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Dhoni Plays it Straight

12 November 2008.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a forthright, straightforward cricketer unburdened by the baggage that generally accompanies a man onto the field, thereby restricting his outlook. At once he is intelligent and simple, aggressive and canny, tough and respectful. He did not come to cricket as a youthful dreamer but as a young street rat. He did not arrive with high expectations or parental pressure or anything of that sort. He was not a favoured youth plucked from the masses and put through the academies and tracksuits and felicitations that await prodigies, condemning most to a life half lived. He enters the arena with one thought in his mind: the uncompromising pursuit of victory. It is a liberating, empowering simplicity. And it is going to take India to the top of the rankings, and without an excess of celebration. Dhoni brings to Indian cricket not hope but expectation. It is the bravest force in sport.

Dhoni has taken to cricket and leadership without fuss or fear. In a land of gods and legends he has not sought permission to lead. The captaincy was bestowed on him by authorities who recognised the power of the clean slate, the potency of the uncluttered thought. Of course he has an ego but it works on both a greater and lesser scale than the common run. He is happy to lead or serve, does not need the game, has no romantic illusions about it, might just as well be racing bikes. Cricket and Dhoni met by accident not design, took a look at each other and decided they could get along. It’s not that Dhoni cherishes the game or is obsessed with it. Nor is it merely a means to an end, a vehicle for an uncovered talent. He just plays it exceptionally well. Accordingly he can look it in the eye.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni batting

Indian captain MS Dhoni batting against South Africa during the group stage match of 2013 ICC Champions Trophy. South African captain AB de Villiers is keeping wickets.
Photo ©: Dee03, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

To him it is a job as much as a game, a profession as much as his passion. And he came to cricket as Dhoni the man, not Dhoni the boy cricketer. He plays hard because he lives hard. He fights to the last because Ranchi boys do not quit or cry. He plays a ruthless game because with every bone in his body he wants to win, because that is how games are played back home. He celebrates victory because he is proudly Indian, not because he is against anyone else. History has not touched him, with its movements and its Wisdens. He is not post-colonial, he is post-politics. It’s not that he challenges notions of India; he is not a philosopher or an economist. He is modern India.

To him Indianness is not a cause. He is a patriot not a nationalist. With his unparaded affluence, his composure and laughter, and his rags-to-riches story so easily told, he is modern India, not a land of a thousand dreams but a place of a hundred possibilities. As a contemporary Indian he senses that life is to be lived. As a modern Indian sportsman he knows that matches are not to be played but to be won. His rugged bottom-handed batting gives no ground to aesthetic sensibilities. It is the unspoken message a rising generation was waiting to hear. Indian cricket is lucky that the call came from a full-grown man.

Cricket comes easily to Dhoni because he was not overwhelmed by it. It was just the game he happened to play. Captaincy comes easily to him because he did not pursue it. He was born to lead but in his boyhood no one thought along those lines, or took themselves that seriously. After all, Dhoni and his pals were growing up in ignored Jharkhand, in forgotten Ranchi, surrounded by each other, making the best of things, laughing a lot, enjoying whatever thrills and spills life had to offer. He was not a boy struggling to break away from a restricting background, was not unhappy, had not been defeated. Always he has been able to focus on matters in hand – the next skylark, the next ball. Throw him at a wall and he will not break.

It was Dhoni’s lack of defined ambition that made achievement possible. Frustration messes with the mind. He lived the life of a typical outstation youth: active, audacious, not bothering so much with books, getting on with life, never expecting it to fall at his feet. He came to cricket as might a passenger at a train station, reached captaincy, runs, fame and riches not as some ruined child or as a street urchin destined to cover himself in bracelets but as a grounded and gritty young man for whom wealth was a consequence and not an aim. He wanted to rise, but on his own terms; he was not hungry enough to sell himself short. He is Obama in white clothes.

Throughout his surge he has remained the same. Certainly he dresses sharply and speaks fluently, for a man does not want to embarrass himself or his constituency; but his essence has not changed. He gives the impression that he’d be just as happy with his school pals. Indeed he goes to see them whenever he can. It’s not that he is afraid of success or publicity or glory. To the contrary he has embraced them all. Just that they do not mean that much to him. He does not get carried away, keeps things in their rightful place. His Dad operated a pump. His character has deep roots.

Dhoni’s primary skill as leader lies in his ability to forge his side into a united force with one thought in mind. As India takes to the field, they form a huddle and he talks to them, mighty and meek, old and young, famous and obscure – none of it matters to him; all are treated the same, all are playing in a team. Players respond to him, trust him, and he does not let them down. When a paceman sends down rubbish he does not rant or rave or scowl but points out that “everyone has an off day”. Judgment is left to the priests. Players like him because he does not make a fuss, or get flustered or back down or yet confront. Misfields, dropped catches and other mishaps may occur and he takes them in his stride. Because he has faith in himself, he is able to convey faith, and without any clapping or backslapping or other artifices. Because he fights so hard he is able to instill the same attitude in his charges. Because he works so hard with gloves and bat he is able to coax long stints from his pacemen and long innings from his batsmen. Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan have bowled entire sessions; Virender Sehwag has been willing to deliver lengthy spells.

Ruthlessness and daring, an unusual combination, have been the main features of his captaincy. Previously India may have been defiant, even cynical, often charming, but they were never quite as ruthless as they have been under Dhoni. His 8-1 field set on the third morning in Nagpur was as uncompromising as it was unsettling. It was a civilised version of Bodyline. His India did not so much as pretend to play by the unwritten code. Overnight the team had been in a tizzy as the Australians had scored freely. Dhoni could feel the match slipping from his grasp and had to respond. Nor did he so much as contemplate half-measures, instead instructing his pacemen to aim well wide of off stump – a plan they loyally and precisely executed. Australia did not accept the bait and the game ground to a halt. It was not pretty but it was effective: 42 runs in the session. Australia lost momentum and never recovered.

On the final day India again fell back under an Australian assault. Despite the loss of three early wickets, Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey were able to push the score along at five an over, well above the required rate. Realising he was losing control, Dhoni sent four men to the leg boundary and ordered his spinners to bowl down the leg side. Although not against the rules of the game, the tactic offended its spirit. It was also a mistake, allowing experienced batsmen to collect runs without taking risks.

To make matters worse, Dhoni and his team dawdled to such an extent that only 21 overs were completed in two hours. As far as cricket was concerned, it was not a pretty sight. Indeed Dhoni was lucky that wickets started to fall and the game ended gloriously. But it was the unsentimental conduct of a single-minded leader prepared to stand his ground come what may. India was better served than the game, a viewpoint that may sound pompous in the hour of glory. Dhoni did not appreciate criticisms but then he was not a spectator.

These shortcomings pale into insignificance beside the achievements of a remarkable man who arrived from nowhere and with nothing except a lot of power, strength and ability. No one saw him coming. Boldness not meanness has been the hallmark of his captaincy. As much can be told from his leadership of the one-day side. Just that he has not yet embraced the rhythms and responsibilities of Test cricket, has not convinced himself that it is the ultimate expression of the game. Indeed, he withdrew from India’s last overseas Test tour.

That will change. Dhoni will come to understand that Test cricket is the greatness of the game, that the rest is a rush. For now it is enough that India has found its next cricketing leader. Certainly the community can absorb the loss of their fading champions without fearing for its future. It is in safe gloves.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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