When India’s 5th wicket fell, in their first innings of the recently concluded 4th Test at Sydney, a strange, sinking feeling came over me. At 5 down, I was used to watching a burly, broad-shouldered man walk in with heavy footsteps make his way to the crease. Someone who had swagger in his movement and a hint of positive arrogance in his body language. Someone who took guard only because everyone in cricket does so, not because he felt the need for it. Inserting a large thumb between the grill and peak of his helmet to clean his eye, re-adjusting his glove straps after every delivery and wielding his bat like a mace – MS Dhoni.
But in walked the thin and diminutive form of Wriddhiman Saha – Dhoni’s replacement. A disappointed sigh was all I could muster as a reaction. I missed the sense of calm and the confidence that Dhoni brought with him. I missed that unspoken assurance that Dhoni gave – “Relax buddy, I am here. I got this.” I missed that flicker of hope I felt inside me when I knew Dhoni was yet to bat. And I realized this was the first of many such incidents to come. India being 5 wickets down in a Test match is now a situation that I will now probably detest for a long, long time.
While I was disturbed by Dhoni’s retirement, a noticeable percentage of fans were happy about it. As is the case with almost any cricketer that has ever played, Dhoni had his fair share of critics too. Just that, in my comparatively unqualified opinion, his critics have always been unfair to him, judging him selectively through convenient filters, rejoicing at his retirement, venting years of anger on social media and what not. That proved yet again that even being a youth icon, a cult hero and the nation’s most successful Captain across all 3 formats is not enough for you to be loved by everyone. India is that country, where everything short of laying down your life for the team is eligible for criticism. Ask Rahul Dravid.
No, I won’t be so biased and act so blind as to say that Dhoni was a great Test player. He was not even good, if you go by his personal stats and figures. He was just decent. With a batting average that was below average. But what he was, is stubborn and tough. His defense was impregnable unless the bowler was having a really great day. His grit unmatched. And it was this grit which bailed India out with a draw, when a loss seemed to be the most likely result, in several games.
He didn’t make many runs. But he would play those 100-odd balls which made all the difference between a loss and a draw, while wickets fell at the other end, and would see the team through or keep trying till the very end. One could count on him to stand tall and drop the anchor when the opposing bowlers were threatening to skittle out the batting line-up. Example being, his last match in Test cricket, vs. Australia, where he made a gritty 24 to avoid defeat. The Aussies settled for a draw before time.
Being the anchorman and savior was not Dhoni’s only contribution as a batsman. When the top and middle order had contributed a good amount of runs to the total, Dhoni would get in to wreak havoc. Scoring at a pace of almost a run-a-ball, he would accelerate the run-rate and accumulate runs quickly or to allow an early declaration.
His maiden Test fifty vs. Sri Lanka (off 51 deliveries), his maiden Test century in 93 balls (148-off-153 at Faisalabad, 2006), the 69-off-51 vs. West Indies (Antigua, 2006) and a mammoth 224 in 265 deliveries with 6 sixes, at a staggering strike-rate of 85 (vs. Australia, Chepauk 2013) are some examples of his quick-fire batting in Tests.
MS Dhoni also received a lot of flak for his defensive approach towards situations where victories were possible. He is accused of going for draws, instead of fighting for wins. But I choose to look at it differently. It was Sourav Ganguly’s dream to take India to the number 1 ranking in Tests and it was him who set the wheels of this quest in motion.
After Ganguly, Dravid and Kumble, when Dhoni eventually took over the reins of the Test team, India had persevered over the years to take a spot in the Top-3 rankings. It was absolutely necessary to tread carefully and make sure that there were no slip-ups in the remainder of the journey, which arguably was the most difficult part of it.
While wins give you points and draws more or less keep you in the same place, a loss is usually responsible for points being docked. So when one is chasing the number 1 spot, it does make sense to settle for a draw and maintain the current position, rather than go for a difficult win and end up losing, with lesser points than before. Believe it or not, those numerous, boring, grinding draws were infact responsible for India making it to the top-spot of the Test rankings at one point.
Despite being the undisputed, most successful Indian Test Captain, a lot of fingers are pointed at his woeful and abysmal Away record. While the Captain is, to a large extent, accountable for the multitude of overseas losses, it cannot be denied that with a better pace attack and more variety in the spin department, the numbers could have been different. Much different.
In the past, the Indian team boasted of bowlers like Venkatesh Prasad, Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, Lakshmipathy Balaji and Harbhajan Singh, to name a few, who returned good figures in overseas series, either in the form of wickets or economy or both.
But in the current crop of bowlers, it has been seen that with the exception of R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami, all others have only an average wicket/match ratio and an even less flattering economy in overseas Tests, as has been seen in the 2014-15 trip Down Under. So it beats me, as to how any Captain is expected to defeat mighty batting teams like Australia and South Africa with such a tame bowling attack. Indian batsmen have consistently performed and set up quite respectable totals but only to be let down by the bowlers who fail to defend them.
Liking or disliking a person is something which is a personal choice and everyone is entitled to their own. But I find it really stupid, to put it politely, when I see Dhoni termed as a “selfish” person. Common gist of some comments: “He isn’t doing well, the team isn’t doing well. But he’s still staying on…probably for the money, fame, stardom, yada yada…”. Seriously? Need I remind anyone that Dhoni had made it clear a number of times in the past that he was not as attached to the Test format as he was to ODIs or T20Is and that he would quit the moment an able successor was found?
He took the job, when Kumble retired, because the team did not have another leader in the ranks. Tendulkar and Dravid had rejected the Captaincy. The other choices were Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Harbhajan Singh. And where are they now? Exactly. Not even in the team. Their careers are in a downward spiral. Dhoni was the only one who could step up, hold the team together, march forward towards Dada’s dream and turn it into reality. And that he did.
December 2014 – MS Dhoni watched from the dressing room, out with an injury, as Virat Kohli led India into the first Test at Adelaide. The match progressed in such a way that at the start of Day 5, India were sent in for their 2nd innings with 363 runs to be chased – not impossible on Australian pitches, but a daunting total nevertheless. Opinions were divided on whether the target should be chased and if India would be better off playing for a draw.
With Kohli in charge, everyone was expecting an epic run-chase, and so it was. Virat Kohli led from the front and took the attack to the Aussies. He followed up his 115 from the first innings with a brilliant 141. But as is often the case with Indian batsmen who do well, the rest of the team fell like nine-pins (except Vijay, 99). The tail failed to hold on and score those 50 remaining runs that would have seen India through. The Test was lost, but India gained something – another Captain who was aggressive, led by example and who was obeyed. It was probably at that time when MS Dhoni decided to step down.
Dhoni returned for the 2nd and 3rd Tests, but with the series being 2-0 in Australia’s favor after 3 matches, he announced his retirement, in the middle of the series. People questioned his decision and criticized him for making Virat Kohli take over in a lost series.
But I think it made sense. Considering that officially Dhoni was the Captain for the first 3 Tests, the series loss would undoubtedly be attributed to Dhoni. Thus, Kohli would captain India in the 4th Test and irrespective of the result, would start off with a clean-slate whenever he plays the next series. This was probably Dhoni’s last act of protecting a teammate, in Tests.
MS Dhoni could have played another 10 Tests and get himself to a 100 Test caps, he could have held out for 124 more runs and crossed the 5000-run mark. Could have effected 6 more dismissals to his career tally to 300 (currently, 294). But he has never cared about records or personal glory. He would not be Dhoni if he had. Selfish? Not a bit of it. He’s the guy who collects the trophy from the presenters and hands it over to the youngsters in the team at the first opportunity. He is the guy who, unlike most Captains, stays in the shadows during team photographs, letting his younger mates take the limelight. He is someone who will bash his players for a poor performance but will protect them in front of the rest of the world. He brought the cricketing world to its knees and still remained ever so humble. Look at the way he left – in the middle of a series, without a huge press-conference or interview, no farewell games or other shenanigans. Sounds like a pretty cool and likeable guy to me.
No matter what his achievements are, no matter how good a person and a Captain he has been, Dhoni shall forever remain one of the most misunderstood cricketers ever. Someone who will never get his due, despite all he has given to the game and to the country. And that makes me sick. But on the other hand, the fact that no one is ever satisfied with him and expects more, is testimony to his greatness.
In our greed for more success, in our thirst for endless wins from him, we forgot one important thing – he too is human after all. I, for one, am glad that he no longer has to play a format he does not enjoy and that he left gracefully.
Ladies and Gentleman, presenting Mahendra Singh Dhoni – The Most Successful Indian Captain. EVER!