The ball that entranced Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, was a good deal bigger than the cork-and-leather one. But when you think of MS Dhoni, who has played out his career in the sun while preferring to live in the shadows, it’s Galeano’s words about empty stadiums that come to mind.
In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Galeano wrote: “At Wembley, shouts from the 1966 World Cup, which England won, still resound, and if you listen very closely, you can hear groans from 1953 when England fell to the Hungarians. Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium sighs with nostalgia for the glory days of Uruguayan soccer. Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat.”
If you’ve ever stood in the middle of the Wankhede Stadium, deserted after a practice session, it’s April 2, 2011, that the mind summons up – that six from Dhoni high into the dark night and the Ravi Shastri soundtrack that is as integral to the memory. Long after his career is over – and it isn’t yet – and the biopic is forgotten, it’s that one stroke that will define Dhoni’s legacy as a leader of men.
It’s easy to forget now what a left-field choice he was as limited-overs captain. When he was appointed Rahul Dravid’s deputy on the tour of England in 2007, it was in preference to several others – Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh – whose CVs boasted more experience and achievement.
“He is extremely focused, down to earth and very disciplined,” said Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of selectors at the time. “He is modest about his achievements and possesses good man-management skills. He has all the qualities of a good captain.”
Those man-management skills were on show in South Africa on his first assignment, the inaugural World Twenty20. Winning a tournament with the military medium pace of Joginder Sharma was akin to staying dry in a monsoon shower with a brown paper bag. Yes, Dhoni got lucky, but he earned that good fortune by being the serenity at the heart of a storm that had rocked others on the field, including the usually unflappable Misbah-ul-Haq.
That sense of calm, which Greg Chappell first identified as the sign of a future leader soon after elevating Dhoni to the Test side in December 2005, was both his greatest strength and a cross to bear. When India won, as they so often did in the early years under Dhoni, he was Captain Cool. When they started to lose, after the physical and emotional toll taken by the World Cup win, it was easy to brand him Captain Disinterested.
In the build-up to The Oval Test of 2014, with India 2-1 down in the series, Dhoni skipped an optional practice session to go shooting at a Metropolitan Police facility. For the critics, and their numbers had grown exponentially by then, it was further evidence of how he didn’t value Test cricket.
Yet, at both Old Trafford and The Oval, where India were humiliated by a resurgent England, Dhoni’s unorthodox batsmanship was the only saving grace. Even as a highly rated line-up floundered around him, Dhoni nudged the ball here and deflected another there to strike lone notes of defiance.
That tour will also be remembered for his obstinacy over the Ravindra Jadeja-Jimmy Anderson incident at Trent Bridge. Hopelessly one-eyed testimony from both sides eventually led to Anderson being exonerated of any untoward behaviour, and by sticking to his guns, Dhoni gave an embattled English side a cause to rally behind.
Not that he regretted it. Dhoni believed his player was telling the truth, and was prepared to jeopardise the future of the tour to do the right thing. Some thought it stupid. For others, it was one more reason to admire a man who never strayed far from his roots or value systems no matter how many millions of airline miles he racked up over the course of a decade as captain.
Best victory percentage as ODI captain
Best victory percentage as T20I captain
Looking back, the World Cup semifinal defeat in Sydney might have been the time to give up the armband and join the ranks. But on reflection, Dhoni timed his decision to give up limited-overs captaincy as well as he usually did those no-look flicks on to the stumps after collecting a throw from the outfield.It gave Virat Kohli two years to build a Test team in his image, and the luxury of working on his own batting craft without the millstone of all-format captaincy weighing him down. The results in bilateral series may not have been great, but Dhoni continued to deliver the results on the big stage.
Only with distance and perspective will we appreciate just how good he was at getting it right on the night. In six ICC events dating back to the World Cup in 2011, India failed to make the semifinal just once – at the World T20 in Sri Lanka in 2012. Even there, they won four of their five matches. Two of those six events were won, including the Champions Trophy heist of 2013, when England needed just 20 from 16 balls with six wickets in hand.
Occasions like that, and the last-ball thriller against Bangladesh during the World T20 in 2016, brought out the best in Dhoni. He loved a gambit, and with both Joginder and Hardik Pandya, he refused to panic when it looked to have gone awry. Instead, he slowed the game down, allowed his bowlers the opportunity to gather their thoughts, and remained alert to possibilities.
The leg-side stumping of Jonathan Trott at Edgbaston and the run-out of Mustafizur Rahman at the Chinnaswamy Stadium weren’t just tribute to slick glove work, but to the instincts of a man who could see two moves ahead like only a finisher can. As we saw during a recent T20 in Florida, that trapeze act didn’t always work, but Dhoni almost always greeted victory and defeat with the same poise.
Given how well he batted at times up the order during the ODI series against New Zealand, an Indian summer cannot be ruled out. India’s middle order is far from settled in the limited-overs formats, and Dhoni at No.4 could give the team a power-hitting option that’s been lacking since Yuvraj’s glory years.
Even after so much time in charge – 60 Tests, 199 ODIs and 72 T20Is – Dhoni never craved the spotlight. If anything, he actively shied away from it. One of the few things that allowed us to see beneath the veneer was his transparent love of the blue shirt. “We are because we win,” wrote Galeano. “If we lose, we no longer exist. Without question, the national uniform has become the clearest symbol of collective identity.”
In these turbulent times, Dhoni understood that far better than most.
India’s performance at ICC events