MS Dhoni: Tried and tested

If one looks back on this Border-Gavaskar trophy unfolding in Australia, it may come across as a trademark Christopher Nolan mindbender. In hindsight, the signs were there. There were signs that the mantle will be passed on from Clarke to Steve Smith, that the mantle would be passed from MS Dhoni, at long last, to successor-in-chief Virat Kohli.

Dhoni’s remarks about Kohli’s captaincy debut in Adelaide were a bit surprising. He backed Kohli’s approach, and had not one smirk or taunt about his young team. After losing more meekly in Brisbane with Dhoni as captain, India came into the third test breathing fire and chanting just one name: Virat Kohli. The entire Boxing Day Test was about Virat Kohli, his batting, his behaviour, his aggression, his shots, his temperament, his kisses, his girlfriend, his audaciousness and his disrespect for the Aussies. Somewhere behind the scenes, for once, MS Dhoni allowed his understudy to say whatever he wanted to. Dhoni allowed Kohli to behave as he pleased, make mistakes, shoot his mouth off and even speak at a conference after his sparkling innings where he smashed Johnson and co. to smithereens in heated words. This was unlike Dhoni, the leader. Usually, he’d reel his players in, especially during the middle of a series.

But these were signs that could only be discovered in hindsight. Go back, and you’ll see the clues. You’ll see Kohli dominating a series in which Dhoni is playing, and Dhoni happily taking the back seat, knowing exactly when his story ends. This was perhaps always his plan—failure to win a test again and he would step down. But he not only stepped down, he retired from Tests altogether. MCG was his 90th Test, and his 60th as Test Captain.

This is a brave decision. This is also the right decision.

Many called for his head, but the powers that be would have never dislodged him even if India lost the next 15 tests under him consecutively. India had won 2 of their last 23 tests abroad after the 2011 World Cup, numbers that would end any captain’s career. But Dhoni, who lost 15 tests overseas as Indian Captain (out of 30) winning just 6 of them, compared to Ganguly’s 11 in 23, was retained. The argument usually centered around lack of better options (a point that could have been raised when Kumble retired in similar circumstances back in 2008 after the third test against Australia), and India’s poor bowling attack. Most captains would have struggled, but losing 8 consecutive tests (4 in Australia and 4 in England) with a team that had reached no. 1 as year ago was disillusioning for even his staunchest fans. India went on to lose 1-2 at Home to England, a team they could rarely beat with Dhoni as their leader, and an ordinary team that had lost to Sri Lanka at home weeks later. Statistics eventually may have been on Dhoni’s side, with him having won 27 of his 60 tests as captain, but 21 were at home. It was an impregnable wall until England visited in 2012, a wall that kept Dhoni on top even though he was all at sea outside Asia. As a batsman too, he averaged 29 outside Asia, getting all his 6 centuries in Asia, but somehow proved his detractors wrong when he became India’s best batsman during their disastrous 1-3 loss in England this year. He countered swing and seam with his ridiculous technique, and demonstrated how far guts and sheer grit could take a batsman if they believed enough.

Dhoni’s timing is right. He needed to step down, and he had always believed that he didn’t have much to offer in Tests for a sustained period of time. He had once said he would drop the format after 2013, and he waited till the last day of 2014 till he finally did. This is a blessing in disguise, because not only will Dhoni be stress-free and fresher for the World Cup defence, he will also be the man who walked away without fanfare. The BCCI, who adore him, would have let him stay on for another home series to give him a proper farewell, but Dhoni chose to exit in a battlefield that had felled him very often. On his weakest turf, at his most vulnerable, so that India could only rise from here. While many may argue that he is abandoning his team in the middle of a series, Dhoni himself knows that Kohli had already stamped his aura onto this team. It was an added bonus that Dhoni was at the middle when India managed to draw at Melbourne, the first draw in 17 years on this ground.

He finished Not Out.

Back in 2008, Dhoni had taken over a team in need of a leader after the third test of the Border-Gavaskar trophy in India. The team was leading 1-0 after Kumble had to retire with an injury, and Dhoni—who was already T20 and ODI captain—became India’s captain. They won his first four tests in charge, all at home. Dhoni, the batsman, grew in Asia, and with him as captain, Sachin Tendulkar enjoyed a second wind, and his team climbed to no. 1 in tests for the first time ever. Dhoni created a legacy based on instinct and unconventional strategy, a style that served him immensely well in shorter versions. Even though he is statistically India’s most successful Test Captain, I’m pretty sure there was much more he wanted to achieve. And it can’t have been easy. Leading a world-beating ODI and T20 team, and simultaneously leading a world-beaten test team within a span of weeks, must not have been a pleasant feeling. However, Dhoni never lost his cool. He made his excuses, but he remained creative till the end.When he told journalists that Kohli stabbed Shikhar at Brisbane, he was almost at the end of his tether. He was mocking a system that he had once fought, a system that he had become an integral part of. He had never captained a domestic team before he took charge of India’s young T20 outfit in 2007.

Did he need to retire altogether from tests, as a batsman and India’s most successful test keeper ever? Perhaps he did. Who can imagine an Indian team with Dhoni behind the stumps, but not calling the shots? I don’t remember a time he was not in charge, and that, in a nutshell, defines the influence he has had on the Indian psyche, and on Indian cricket on the whole.

On to the World Cup, with MS Dhoni in charge, for probably one last time again.

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