Why is Mahendra Singh Dhoni taken to be the best captain in the history of Indian cricket? Vedam Jaishankar offers an explanation beyond plain numbers
In the furore over Ravi Shastri’s ranking of India’s cricket captains, one incontrovertible detail could not be missed: None cast aspersions on the choice of Mahendra Singh Dhoni as India’s greatest captain.
Shastri believed that there have been only four captains worth the while in the annals of Indian cricket. He hailed Dhoni, who had just stepped down as India’s limited overs skipper, as “the dada of all captains” and ranked Kapil Dev, Ajit Wadekar and Tiger Pataudi behind him. For what it was worth, Shastri added “after them there’s no one else.”
While sections of the media and critics claimed that this comment was a deliberate slight on Sourav Ganguly, others felt that the contributions of Mohammed Azharuddin, Sunil Gavaskar, besides others had been overlooked.
Pointedly though, none of the detractors contested Shastri’s decision to give pride of place to Dhoni who had led India to 27 Test wins, besides the World Cup triumph of 2011, the inaugural World T20 Championship crown in 2007 and the Champions Trophy title triumph in 2013. These apart, he had also piloted India to top ranking in Tests in 2009.
In short Dhoni had led India to title triumphs in every format of the game; Test, One Day Internationals and T20 and thereby indisputably towered over all incumbents.
The rise and triumph of Mahendra Singh Dhoni was literally the coming of age of small town India. Who could have imagined when he officiated as ticket-examiner in the Kharagpur Railway Station of West Bengal that this young lad from the cricketing boondocks of Ranchi would soon be acknowledged as someone with the god-given talent to excel in a sport that had captured the hearts of millions of Indians?
But that’s exactly what Dhoni accomplished. In a 9-year stint as captain of team India he achieved a cult status as Captain Cool; someone who could soak up all the pressure and still come up trumps against the odds.
Cricket experts had for long held the erudite, well-qualified (psychoanalyst and lecturer in philosophy), well-connected (through old school ties), Cambridge-educated former England captain Mike Brearley as the last word in cricket captaincy. Champion all rounder Ian Botham once described him as having “a degree in people”. Brearley had gone on to write an entire book on ‘The Art of Captaincy’.
Yet Brearley was not the captain that Dhoni was as he was inherently incapable of leading from the front. Dhoni scored over him because he could bat like a wizard and personally take the attack to the opposition. This was something that was beyond Brearley. He could never set an example.
On the other hand Dhoni had the gift and nothing brought this out better than the World Cup final in 2011when India, chasing 275 for a win had lost the wickets of stalwarts Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli with a mere 114 runs on the board. Dhoni promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, paced his innings superbly, before finishing at a blistering pace to remain unbeaten on 91 from 79 balls to guide the team home with wickets and deliveries to spare.
Few batsmen in world cricket could have played such an impactful innings at such a momentous occasion and the fact that Dhoni backed himself to do it and delivered speaks volumes of his extraordinary ability.
In essence Dhoni was an exceptional finisher. This was as much a tribute to his skill with the bat as it was to his ice-cool temperament.
Chasing is never an easy task in cricket. A batsman has two vicious opponents to take care of: the opposition consisting eleven players and the terrific pressure that goes with the task of chasing a target.
Now pressure does different things to different people. Some collapse under its weight and inexplicably become strokeless or leaden footed, neither of which helps the cause. Others lose judgement, either in choice of strokes or running between the wickets. Few actually regale in its scrutiny and rise up to the challenge. These chosen few are champions; ones blessed with a trait that helps retain focus, assess task and execute them, whether defending, stroking or running between the wickets.
In this regard Dhoni comes across as a veritable pressure junkie. He lives for it and thrives under its excruciating nature. His persona perceptibly expands when put under the cosh and it is the opposition that wilts in the face of his push-back.
Time after time, in Tests, ODIs, T20 matches Dhoni has played this role with unbelievable poise and efficiency that it is difficult to not appreciate the range and scope of his mental fortitude.
However, more than batting it is in leading the team that Dhoni’s matchless talent really comes to the fore. He offers an inscrutable front, even when his team is under a relentless attack. He looks calm and collected even when his bowlers are scattered to the wind and this in turn has a soothing effect on the team. Taking cue they don’t panic and instead rise to the challenge in stirring fashion.
Nothing brought this out better than in the inaugural World T20 Championship when with instinctive genius he picked Sehwag and Robin Uthappa, neither of whom had bowled in the actual match, to bowl in the shoot out against Pakistan. He chose them over regulars Sreesanth and Ajit Agarkar to the stunned surprise of cricket fans. Both Sehwag and Uthappa hit the stumps while Pakistan’s seasoned bowlers Umar Gul and Yasir Arafat missed. Dhoni’s seemingly reckless gamble with non-regular bowlers had paid off. India won the group game.
In hindsight it could be remarked that being non-regulars there was less pressure on them to deliver and hence they were relaxed and succeeded where the tense Pakistani regulars failed.
Later, in the final, when Pakistan needed 13 runs to win from the final over, Dhoni could have utilised either Harbhajan Singh or Yusuf Pathan. He opted instead for little-known greenhorn Joginder Sharma.
How or why he placed his trust on an untested bowler only Dhoni knows. Yet Joginder, who had never operated under such intense pressure, was called upon to bowl the last and most crucial over against arch-rivals Pakistan in a World Cup final.
Under the circumstances it was Misbah-ul-Haq who cracked under pressure. He was batting so superbly until then that he probably let down his guard when confronted with a Joginder Sharma. We’ll never know.
But the incident contributed to the spreading of the Dhoni legend. Thus when he came up with more of these startling moves there emerged a pattern, one that has established him as the most successful captain to have ever led India. May his tribe grow!