in the world in 2009. The expectations from Dhoni was to better overseas. While he won the ICC Champions Trophy in England he was unable to replicate the performance in Tests. When we compare these two with other Indian captains, it has to be said that they tower over the Indian cricket pantheon like a colossus with none other coming even close. Time will only tell if Virat Kohli manages to raise the bar and win the World Test Championship - following up on his act of beating Australia in Australia.
The white ball format was more the cup of tea for Dhoni and with the 2013 Champions Trophy in England - he completed a treble which no captain in the world had ever achieved.
Dhoni leaves behind a legacy in the shorter formats that will be difficult to match. With a staggering average of 50-plus as skipper, Dhoni will forever be remembered as one of India’s best limited overs captains, if not the best. One of the best finishers of the modern game, he took over at a time when none of the stalwarts wanted to lead the team in the inaugural World T-20 in South Africa. Winning India the cup from nowhere, he established himself as a key figure in Indian and world cricket.
What will be his most enduring legacy? Will be the 100-plus ODI wins or the many titles he won as captain? Or will it be his composure as skipper?
For me, it will be his eyes that followed the ball across the Wankhede boundary after a trademark Dhoni strike in winning the World Cup. He had fulfilled his own ambition and in doing so, had given a billion plus people a whole new song to sing. And the fact that he followed the ball over the boundary with that incredible expression in his eyes has added that much more to the Mahi legend - it was a release shot. Of pressure, of verve and more a statement.
Dhoni was the boss and he forced the world to acknowledge the same. It was his date with destiny and the birth of ‘Dhoni the superbrand.’ That a man from a relatively modest background can turn world cricket upside down is surely the stuff of legend.
With him deciding to play on in the IPL, there’s more that will be added to this already outstanding legacy. We will consume him each time he is out there and that’s something each one of us are waiting to do.
For the moment, though, many congrats skipper. Very well played ‘MSD’.
- The author is sports journalist and scholar based in India
Top five occasions which showed why Dhoni is Captain Cool
2007 World T20 final
With the seniors rested and under a new captain, no one really gave India a chance in a format which was new to them. India under Dhoni with the long hair then proved critics wrong with spectacular wins over England, South Africa and Australia to reach the final where arch-rivals Pakistan awaited them.
It was a nerve-wracking summit clash and came down to Pakistan needing 13 runs from the final over. Of all people, Dhoni handed the ball to Joginder Sharma raising quite a few eyebrows.
Joginder was hit for a six by Pakistan skipper Misbah-ul-Haq in the second ball of the 20th over but what happened in the next ball will be remembered forever. Misbah went for a needless scoop shot over short fine leg but could only manage to find S. Sreesanth who took an easy catch and helped India win by 5 runs in the inaugural ICC World T20.
2011 World Cup final
Yuvraj Singh’s all-round brilliance had helped India reach the final on homesoil. India had the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag opening the batting but chasing a challenging 275 for victory in the final against Sri Lanka at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, India lost both iconic openers inside 31 runs. Gautam Gambhir came out at No. 3 and batted brilliantly for his 97 but it was Dhoni’s masterstroke to push himself up the order ahead of in-form Yuvraj which did the trick for India.
The Ranchi dasher smashed an unforgettable 91 off 79 balls, including the winning six off Nuwan Kulasekara in the 49th over, to lead India to a second World Cup crown. It was exceptional from Dhoni both in the mind and with the bat.
2013 Champions Trophy - Asking Rohit Sharma to open
Rohit Sharma has said time and again that Dhoni gave a new lease of life to his ODI career by asking him to open the batting in the format before the 2013 Champions Trophy in England. Since opening the batting, Rohit has scaled heights and can now be termed as one of the best opening batsman in the game after his superlative performance in the 2019 World Cup where he not only finished as the highest run getter but also scored a record five centuries.
Rohit, earlier in 2019, became the fastest to 6,000 runs as an opener in ODI cricket and now has 6,691 runs in 130 innings opening the batting.
2013 Champions Trophy - Handing Ishant Sharma the ball
A defining moment came in the rain-affected final of the Champions Trophy in Birmingham where Dhoni asked Ishant Sharma, who had been expensive before that, to bowl the 18th over. The tall pacer snared two wickets in two balls to break Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara’s 64-run stand and eventually helped India win the game and the coveted trophy.
2016 World T20
It was not a tournament where India ended as champions, losing to West Indies in the semi-finals. However, in his last ICC event as skipper, Dhoni was brilliant once again in leading the side and India’s one-run win over Bangladesh had a lot of Dhoni moments which will be remembered forever.
Hardik Pandya took three wickets off the last three balls as Bangladesh needed 11 runs in the final over, chasing 147 for victory. Dhoni’s unbelievable stumping to remove Sabbir Rahman and his field placements in the final over and a run-out off the last ball were the highlights.