Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the epitome of composure on the cricket field. It takes something exceptional for Dhoni to express himself emotionally – usually, it’s a fantastic piece of fielding; sometimes, like on Friday, it is a special delivery of the sort R Ashwin sent down to Hashim Amla; very rarely, it’s a poor piece of cricket from a team-mate at a crunch situation.
For the most part, however closely you scrutinise Dhoni’s face, if you didn’t know the match situation, you wouldn’t ever guess if his team was winning or losing. An emotional, hand-waving, finger-pointing captain can sometimes rouse his troops into action but he can also end up sending the wrong signals. With Dhoni, all you get is a sense of calmness. In any team sport, the players that make up the team take their cue from the leader; India’s unflappable approach on the cricket field generally, Virat Kohli’s occasional bursts of aggression notwithstanding, stems from the manner in which Dhoni conducts himself, his serenity extending from the centre outwards and engulfing even the men in the outfield.
By his own admission, Dhoni wasn’t always so. He had his fair share mood swings during his younger days, but with the passage of time and with responsibilities being heaped on his shoulders, Dhoni has come to embrace the monk-like face of the Indian cricket team.
“I don’t think I was calm from my childhood,” Dhoni was candid enough to admit on Saturday (April 5), unfazed, though the title clash in the ICC World Twenty20 2014 against Sri Lanka was a little over 24 hours away. “I’m someone who doesn’t like losing much. When I was young, I had trouble controlling the emotions associated with getting defeated. Over a period of time, I have learnt how to control this emotion. I’m a believer in the fact that your emotions are yours alone and hence you should be the one who knows how to control it. Over time, I found dealing with emotions easier. I feel it is important because in a game, there are so many stages where you don’t want to take a decision emotionally. Practically, you decide what’s the best option.”
It sounds pretty simple, but it’s in the conquest of the mind that the genesis of Dhoni’s success story lies. India’s most successful captain is a solitary win away from becoming the first international skipper to lead his side to the grand ICC treble – the 50-over World Cup, the Champions Trophy and the World T20.
“For us, what is important is doing well in the final. The other factors we don’t really focus on, because it is more important to win a World cup for your country than focus on stats,” he said, offering gently to deflect any extraneous pressure that might be brought to bear upon his team, even if pressure is something that has accompanied him from the time he was made the captain of the T20 International team at the first World T20 in South Africa in 2007.
“I leave it (the pressure) at the stadium because that’s the best thing I can do,” he added with that unique simplification technique that he has mastered. “Over the years that I have been the captain, I have seen almost everything. There is nothing really that I have not seen in cricket. We have seen Indian cricket perform at its best and, at the same time, we had to go through a lean patch where we had really tough times. Controversies are a big part of Indian cricket and I have been through all it. There’s hardly anything good or bad in Indian cricket that happens without my name (being linked to it).
“We have to go through everything but the good thing is we have to concentrate more on the process. I know there are certain things that are in my control. I look to move in that direction rather than thinking or living a thought that’s beyond my control and that has really helped me. It’s been an interesting time, ups and downs. That’s what it is all about in international sport, it doesn’t matter which game you are playing. It has taught me a lot and it’s still a learning curve for me. Hopefully, it will teach me many more things in my life after cricket.”
Dhoni has been accused of being a defensive Test captain who is totally at home attacking only in the limited-overs versions. On Saturday, somebody extended that theme to ask him if he captained differently in ICC tournaments. “Not really,” he replied, at once amused and taken aback by the question. “I think the players have responded really well. If you talk about this tournament, our spinners have come into action. They got a bit of purchase off the wicket and they made sure that they capitalised on that. That’s what team environment is all about. When the fast bowlers have conditions that are in favour of them, then they have to deliver and when it is not in favour of them, when you are playing on flat wickets with a bit of turn, then the spinners have to come into action. Overall, it is a perfect team environment where when we need somebody to do the job, there have been individuals who have risen to the occasion and said I will be the person who will take the responsibility.”
In 2007, Dhoni was a greenhorn when it came to captaincy, shepherding a young side to an unexpected title run. Since then, he has grown into the role and grown in stature. His CV includes a 50-over World Cup crown, the No. 1 Test ranking and the Champions Trophy, among other things. Understandably, though, Dhoni was coy about discussing his leadership approach, and whether that has changed in the last six-and-a-half years.
“That’s not really for me to decide because from outside, you can judge it better than me,” he said, not smart-alecky but just matter of fact. “Of course, I take it as a job responsibility, I have been given the responsibility and I try to fulfil it to the best potential that I have got. As an individual, you will make mistakes and as a captain, I feel it is very important that if you commit a mistake, you go out there and admit it. It won’t always go your way. The captain decides on something but it is somebody else who has to fulfil the job. Ultimately, it depends on the person and how he responds to the situation. You try to be honest to yourself, you read the game and decide something. If it doesn’t work, you stand up and take the responsibility because that’s what your job needs you to do.”
Dhoni has alternately been celebrated and eulogised, and castigated and pilloried, depending on results. He has taken the rough with the smooth, grateful for the genuine fan’s support but not unduly perturbed by the fickle fan’s result-oriented reaction. It was no surprise, consequently, to hear his response when he was asked what his message was to the nation on the eve of the final. “We don’t want to send out any message only before the final,” he offered. “Whatever we feel towards the fans, whatever is there in our hearts for them, it is there throughout the year, not just before the final.”
Dhoni, the captain – now he is no man of fickle moods.