The summer break was just a month away. Exams had to be passed, but what couldn’t be passed up was an India-Pakistan match. Cramming could be done later. April 2005 was the last month of John Wright’s India tenure, and the first month in which a long-haired, powerfully built, and bewilderingly unique young man hewed his way into India’s cricketing consciousness.
That day we watched him scythe 148 against Pakistan, and through every uncultured stroke, the word that he seemed to live and breathe was ‘Rockstar’. For once that commentary cliché about ‘It doesn’t matter how they come’ was true of each one of MS Dhoni’s runs.
It could have been a flash in the pan. It could have been one of the many cricketing meteorite stories: appear suddenly as the brightest thing in the firmament, then crash and burn just as quickly. One of those watching with me expressed scepticism.
– Do you think it was a good innings?
– Well it’s 148 runs in 123 balls, it has to be good.
– But do you think he has the technique to survive for long?
– (Blithely) If you can score 148 in an ODI against a top team, your technique has to be good.
My last reply was more a way to avoid revealing that I didn’t know the first – or second or third – thing about judging a batsman’s technique, especially from the middle of a crowded hall watching a broadcast on a television of dubious quality. Today, I think I mistakenly stumbled on the right answer those dozen years ago. If you can score 148 in an ODI, you probably don’t have too many problems to start with. And maybe we just needed to relook at what ‘good’ meant.
It’s 12 years later, and an ODI average of 50.96 to go with a strike-rate of 88.99 really do present a stronger case than any I could make with words. Dhoni’s batting was homegrown and even agricultural, but he was uniquely fitted to making it work better than anyone else could. So you won’t find descriptions of his knocks as ‘oozing class’. But that’s okay. Because he was, and remains, classy where it counted more.
His first match as the full-time Test captain was the fourth and final Border-Gavaskar Test in late 2008. Anil Kumble had retired in the third Test, this was to be Sourav Ganguly’s finale. In the final moments of the Test, Dhoni let Ganguly take over as captain, allowing him to leave the game as the leader. When the trophy was presented to him, he beckoned – almost insisted – that Kumble also come over and share it. The series was won 2-0, both wins being under Dhoni’s captaincy. He needn’t have done what he did. In the grand scheme of the series, it was symbolic, but sometimes even the symbolic gesture can be powerful.
Compare that with the first time Dhoni was not the captain without it being of his own volition, during the ongoing Indian Premier League 2017. The cricketing merits of Steven Smith over Dhoni can’t be too contentious. On performance alone, Dhoni has not been up to the mark with the bat, though he remains quicksilver behind the stumps. Smith is among the best batsmen in the world and not a bad leader either.
But the contrast between what Dhoni did when he became India’s captain across formats, and what was done to him when he rejoined the ranks, could not have been more stark.
Harsh Goenka, brother of the owner of the Rising Pune Supergiant team, sent out a tweet when Pune won their first match with Smith starring. It’s been deleted since, though in the age of the screenshot, records of it will remain. Goenka had tweeted, “#RPSvMI Smith proves who’s the king of the jungle. Overshadows Dhoni totally. Captains innings. Great move to appoint him as captain.”
Quite apart from the ludicrousness of giving yourself a public pat on the back, the only message people got from the tweet was that the author lacked class. The furious public backlash probably prompted deletion, but that the diagnosis was correct was confirmed when Goenka later posted another tweet, this time taking care to mask his dig at Dhoni behind a superficial ‘fact’.
Again, the staggering absurdity of comparing strike-rates just two matches into a tournament that goes for seven weeks, the necessity to specifically mention strike-rates when the screengrab has been arranged in order of runs scored to ensure not even the most dense can miss the taunt. Most mind-boggling of all – when you have already burned your fingers once, what delusions of self-grandeur must you harbour to repeat the act?
Let’s get one thing clear here. It does seem like Dhoni is nearer to the sunset than he ever was. He doesn’t have flattering numbers in the IPL, he’s not grabbed a match by the scruff of its neck in a long while, and he himself is most certainly aware of it as his decision to hand over India’s white-ball captaincy to Virat Kohli shows. He probably should not be batting at No. 4 for Pune either, not with Manoj Tiwary being in the form he’s in and Ben Stokes also there. His wicketkeeping though, as evidenced by a match-turning stumping of AB de Villiers at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, retains its lightning edge.
But those are cricketing matters. Goenka’s jibes are not. They are juvenile attempts at kicking someone who has been a legend of the game when he’s down. When two other legends were at their sunsets, Dhoni showed respect and dignity. He’s been offered none of that when it’s getting dusk for Dhoni-time.
Class. You can have all the money in the world. But you can’t buy it.