Godfather Inside The Dressing Room: MS Dhoni Assumes The Role Sachin Tendulkar Perfected In His Later Years
India has just lost a wicket. The entire stadium is cheering lustily, with fans clapping, blowing horns, waving the tricolour, displaying banners hailing the hero and the jersey number he has made special over the years, some even rising to their feet. The applause is not for the batsman dismissed, though — it’s for the next man walking in, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. To be sure, the magical applause that the former Indian skipper has been receiving in recent times is an event in itself. It reminds me of a certain Sachin Tendulkar, who evoked a similar frenzy in the stands every time he walked out to bat. As a matter of fact, soon after Dhoni caught the imagination of an entire nation early in his career, he would receive a reception that was next only to Tendulkar.
However, that was Dhoni 1.0 in his prime which, now, is just a beautiful memory. Today, Dhoni is a senior citizen of world cricket, who still takes great pride in wearing the India colours. With age and experience, he has evolved, knows his game much better and also understands his limitations. Yet, while his methods may have changed — from being India’s No 1 hitman to being an accumulator of runs—he still remains an integral, and invaluable, part of Team India. In fact, following the retirement of Tendulkar, he’s the new cricketing sage in the side, with every youngster looking up to him, both for inspiration and guidance. On his part, Dhoni 2.0 is ever ready to draw upon his wealth of experience and offer words of wisdom to all the youngsters, helping them to fine-tune their cricketing skills and settle down in the side. He’s a mentor, a godfather every youngster in the side looks up to. Not being captain hasn’t eroded Dhoni’s authority one bit. In fact, it has only enhanced his stature—from being a great leader to an elder statesman of Indian cricket.
Of course, his immense contribution to Indian cricket hasn’t been lost on anybody. Fans of every age group proudly proclaim their love and support for the man, waving banners that read ‘KING MAHI’, ‘LEGEND’, ‘FIRE & ICE’, ‘NO 7 SUPERCOOL’ and ‘DON’ among others. Almost every time Dhoni does something out of the ordinary on the field, a roar goes up in the stadium. The fans seem to realise that he is in the evening of his long, illustrious career, and the man himself is in a happy space, going through the last phase much like a great athlete doing a lap of honour. To see the Indian team out on the field is to see Dhoni in all his glory, marshalling the field and advising the bowlers. He reminds me of Javed Miandad who, despite the presence of a dictator-like skipper in Imran Khan, would never shy away from giving instructions to the bowlers and fielders. Virat Kohli himself never hesitates to seek advice from his former captain, which again augurs well for the top two senior pros in the side. Kohli, in fact, paid an emotional tribute to Dhoni as he handed over a memento, on behalf of the team, when he played his 300th ODI. “What do I say. 90 per cent of us started our career under you. It is an honour to give this memento to you. And you will always remain our captain,” he said, amid applause from all his teammates.
On a more personal note, Kohli remarked, “I’m happy that he is there by my side during my initial years of captaincy. I am lucky to have him.” Then again, talking about the inputs he gets from his former captain, Kohli opined, “I don’t think I have ever come across a better cricketing brain, just in terms of planning, knowing what’s happening in the game and what can be done. Whenever I ask him anything, 8 out of 9 times, what he says works. Our friendship has only grown over the years.”
Much like Kohli, every young Indian bowler has benefitted, and gotten better, having Dhoni around. In the series against Australia, Dhoni was repeatedly shouting instructions to leg spinner Yuzvendra Chahal on how to go about plotting the downfall of each and every opposition batsman. For example, when the big hitting Glenn Maxwell tried to use the long handle, Dhoni told off Chahal after he was hit for a boundary on the very first ball. “Isko bahaar dal” (bowl wide to him). The bowler did just that, only to see Maxwell charge down the wicket and miss the ball completely, leaving Dhoni all the time to complete the formalities behind the wickets.
Similarly, when young Kuldeep Yadav comes on to bowl, he always gets useful tips from Dhoni on what line to bowl and how to ‘think’ the batsmen out. Not surprisingly, the bowler has been all praise for the former India captain, saying, “I have no words to express my gratitude for ‘Mahibhai’. He always advises me on what I should be doing. I owe him a lot for my success.” As a batsman, Dhoni continues to be an important member in the middle order, and even if he may not produce the magic of old, hitting all those towering sixes and fancy shots, he is still very much a batsman who can be relied upon to bail the team out of a crisis situation.
Thus, we got to see two different styles that Dhoni adopted in different situations, first against Sri Lanka in Pallekele and then against Australia in Chennai. Against Sri Lanka, he joined forces with Bhuvneshwar Kumar—when India was staring at defeat, after the top seven batsmen were back in the hut for just 131 runs—putting on an invaluable 100 runs to plot India’s great escape to victory. Against Australia, India had lost half the side, with just 87 runs on the board. Here again, Dhoni stood up like a wall, working his way to a fine innings of 79 – turning on the heat in the death overs – enabling India to post 281 for 7, which eventually proved too much for the rivals.
On both occasions, Dhoni underlined that he is a master at assessing the conditions, and he is equally good at adapting to the conditions and playing accordingly. Besides, with Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav batting around him, there’s no need for Dhoni to go hammer and tongs all the time. There has been some debate about Dhoni’s free-scoring ability during the T20 series against New Zealand. However, Kohli once again defended his former captain strongly. The great Kapil Dev, in fact, went a step further when he said, “Nobody said anything when Sachin Tendulkar played the 2011 World Cup at the age of 38. I see no reason why Dhoni (who is now 36) should not be playing till the next T20 World Cup in 2020!” Looking at Dhoni’s performance in 2017 till the end of the series against Australia, he has scored 642 runs in 16 innings at an average of 80.25 and a strike rate of 85.25, and this includes one century and six half centuries. Add the experience this man brings to the table, and a fighting fit Dhoni 2.0 looks well on course to play the 2019 World Cup. For everything that he has done for Indian cricket, he surely deserves the big stage of the World Cup to bid farewell to the game he has enriched so much.