EndGame Dhoni?

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EndGame Dhoni?

Sunday, 21 July 2019 | Akshay Lokapally

EndGame Dhoni?

As the man who changed the fate of Indian cricket as its captain, won the three most prestigious ICC trophies, Mahendra Singh Dhoni deserves accolades for his valuable contribution to the success of Indian cricket, writes Akshay Lokapally

India is close to its cherished destination, the World Cup final. It has been an arduous journey, a fortuitous one too, given the demise of cricketing standards of some of its opponents. Tasked with a chase to scale only an average total for a one-day international match, its hopes are high. But the dream comes crashing down with a flurry of wickets. At that moment, hope shows up in the form of a man, who has proved his mettle from time to time. Famously known for his cool temperament, Mahendra Singh Dhoni steps onto the field. The dying hope is revived to its prepubescent stage and the belief in victory is further fortified on seeing his conviction, in the form of batting.

He starts slow, as all previous batsmen did, since that’s what the pitch permitted them to do. He ensures he is defensive, is keeping the gap between the balls and the chase narrow and is providing support and confidence to Ravindra Jadeja, his dominant partner at the other end. The match is coming to a close, the two batsmen having kept the aforementioned gap almost the same. It will be a perfect ending to a fantastic cricketing career. Last few balls remain, Dhoni plays and goes for a single, seeks a second to retain strike. Martin Guptill appears out of nowhere, picks the ball and makes an attempt at the stumps. Serendipity too was running right behind Guptill. The stumps shake and Indian hearts break. Technology is summoned and very soon the umpire makes his decision. Dhoni is out. Everyone is put out of their respective misery.

Dhoni did what he was supposed to and did it well. He gave it all. His final World Cup match and his score too remain complete, exactly at 50.

In hindsight, to think of the match, it is obviously saddening to recall the loss. And the irony in this episode gets unwittingly highlighted, that one of the best runners between the wickets, gets run-out in his final innings. It also evokes the memory of how Javed Miandad, the Pakistani giant known for his batting style and running between the wickets, was also dismissed by a run-out in his last innings on the pitch.

The one thing this match did was that it has put Dhoni back into the limelight. Not that he was given any less importance by the media and his fans before, but the last game has put his character into a better perspective. The Dhoni we had come to admire was ruling the stage once again. “Dhoni, Dhoni” the chants reverberated. It was like the good old times when the long-haired Dhoni tore the opponents apart with an authority rarely witnessed in Indian cricket.

Did Dhoni fall short of his benchmark? The fans did not think so. There was massive support for Mahi, the man who helped Indian cricket gain respect from the time he led the team. The clamour in the media for his retirement is baffling indeed. Former players, without exception, have backed the idea that Dhoni should be extended the privilege of choosing the time and place of his retirement. He is a colossus who has earned his reputation with some mind-blowing performances. The most notable being the decision to promote himself in the batting order to win the 2011 World Cup final. The image of Dhoni smashing Nuwan Kulasekara for a six is etched in gold.

Hailing from a small town, Dhoni serves as a living embodiment of resolve. Ranchi, epitomising the saying ‘humble background’, did not have many facilities to help youngsters realise their dream of becoming a cricketer, let alone rise to be the captain of the national team. But it is this same town that will go on to be known famously as the birth place of this prominent cricket personality, who traversed miles to attain his goals.

Initially having started with badminton and then moving onto football, Dhoni finally settled for cricket. The adeptness and swiftness that we see in Dhoni behind the stumps, first incarnated while he was goalkeeping in football. His then football coach felt his goalkeeping skills would be better recognised if he put on the gloves of a wicket-keeper. This was the very beginning of the life of an icon.

His hard work and dedication are what embellish his character. His struggle to avail all the opportunities that he received just made him more tenacious. He didn’t enjoy the advantages of playing in a big city but was persistent to prove his worth versus those who had money to enjoy better facilities. This was never with a bitter heart, but this attitude fuelled his ambition and momentum to move ahead. He was known to run after coaches and coax them into giving him chances to play matches. A number of them didn’t pay him attention that time, but later tried to hoard limelight upon his success. But that does not mean he didn’t receive support at different stages of his career. In fact, there are people who have proven to be instrumental in conferring support at critical moments in his life.

When Dhoni was only 15, lack of quality equipment came in the way of his growth and ability to exhibit his hidden talent. This was the time when one of his good friends Paramjit Singh, with whom Dhoni enjoyed gully cricket, went out of the way to ensure that the absence of a bat or pads, need not be the reason for his friend’s disappointment. Paramjit happened to be the owner of a small sports equipment shop. He was almost the same age as Dhoni, only slightly older. Singh aimed high with the intention of seeing Dhoni succeed and reached out to the famous bat making company, BAS. Abject frustration at failures combined with persistent effort eventually resulted in the company offering entire kit to Dhoni for free. His talent and inevitable success had been felt. Of course, Paramjit had to pay a small cost, the courier charges and lifelong memories of unconditional support of a dear friend. Dhoni’s gratitude to BAS could be seen at the 2019 World Cup when he honoured their support by displaying the company’s sticker on the bat.

Another example of the push that Dhoni received is of Deval Sahay. He was the ex-Bihar Cricket Association vice-president and the Ranchi District Cricket president at that time and it were his efforts that helped Dhoni reach the big stage of Ranchi team, junior Bihar cricket team and eventually the Bihar Ranji Team. All of this happened within a span of a year since Dhoni had started playing professional Cricket.

To shed more light upon Dhoni’s rigorous toil, he was employed with the Indian Railways and used to work as a ticket examiner in one of the shifts —  to see through the work, cook food for himself and then create time for practice was his taxing routine. His commendable fitness at the age 38 that we acknowledge today combined with his quick thinking behind the stumps, has a history. He was known to practice for almost seven hours in a day. The bolt like movement when stumping has had a stunning effect on the best of batsmen around the world.

His hard work also made him the competitive sportsman that he is, or perhaps it was always there. It just needed the spark to be let loose. Whatever sport Dhoni made himself a part of, and those that became a part of him, always saw him giving his complete. He is performance driven and just wants to win, and often wins too. This also shows in his big hits. People who saw him in his initial days, only knew him as a big hitter. He would be invited for dinners and lunches to honour his battering shots. It would have been hard to say if time made him the “finisher” that he is or if he always intended to be one. But he soon learned to set his instincts and the urge to win in an equilibrium. He developed the art of “stay and play” and developed the art of shocking his opponent with an occasional hit.

There was something about the muscular hitter. The local bowlers dreaded him. Many years later the international attacks came to accept him as a tough batsman to bowl to. His batting was unfettered. Indian fans had come to enjoy the brand of batsmanship best demonstrated by players like Kapil Dev, K. Srikkanth and Virender Sehwag. They were entertainers, bringing joy with their style — relevant to modern cricket where performance was critical to retaining the interest of the spectators.

He has helped in changing the mindset of Indian cricket. He brought with him an aggressive side of the game which makes the youngsters look up to him. Self-belief is a much-used cliché but Dhoni taught Indian cricket this aspect of sport. Performance, not reputation, mattered most. We can see it in the success that Chennai Super Kings have achieved in the Indian Premier League.

Dhoni was one batsman who ensured Indian cricket did not lose its fan base. The common man identified himself with his success. Dhoni reflected the dreams of the rustic and the polished. His raw instincts to punish the ball, hit it into the orbit literally, was appreciated universally. His first big fan was the Australian great Greg Chappell. According to Kiran More, a former chairman of the national selection committee, it was the Australian great Greg Chappell’s vision that helped India identify Dhoni’s potential as a future captain. “Your future captain,” Chappell said. How right he was!

Dhoni’s adaptability is also a characteristic that his team-mates admire and learn from. It can be seen in many shades. His sports teacher, Moti Prasad, recalls Dhoni as an opener for the school team and he has played as a No. 10 batsman in a Vinoo Mankad Trophy match. Those are two opposite ends of the batting spectrum. One slogs to create a formidable target and the other tries to save his team when ironically the target gets difficult for them. We have seen Dhoni play both roles.

His flamboyance in limited overs is replaced by his patience play in Test matches before he quit the longest format of the game to preserve himself. Off the field too, Dhoni is adjusting. During his early days he used to stay in a dingy room that was to be shared with his roommate. Recently, he was photographed sleeping on the floor of an airport when the flight got delayed. These occasions often tacitly show that he doesn’t need a lavish bed.

His decision to hand Joginder Sharma the ball for the last over of 2007 ICC T20 World Cup final against Pakistan reflected his astounding reading of the game. India won the first T20 World Cup and Dhoni’s tactical move was going to be remembered for a long time. His faith in small-town cricketers excelling was the compelling factor for Joginder being handed that responsibility. For this very reason Dhoni had groomed players like RP Singh, Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Praveen Kumar, and many more.

His reading of the game is astute and his on-field inputs have proven invaluable to captain Virat Kohli. Setting the field, guiding the bowlers, Dhoni is a leader. His selflessness is obvious to all. After completing his tenure as a captain, he maintained his position in the team with his irreplaceable role of an experienced strategist.

The Zen of Indian cricket, for his calm demeanour even in crisis situations, is a human after all and we saw that towards the end of his career when he trooped on to the field and argued with the umpires during an IPL match. This was not the Dhoni we had known. As an honorary Lt. Col in the Parachute Regiment of the Territorial Army, we saw him wear gloves to express his nationalism and spend time with the soldiers to boost their spirits. The Dhoni we have known.

At the most challenging crossroads of his career, Dhoni faces the dilemma of when to quit. Should he make the decision or wait for the selectors to take the call? In the absence of any retirement scheme from the BCCI, the cricket fraternity waits anxiously. One should not be surprised if he is ‘rested’ for India’s immediate assignments in the US and the West Indies but given his contribution to Indian cricket, Dhoni deserves a fitting farewell.

Dhoni, having commanded the respect of seniors like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag, has risen in stature as one of the greats of the game. He catches your eye as a sprinter between the wickets but his career resembles that of a marathoner — unflinching endurance and commitment. It is going to be hard to find his replacement, on the field and in our hearts. Whichever journey he takes from here on, his well-wishers, like you and me, will always cherish him.

Fact Check

  • On defeating England in the final of the 2013 Champions Trophy in England, Dhoni became the first captain to win all three ICC limited-overs trophies, namely, World Cup, Champions Trophy and the Twenty20 World Cup.
  • Out of 51 times that India has chased, Dhoni has been at the crease on 47 occasions when the team won.
  • A rare cricketer who has not played for his state (Jharkhand) after making his Test debut in December 2005. His last Ranji match was against Haryana in March 2005.
  • Has led India in most number of Test matches (60)

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