Wednesday was a good day for Indian cricket. After abject surrender in the T20 series and coming very close only to falter at the last step in the first One Day International, India have finally managed to defeat South Africa. But it almost didn’t happen. That it did, was pretty much down to one man – M S Dhoni.
Over the past couple of years or so, Dhoni’s aura seems eroded. There are now far more critics, who insist that his time is done and that in his current avatar he is a liability. More than ever perhaps, Dhoni also seems to have lost some of his former equanimity. There is the occasional tetchy response at a press conference, the never seen before air of resignation at being questioned and more than ever a sense of alienation from proceedings that wasn’t there before.
Many years ago, William Butler Yeats miffed with his muse Maud Gonne wrote this for her –
“There is grey in your hair. Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing; But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer, recovered him upon the bed of death.”
And that is where Dhoni finds himself today. It is tempting to picture the Indian fan as Yeats (minus the erudition) and Dhoni as Maud Gonne. Of the Indian fan as jilted lover and Dhoni as their once beloved muse who inspired much greatness and adulation, was responsible for some of the finest hours they would experience, but today is reviled and revered in equal measure. Is Dhoni the Dark Knight who wants to die a hero but instead has lived longer and become the villain instead? It is interesting to note how we got here.
Dhoni burst on to the scene in 2005. For fans still recovering from Cronje-gate, it was a good time to be a fan. India had a new captain who was brash, aggressive and took no prisoners. The team had started winning tests abroad without really closing out series wins, and reached the finals of the World Cup. No matter what people thought, it was a start. Or so it seemed. Dhoni made his way into the team in this set up. In many ways, his was a fairy tale story. Small town boy, unconventional in everything, from his technique to his looks to his sense of sureness about where he was and that he belonged. Everyone who saw him and knew him- recognized this was something special. That he was the real McCoy.
Then Greg Chappell happened. New fault lines were drawn. The World Cup of 2007 was a disaster. In all its infinite wisdom, the board decided that first Ganguly, then Chappell had to go. And on the horizon was a new beast- A World Cup for T20 in South Africa. With the seniors not making themselves available – whether in protest or under duress, we will never know – almost inevitably the powers that be turned to Dhoni. To many it seemed destined that he would lead and it was only a matter of time. And lead he did. Starting from that bowl-out against Pakistan all the way up to that final mistimed hoick by Misbah- Dhoni led. He was involved from start to finish. He backed himself. He backed Yuvraj. He backed Sreesanth. He backed Sehwag. He backed Gambhir. He even backed Joginder Sharma.
India won a World Cup and for once it seemed like India had a captain who knew how to get the best out of his players and to take them the distance.
What followed next is out in the open for everyone to dissect. For a few years, not a foot was set wrong. India won the CB Series, won tests abroad and soon enough Dhoni was captain of India in all formats. The IPL was born. Jharkhand’s favourite son soon became Chennai’s pride and joy. And there was success after success culminating in the World Cup win of 2011 with the image of a gladiatorial Dhoni smashing Kulasekara out of the Wankhede guaranteeing him a place in cricketing immortality. The legend of the finisher, someone who was capable of snatching improbable victory from the jaws of defeat was bolstered, embellished and perfected.
Somewhere soon after that it all started to go terribly wrong, at least in whites. England came to India and beat them. Legends retired. An almost sad regression to the state where India couldn’t win a test abroad – multiple whitewashes, a sheer inability of the Test team to do basic things right and a couple of years of struggle as the team was slowly being rebuilt. Midway through a tour, Dhoni gave up the test captaincy. Took a team of also rans to the World Cup semis and came back and got walloped by Bangladesh and Mustafizur Rahim. Eventually running into a marauding South Africa. All of which brings us back to Wednesday and that second one-day match.
And while enough people have listed results and debated tactics over the past few years it might perhaps be more instructive to try and fathom what it is that has changed.
One thing has always been certain, that Dhoni’s captaincy was very much an extension of Dhoni the player. Paradoxical in its very nature. There were some things that were very obvious to you right away, but there were some things that you just couldn’t fathom. For one there was his enviable almost Zen approach to the game. There was also a tremendous clarity of thought that bordered on an obsession to keep things simple and not overthinking the game but just going out and supporting a team to execute that. More often than not, when others failed, he took it upon himself to finish the job and delivered. As much as Dhoni backed himself, he backed others.
They say great generals are different from good general in one thing, they manufacture their own luck. By seeing a little bit further ahead than their opponent does, they create opportunity. To outsiders observing it, this seems like good fortune but the general knows that this luck was created. Dhoni almost unfailingly was, and even today to a certain degree, still is that general. His obsession with all things military betrayed only by the camouflage pattern on his wicket keeping gloves.
And it is perhaps this general like quality of making things happen that also invited some early critics to label him ‘a lucky captain’ and his luck would run out soon. They didn’t understand that to take those kind of punts requires something special. Whether it was tossing the ball to Joginder Sharma twice in a row to bowl a last over, whether it was coaxing the performances of a lifetime out of Yuvraj Singh at the World Cup or whether it was promoting himself over the same in form Yuvraj in arguably the biggest match of his (or anyone’s career). Dhoni delivered time after time.
But all of the above was always true only in the first phase of the Dhoni captaincy – where Dhoni the skipper was consistently the mirror of Dhoni the player and therefore tremendously successful and almost Midas-like.
The second phase (leading up to today) is where the extent of this overlap has lessened significantly. Thus while most of these things are true from time to time, they aren’t all the time. That is a tough transition to make. It is a transition that has required him to tweak multiple things in his own game for the good of the team. To turn himself from Dhoni the finisher to a seemingly confused Dhoni who wasn’t quite sure what he was – sheet anchor, dasher, bedrock or finisher. Which is not to say that he didn’t change his game in the earlier part of his career. Just that the changes in the first phase were more measured and those now are more abrupt. Forced upon him even by events not fully in his control – retirements, scheduling woes, a new coach whose personality possibly didn’t gel with him as much as that of his predecessor, replacements of a markedly poorer standard and above all an ever increasing dependence on him and the consequent loss of the luxury of being able to delegate.
And thus there was Captain Dhoni 2.0 where the demarcation between Dhoni the player and Dhoni the captain became more pronounced. A compartmentalization that seemed to have slightly cluttered a once clear mind. Made him just a wee bit more cynical. Prone to talking himself and his team down. Slightly more world weary. Prematurely graying and having lost that trademark sense of abandon he brought. Forced by circumstances to transition from a leader who always had the game by the scruff of the neck to one who allowed games to drift especially in the longer format. The Zen calm being replaced by an almost apathetic boredom. This was the skipper who set 8-1 fields, dropped third man back and allowed easy singles and session after session of cautious resignation. The transition from being a skipper who made things happen to one who waited for things to happen.
In the middle of all this, Dhoni is still capable of pulling the odd rabbit out of the hat and showing glimpses of old, as he did, last Wednesday. The Champions Trophy win in England. His superb handling of Ashwin at the most recent World T20 and most recently coaxing a reluctant Ishant Sharma into bowling bouncers, fashioning the win at Lords just over a year ago. Equally, he has been culpable of some grave sins. Like leaving things too late without realizing that he did not have the same power hitters at one end. Denying specialist batsmen the strike and not finishing games. Persisting for seemingly far too long with certain players. Yin and yang, his fortunes as captain and therefore by extension the fortunes of the Indian cricket team have yo-yoed far too often for anyone’s liking.
While in the short forms of the game, Dhoni has continued to be successful by most yardsticks, his long form captaincy has been crippled by some form of ADHD and been somewhat atypical. The end result is that the numbers will judge him harshly and the critics already have. But to quote the old proverb, you can’t make silk purses out of sow’s ears and in hindsight one is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The immediate question that arises of course is what the inflection point is where this separation became apparent. Like many other things ‘Dhoni’ – we may never know and we can only speculate. It is likely that it wasn’t just restricted to events on the field. And that means going out on a limb and mentioning the elephant in the room – uttering the words IPL, Lodha, Mudgal and even N. Srinivasan.
As an outsider, I really cannot be certain if it was Dhoni who hitched himself to Srinivasan’s coat tails or if it was the other way around. Even insiders can’t. What is certain is that it happened and it has had its ramifications. It is an association that has certainly taken some of the sheen off Dhoni. Other’s ‘conflicts of interest’ seem not to have created any ‘conflicts of self’ in Dhoni’s mind. Where it would have possibly broken others, the impact on him has been fairly minimal. It is also equally tempting to assume that he doesn’t really care and that his measured silence on these issues is merely a reflection of that nonchalance.
What is certain is that for an outward looking culture like ours, we demand that our heroes be capable of levels of probity that we are incapable of. And none more so than our cricketing captains. I suspect that when captaincy announcements are made, a parallel market in effigies for burning gets set up as well. Being captain of India isn’t easy, being captain of India across all the formats is harder still. Being captain of India and Chennai is possibly the hardest of them all. It is the equivalent of lying on a bed of arrows like Bheeshma– talking of dharma to an audience who doesn’t listen. It is a job that offers little peace of mind – in good times as well as bad. It is a job that kills you by extremes – either of adulation or of disdain. The fact remains that it is a part that Dhoni has played for far longer than most men have and a burden that he has borne relatively well.
What is also telling is the marked difference that the changes of the years have had on Dhoni’s man-management skills. Dhoni always has and still backs his men. He was never a skipper that went and put his arm around the bowler and had long discussions with him. He was the skipper who took detachment to almost manic levels and yet, every man on the ground knew with absolute certainty that he was Dhoni’s man. Today he seems to have transmitted some of his own uncertainty and cynicism to his team.
And the biggest tell of that is how Dhoni deals with the media now and how the media deals with him. There are more questions being asked of him on team composition – on the logic behind certain inclusions and exclusions. That never happened before. To a very large extent, it has little to do with Dhoni and much to do with how badly we seem to be managing our players. But it is there. The Dhoni of old was characterized by the use of the paternalistic “we” in his interactions with the press. Not so much now. Occasionally now he lapses into ‘him’ or ‘them’. Most memorably at the IPL semi-final, there was an uncharacteristic barb aimed at ‘senior players’. No names were taken but everyone knew who he meant. The Dhoni of old press conferences was characterized by his focus on execution. The new Dhoni speaks of process and more fuzzy things.
The first Dhoni era was all about partnerships – Dhoni and Gambhir. Dhoni and Sehwag. Dhoni and Yuvraj. Dhoni and Bhajji. Dhoni and Zak. Some of these have ended in tears. The ‘ands’ have given way to ‘versus’. Publicly, bitterly and acrimoniously. Others are hidden. In days when things went well, there was no reason to question the wisdom of his approach. And to assume he knew what he was doing. Gradually over the years even as the newer crop of players he continues to back (sometimes inexplicably) are targets, Dhoni has become collateral damage and even fair game.
And over the past few months perhaps prompted by the dramatic retirement from Test Cricket, there has been another Ekta Kapoor-esque addition – Dhoni vs Virat. It is a very nice script – ruler whose powers are waning being challenged by young upstart. Words like ideology, aggression are very easily being thrown around. One wonders what Dhoni thinks of all of this? What was the thought process that triggered the retirement mid-series? And this is where the Dhoni paradox rears its head again. We will never know.
But you can rest assured that Dhoni wouldn’t have quit unless he was absolutely certain that it was the right thing to do. Conviction is fairly common. The ability to live with the consequences of decisions made with flawed convictions is rare. Dhoni possesses both things in good measure and that perhaps is what makes him special.
There are two things that the first two one-day matches of this series have taught us. The first taught us that Dhoni still has the ability to draw games close. It was perhaps a reminder that he was a little more fallible than he has been in the past. But then the second taught us that it was still possible for him to do this on his own. Maybe not as frequently and with unfailing regularity like before. Something that he himself is a lot more aware of and affected by. Hence the barb about people waiting with “open swords, wanting you to make mistakes” The Dhoni of old would have merely shrugged it off. This M S Dhoni won’t. And that is no bad thing either.
For children of the 90s, Sachin being dismissed meant you switched off your television sets. For children from 2005 and beyond, as long as Dhoni was there it meant you kept your TV sets on – because you knew something had to give. There is no more illustrative contrast to show what the impact of M S Dhoni has been. It is sad that we are by nature churlish. That we tend to make our heroes an outlet for our own frustrations. And that more often than not we are hypocritical in that we justify our failures through fate and circumstance but hold our heroes accountable for things they cannot control.
When it comes to MSD there are many things we will never know. What one does know for certain is that there are still a few more chapters to be written in this story.
Because Dhoni in his sporting twilight is a fair embodiment of Tennyson’s Ulysses. To some a hero and yet to others reckless and flawed. Jaded from his travels and conquests yet paradoxically restless and reminding himself and others –
“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
This piece owes a profound debt to two other pieces of writing and I would like to thank the people who wrote them
- Sid Monga for his excellent ‘The Star we don’t know’ published more than a year ago in the Cricket Monthly. I have been thinking about writing about M S Dhoni and his captaincy since I first read this piece and I have only gotten around to doing it now.
- T M Krishna for the title of the article – taken shamelessly from his profile of M S Subbulakshmi featured in the Caravan recently.