MS Dhoni decided to hang up his boots yesterday after a long and slow decline in his cricketing outputs. It was the COVID pandemic that ensured that we MSD fans don’t get a farewell inning from Mr Cool Captain.
MSD’s cricketing career has been defined by a streak of what I call “Methodical Madness”. He burst on to the scene with a squash buckling century against Pakistan at Vishakhapatnam. Later on, he went to make many more scores that elated the country – like the 183 against Sri-lanka. Perhaps even during these early days, his nerves of steel were often on display, especially during the Indo-Pak ODI series in 2006 , when Dhoni and Yuvraj chased 2 big scores with almost serene calmness that later became Dhoni’s signature.
After Dhoni became the captain of a young Indian team for the inaugural T20 World cup, India and Pakistan, both underdogs went into the final against the run of play. The final was a close-fought contest which had truly swung into Pakistan’s favour owing to a splendid inning by Misbah-Ul-Haq. Going into the final over, Pakistan needed 13 from 6 but with the momentum truly in Pakistan’s favour. India had only 2 bowling options, the offspinner Harbhajan Singh and the slower than Shahid Afridi medium-pacer – Joginder Sharma. Harbhajan who had seen 3 sixes fly past him from the blade of Misbah, was not given the final over. Dhoni threw the ball to Joginder. After hitting a clean six, Misbah the last man standing, holed out to S.Sreesanth standing at short fine leg. Throwing the ball to the mediocre (no offence) Joginder looked a gamble, but for Dhoni, it was a calculated risk. Misbah had the bad habit of trying unorthodox shots when none were needed, and such shots are riskier to execute against the bowling of medium-pacers with the old white ball. MSD backed his brains, not his instincts in my opinion.
Subsequently, MSD became the captain of India in all formats and the next four years were arguably the best period of Indian cricket. India won the CB series in Australia and many more under MSD. MSD became the full-time test captain against Australia at Nagpur in 2009 when his tactical and ruthless brain was tested the longer format. Facing a daunting challenge on day 3, MSD fielded an unorthodox 8-1 field and asked Zaheer and Ishant to bowl outside off stump to frustrate the Aussie batters, reminiscent of the tactics deployed by Naseer Hussain against Tendulkar in Bangalore a decade ago.
Cricinfo commented :
It came through in the tactics he employed as well. There had been scathing comments made about the 8-1 fields and wide bowling on the third morning, but there was tacit acknowledgement from Ricky Ponting that he would have loved it if his bowlers could have exercised similar control. Dhoni may have re-ignited debates about the spirit of cricket and a win-at-all-costs mentality, but as far as the team was concerned, eight wickets for 166 runs in a full day on a batsman-friendly pitch was nothing to sneeze at.
These four years firmly established Dhoni at the helm of a confident cricket team which went into the 2011 World cup as favourites. Dhoni had a very quiet world cup till the final. At the crucial stage, after the fall of Kohli’s wicket, MSD took another unorthodox decision. He promoted himself (out of form self) ahead of the in-form Yuvraj. What followed was arguably the finest inning of MSD’s career. He cut Muralidharan to the boundary with disdain and ran like a robot in between the wickets. Not burdened by his dismissal against Australia at a bad stage for India, Dhoni continued hitting uppish square cuts, but now they went either into the gaps or over the fielders and not in hands of fielders (as had happened against Australia). It didn’t occur for a fraction of second that MSD would get out before winning the cup. And he didn’t. He finished the game in the most flamboyant and Dhonish manner possible – with a straight-six. Had this risk not paid off, Dhoni would have had to listen to severe criticisms for the rest of his life, but the risk paid off. It was never a gamble. Dhoni, a right-hander, who was a better player of spin than Yuvraj was the tactically correct choice to face Murali – no matter his form.
As the years went by, MSD continued taking decisions as a captain which were firmly outside the established norms. His captaincy has been at its tactically best in the IPL, where he has led the Chennai super kings to 3 trophies. His run chasing prowess when combined with the clinical finesse of Virat Kohli resulted in a number of spectacular victories for the Indian cricket team.
Dhoni also earned himself a reputation of almost letting the match get out of his hand before salvaging it calmly in the final over. However, as the years went by such victories became fewer and fewer. 2019 World cup had two matches where Dhoni was accused of letting the match get out of hands by angry fans. And the fans had a point, brisk run-scoring was becoming difficult for an ageing Mahendra Singh Dhoni and it was leading to bad outcomes for the team.
Dhoni’s test career is certainly the least decorated, both as a batsman and as a captain. His methodical madness has failed to make as much mark in the longer format of the game as they have made in the shorter formats. Dhoni in the aftermath of 2011 World cup victory, went on to lead India to eight straight loses – in England and Australia. In the longer format of the game, strategies are more important than smart tactics.
However, in the latter half of his career, Dhoni improved his wicket-keeping beyond the expectations of even his wildest fans. The stumpings he carried out, where he literally waited for the batsman to fall over before disturbing the stumps, are INSANE. His No look runouts are even better disguised and executed than Kumara Sangakara. His tactical assistance of spinners – especially Kuldeep and Chahal, makes these bowlers lethal in one day cricket.
When cricket returns to India, Dhoni will not be seen in the national colours. But luckily for his fans, he will continue to participate in the IPL – whenever it returns. Let’s hope we continue to witness the methodical madness of this cool man from Ranchi who transitioned Indian cricket team from challengers to champions.