He went from being a long-haired, middle-India misfit with a swagger to clean-cut captain cool, India’s Mr Indispensable. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s journey in international cricket makes for a captivating collage, a daring mix of colours and choices.
India’s most accomplished captain, having won ICC World Cups in both the 50-over and Twenty20 format and the Champions Trophy, besides guiding the Test team to the top of the charts, Dhoni’s merit as cricketer and leader cannot be questioned. The 32-year-old’s ability to weather stormy days, without the ebb and flow of life around him impacting his game, adds to astirring plot.
The Jharkhand-based wicketkeeper-batsman, a youth icon who handles an array of lucrative endorsements and high-end motorcycles with equal ease, set the standard for Indian captains when he said that he wanted to continue at the helm in all formats of the game until the next World Cup, not even 14 months from now.
A little over two years ago, chants for a new man to lead India gained in decibel level after Dhoni’s India appeared stranded following 0-4 scorelines on back-to-back tours of England and Australia. At that time, Dhoni had flirted with the idea of stepping down as skipper in one format of the game in order to play the 2015 (50-over) World Cup.
Rightfully so, his detractors argued; despite MSD’s impressive record as leader, there was clearly a need for a fresh approach. Today, with win percentages of 62.15 after 154 matches in ODIs and 50.98 after 51 Tests, Dhoni has the numbers to back his leadership skills.
Typical of Dhoni then, to pitch the weight of his experience against the possible fumblings of a raw skipper when India travel to Australia-New Zealand in 2015 for the World Cup. Much like the helicopter shots that bailed him out of tough spots on the pitch, a potent mix of eloquence, silence and the art of thwart has helped him ride the tide.
Former India speedster Javagal Srinath sees a similarity in the way Dhoni deals with the tug and pull of life on and off the field. “Let’s first look at the way Dhoni has handled his players on the field,” said Srinath.
“When dealing with seniors like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, who were more experienced than him, he talked less and led by example, which allowed them to express themselves freely. With the younger players, he is professional and clinical and while he does encourage them, he’s not overly emotive.
“His reactions to success and failure are always measured. His approach to situations shows great maturity. I think he applies the same approach when dealing with off-field issues. He’s not the first to react and at times is philosophically driven,” Srinath said.
The wicketkeeper-bat remained stubbornly resolute when his name was dragged across another banana peel of an issue last year. An explosive media report claimed that the India captain had a 15 per cent stake in a sports marketing firm owned by a friend that managed him and three other India cricketers.
As the media debated conflict of interest, the company was quick to state that Dhoni ceased to own shares in April the previous year (2012), without of course declaring the percentage he had previously owned. Dhoni, for his part, continued to pick his battles smartly.
Chennai Super Kings, the Indian Premier League franchise, owned by BCCI chief N Srinivasan’s company India Cements, where Dhoni is a vice-president, was also in the eye of a storm during IPL 2013, with erstwhile Team Principal Gurunath Meiyappan reportedly involved in a betting scandal. Dhoni, who captains CSK, responded by focusing on the national team’s prospects in the Champions Trophy that followed shortly after.
Outside of a poor series in South Africa late last year, for the team and personally too, where he scored just 87 runs in four Test innings, Dhoni came through 2013 in dazzling fashion.
After overseeing the blanking of Australia and West Indies at home, Dhoni’s image gained in proportion in what was a crucial rebuilding year for Indian cricket that eased out Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir.
The treacherous sands of controversy baited the skipper who simply refused to bite. Former India wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani praised Dhoni’s choices that saw him steer clear of unpleasant situations off the field.
“His ability to distance himself from prickly issues is a big factor,” Kirmani said. “He’s blessed with a mind, a system, that allows him to be calm. His ability to remain measured allows him to take timely decisions.”
Sports psychologist Dr Chaitanya Sridhar turned to science to decode Indian cricket’s ‘D phenom.’ She explained that while some individuals, like Dhoni, view situations as positive stress or eustress which sees them rise to challenges, others see it as negative stress or distress which makes them buckle under pressure.
Dhoni has a great understanding of how to handle the media, fans and at times even his employers, no matter how out-of hand the situation gets,” she reasoned.
The emergence of silver streaks in Dhoni’s receding hairline tells a tale of its own, as do the lines behind the smile. Playing it cool is a tough act, but it helps if you’re focused and firm on the formula of playing it by the ball and picking your shots with prudence and good, old-fashion commonsense.