It’s absolutely churlish, and also a little naïve, to suggest that Mahendra Singh Dhoni never took his Test cricket seriously. Those who watch him from afar are proponents of this idea. There’s a deliberate mischief in running down a performer who played 90 Test matches (4,876 runs at 38.09; 256 catches, 38 stumpings) for his country and led in 60 of them.
Dhoni was never a great Test captain despite the fact that India became the number one team in the world under him. Their stay atop the ICC Test rankings was short-lived. India went downhill as the legends started to hang up their boots with the youngsters arriving to replace the irreplaceables. The team underwent an enforced period of transition and they failed to deal with it, losing 15 overseas Tests in the last four years. Dismal by any standards. Far too often, India suffered for Dhoni’s reactive style of captaincy. Yes, his bowlers let him down badly, but a little bit of aggression and proactivity might have helped.
Dhoni as a Test captain has been done and dusted with. He retired from the longer format mid-tour Down Under. This column intends to celebrate his career as a limited-overs custodian.
One-day internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20s are his favourite domains. He has created his own manual, becoming India’s best ever in the process.
Numbers are staggering. On Thursday, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), he took India to 100 ODI wins under his charge, an unbelievable achievement. Only Ricky Ponting and Allan Border are ahead of him with 165 (230 ODIs as captain) and 107 (178 ODIs as captain) victories, respectively. Taming Bangladesh took India’s successful run to seven matches in a row in this World Cup. It also secured the 11th consecutive win in the tournament starting from 2011. This is the second-longest winning streak after Australia’s 25-game run between 1999 and 2011. Those Australian sides had match-winners aplenty, giants of the game. Dhoni is working with a bunch of youngsters hungry for success.
Remember how this Indian team had been ridiculed after they lost the Test series in Australia 2-0 and failed to log a single victory in the tri-series before the World Cup? Typical of him, Dhoni absorbed all criticisms with a straight face, making a vow to come back strong in the World Cup. He was quietly preparing for the big event and wanted all his players to be in top shape. “To carry momentum into the World Cup is very crucial, but, more importantly, we need all the 15 guys in the squad to be fit. In this tournament, not all were fit,” he had said after an early exit from the tri-series. And as the mega show arrived, he transformed India into a world-beating unit. Dhoni himself regained his leadership mojo.
This is the beauty of his limited-overs captaincy. He always rises to the occasion and seldom falters at world events. He’s the only captain to win all three ICC events—World T20 in South Africa in 2007, World Cup at home in 2011 and then the Champions Trophy in England in 2013. India now have a fantastic opportunity to defend their title. But even if that doesn’t happen, every fan can take pride in the team’s performance—a golden run to the semi-final, 70 wickets taken.
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell has compared this transformation with a ‘giant grizzly’. “A big part of India’s turnaround from a bunch of straggling individuals to an aggressive and consistent combination has to do with Dhoni’s leadership. In the Test series against Australia, he performed like a bear hibernating in winter. However, the advent of the World Cup has turned him into a giant grizzly ready to pounce on opponents as though they are salmon heading upstream,” he wrote in his Cricinfo column. Based on his conversation with an “Indian journalist workmate”, Chappell concluded that Dhoni’s leadership becomes “vibrant” in world events because “he’s acutely aware of his commercial image”.
Indeed, there’s no better way to become an icon in Indian cricket than to lead the team to World Cup glories. Dhoni has won everything that the game can offer. He will become a demi-god if he wins this one.
But there’s something more to Dhoni’s contribution as a captain than just winning trophies. He has ushered in the ‘team’ concept. For far too long, Indian cricket had revelled in individual achievements. A 150-ball 100, opening the innings, received the superlatives, while a game-changing 15-ball 35 at the death got little mention. We thrived on star worship.
Dhoni’s India doesn’t have big stars—except for the captain himself and Virat Kohli—but the team has players who are always ready to stand up to be counted from Shikhar Dhawan to Mohammed Shami. There’s no senior-junior divide here. Suresh Raina can safely give his skipper a ‘cheeky pull’ after a diving one-handed catch to the leg side.
Dhoni has built this team and a super-cool atmosphere. He had to take some tough decisions along the way. He dealt remarkably well with the big egos, making them understand that past performances count for nothing. It’s the present that matters.
“Not many players from our side are in the top run-scorers list, but the batting has performed. Bowling teams out was an area we wanted to improve…” Dhoni said at the post-match presentation at the MCG. His India have embraced team effort.