Redialling MS Dhoni, The Finisher

In 2008, on the final day of the fourth and final Test match of the series between India and Australia in Nagpur, with India 1-0 up in the series and on the verge of their victory and retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, something magical happened. It was one of those little moments; many forgot it soon after in the aftermath of an emotional series, given that it was the last Test series for Indian legends Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly. It was also the first Test series MS Dhoni had taken charge as Test captain, winning both the matches he had led the team in – making Kumble’s decision to pass on the baton the right and timely one. 

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On this day though, with Australia at 192-9, chasing a mammoth 382, the moment went thus: Mahi, from behind the stumps, requested Sourav Ganguly, India’s most successful captain of all time up till then, to take over the captaincy for the final wicket. There were very few dry eyes left in the country, as, for the last time ever, we watched Dada instruct his bowler and set a field. The man who had defined the modern era of Indian cricket was having his final hurrah. The man who had designed this moment, though, wasn’t known for such sentimental decisions. Yet, he surprised us, and made it look like the most matter-of-fact, underplayed scene. The camera was trained on Dada for a long time, as Dhoni quietly went about his job from behind the stumps – as he continued to do so, for most of his career. Only, the camera was almost always trained on him after that day.

More than 300 internationals as captain later (331 in total – the highest of all time), MS Dhoni, now India’s most successful captain, has retired the one title that became more of a permanent prefix to his name. He retired from Test cricket in 2014 the moment he thought he couldn’t captain the side anymore, and the moment he knew Virat Kohli was ready. The last day of Test cricket for him was also his last as captain. But he continued in limited overs cricket, the shorter formats, where he was arguably the greatest that ever walked the field. There came a time when not many could remember when Dhoni was NOT the captain in the blue jersey. You’d have to think all the way back to the disastrous 2007 World Cup, memories of which many of us had banished as soon as it happened.

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Dhoni quit as captain of the Indian ODI and T20 side yesterday. But in true cool style, he “made himself available” for selection as a player for the upcoming England ODI series. That is, Dhoni has recognized Kohli’s influence over the young side in Test cricket, and he knows that the only way he can carry on without letting the responsibility of leading drown the responsibility of batting, is by doing what he just did. Usually, when he was criticized for his captaincy over the last few years – and there have been many occasions – his batting also took a bashing. There came a time when one couldn’t separate the captain from the player; he had to win both ways to be immune to criticism. His batting had been on the wane since 2014, prompting many to expect a full-on retirement announcement after June’s Champions Trophy this year. If anything, it was inevitable that he’d announce his international retirement, and go down as leader. But Dhoni seems to have taken up a challenge in the twilight of his career: is he still useful if he isn’t the captain? 

Indian cricket is a funny thing. Given that India has been playing only a lot of Test cricket over the last one year, our notoriously short attention spans guaranteed that Dhoni’s fleeting appearances in ‘bit’ series and quickie T20 matches were forgotten. As a result, India’s losses in those formats – they only barely won the New Zealand series 3-2 at home recently – were forgotten too. Since 2014, India lost to Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia, England as well as the World T20 last year, which they had started as favorites. It was only a matter of time before both, Dhoni the player and captain, had to call it a day.

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But nobody expected this. There is obviously no better wicketkeeper-batsman option in the country, which makes Dhoni’s spot safe in the team, irrespective of his underwhelming batting form since 2014. KL Rahul is a top-order batsman and a part-time keeper, while the other specialist keepers – everyone except Parthiv Patel (who, again, can only contribute well at the top) – can’t play in the middle order. This makes Dhoni our top keeper by default, even today, at 35 years of age, even when he is way past his prime. It isn’t simply an emotional choice now; it’s also a practical one – at least until someone like Rishabh Pant ‘dislodges’ Dhoni. This isn’t the move of a player looking to use the Champions Trophy as his final tournament. This is the move of a man who is looking to retire only after the 2019 ODI World Cup; of a man who wants to go back to the drawing board and learn why he came to love the game as a participant so much. Remember, Dhoni was never a captain until he took over the position for the Indian team.

Virat Kohli is the automatic choice as captain in all three formats now. And this five-match series against England is a crucial one – in context of Dhoni’s diminishing utility as a finisher. He can’t hide by promoting himself up the order now, as he had been doing lately. He has to face the music. What’s astounding is that he perhaps wants to face the music. 

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Till then, we can celebrate the most prolific captaincy career in the history of the game: 199 ODI matches (110 wins), 60 Tests (27 wins) and 72 T20s (41 wins). One ODI World Cup, one World T20 title (out of two finals), the No. 1 Test ranking (2009) and one Champions Trophy title. The signs were there, perhaps, in IPL 2015, when Dhoni floundered while trying to lead a new team (the Pune Warriors) from scratch. They finished second-last in the table, puncturing the aura of invincibility that Dhoni, the format and league’s most successful captain, had methodically built for a decade. And then came Neeraj Pandey’s Dhoni biopic starring Sushant Singh Rajput – one of the rare occasions of a story of a career being told even as the player was still active. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing now is that he is now as dispensable as the others in the line-up. And he is only as good as his last series. Suddenly, the England series feels like an important one – a historical one of sorts, given that we aren’t only seeing the end of one era, but the long-due beginning of the all-consuming Kohli era. There is no escaping it. And we have Dhoni to thank for that. He may have hung on a little too much to the captaincy, but his decision to continue playing has lent his career the respect it deserves.

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