For those who grew up reading about the Sunil Gavaskar-Kapil Dev off-the-field rivalry, India captaincy always felt like a position of power struggle. The set-up was amateurish in the 1980s. With time, as it became more professional, washing dirty linen got adequate cover-up, but, from Mohammad Azharuddin to Sachin Tendulkar, Tendulkar to Sourav Ganguly and Ganguly to Rahul Dravid, transitions seldom acquired smoothness. Mahendra Singh Dhoni receiving glowing tributes from his peers and erstwhile teammates upon relinquishing the limited-overs captaincy has had a touch of novelty.
Here’s a collection of some tweets: “Thanks for always being the leader a youngster wants to have around him. You’ll always be my captain @msdhoni Bhai,” posted Virat Kohli, Dhoni’s successor. “A true leader @msdhoni he influenced so many cricketing careers including mine when he asked me to open in the ICC Champions Trophy,” said Rohit Sharma. “Have seen him emerge from an aggressive player to a steady and decisive captain. It’s a day to celebrate his successful captaincy and respect his decision,” Tendulkar wrote on his Twitter handle. The accolades confirmed Dhoni’s impact as a leader. But more importantly, the unabashed praise attested his qualities as a fantastic human being.
Just three words to chief selector MSK Prasad and a nine-year, unbelievably successful, stint was over. “OK, that’s it”… It was just the quintessential leader as he handed over the limited-overs reins to Kohli. “Had Mahi taken the decision one year or even six months earlier, I would have been a bit worried. But I salute him for his sense of perfect timing. He knew that Virat is now a proven customer who has done exceptionally well as a leader in Test. So it is a correct decision by Dhoni. It showed that he had the best interest of Indian cricket in his mind,” Prasad said, lauding Dhoni’s “amazing clarity of thought”.
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Dhoni redefined limited-overs captaincy. In his pomp, he was at least five-six overs ahead of the others in every match. His 15-yard sprint to run out Mustafizur Rahman in India’s World T20 fixture against Bangladesh in Bengaluru last year was another example of his super game reading. Pulling off the heist with Bangladesh needing two runs off three balls further attested his calmness that had rubbed off on Hardik Pandya who was bowling the final over.
From Joginder Sharma to R Ashwin, almost every bowler has spoken about how they benefited from Dhoni’s no-fuss demeanour in pressure situations. Asking Sharma to bowl the final over in the 2007 World T20 final against Pakistan bordered on the outrageous. For Dhoni, however, it was well thought out. With Harbhajan Singh not very confident about hitting blockholes, Dhoni brought in Sharma and caught the opposition off guard. A few words were whispered in his ear and things became less nervy for the unheralded seamer.
With only 129 to defend in the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy final against England at Edgbaston, Dhoni initially choked the hosts with R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja before bringing back Ishant Sharma to break a 64-run fifth wicket partnership and win the match. “The champions trophy last over discussion before and during the over will always remain etched in my memory. Great victories with #msdhoni,” Ashwin tweeted a couple of days ago.
Every cricket captain, like football managers (only Sir Alex Ferguson was beyond it), has a shelf life. Dhoni’s success graph started to decline after the 2015 World Cup. India even lost a series in Bangladesh apart from losing home ODIs and T20s against South Africa and conceding the World T20 semi-final to West Indies at Wankhede last year. In fact, India needed a rank turner at Vizag to beat New Zealand 3-2 in the five-match home ODI series just two months ago. As a batsman also, Dhoni’s form slipped. He scored 278 runs at 27.80 in 13 ODIs last year. He was steady in T20s alright, with 238 runs in 21 matches, but that attacking mojo had been missing. The greatest finisher in the history of limited-overs cricket had been struggling to finish games. Kagiso Rabada trumped him at Kanpur, Dwayne Bravo got the better of him at Lauderhill… Even at 35, Dhoni is one of the fittest cricketers around and still the best keeper-batsman Indian cricket can offer. Maybe, without the extra burden of captaincy, he will return to his belligerent best.
“Dhoni’s presence will help Kohli as he now captains across three formats. Had he (Dhoni) quit, Virat would have missed out on his immense experience,” Prasad said. It’s not known if the selection committee chairman had laid out the roadmap for the future when he spoke with Dhoni on the sidelines of the Ranji Trophy semi-final in Nagpur. But with India set to play only 55 ODIs before the 2019 World Cup, change appeared to be on the cards. Kohli, who is doing exceptionally well in Test cricket, needs time to build his own team in the shorter formats. Dhoni, yet again, showed his impeccable sense of timing.