MS Dhoni’s last ODI century came in October, 2013, when India were still World Champions, against a struggling Australian side in Mohali. But really, with him, it isn’t about the number of runs or centuries he scores. It’s about the kind of runs he scores, and the way he scored them. He has only 15 international centuries in his 12-year career, but has 93 fifties, many of which are unbeaten as a ‘finisher’ – a tag he has acquired not so much through successes as his one-man-army failures lower down the order. It isn’t about the stats, but about the ‘process’ to reach those stats, as he often believes – in stark contrast to newbie Virat Kohli, who “wants victory at any costs; enough of the processes.”
More often than not, he has been the last man standing. Sometimes, while chasing, and sometimes, when everyone else around him falls because of him in a perverse way. But worryingly, in the last few years, he has been this man in the first innings, often when he doesn’t need to be that guy. He becomes the man who rotates the strike just so that someone else (Suresh Raina, or lower-order batsmen) can go for the big hits, while he waits and primes himself up for a last-over blitz – which almost never comes. As sparring partner Gautam Gambhir once said – he wouldn’t leave things to the last over if it can be done beforehand. Dhoni seemingly, has never warmed up to that philosophy, even in the dying years of his career.
In his 35th year, he is now in his eighth year of captaincy of the Indian team. This is massive. He has led the ODI team since the beginning of 2008, and has batted at almost all positions. But many will be surprised to know that, for all his successes with the Chennai SuperKings and the World T20 championships, he doesn’t have a T20 fifty to his name. His leadership, and mostly, a good team around him has perhaps masked his own individual batting failures. It’d be safe to say that, if MS Dhoni wasn’t the captain anymore, he wouldn’t be an automatic selection as a keeper-batsman in these teams. His reputation, of course, precedes him – but on form, and on form alone, MS Dhoni has lost that “Midas Touch”. 2015 was the year it became most apparent.
India lost almost every ODI series under him, even though they performed admirably in Australia in the World Cup. They lost to New Zealand, England, South Africa and even Bangladesh. In these matches, Dhoni’s only match-winning innings came against South Africa in Indore – a trademark, scratchy 92 not out, just a match after his inability to clear the field or even time the ball had cost India the game in Kanpur after a valiant 150 by Rohit Sharma. Dhoni’s struggles were painful to watch, through the series, and even in Indore. He never quite looked in control throughout, barely timed the ball, was only made to look like a survivor because the others went for strokes around him, and eventually, his final ODI innings of the series – a hopeless, slow, labored 27 as India collapsed haplessly while chasing 439 in Mumbai – was a telling reminder that Dhoni is living on borrowed time.
He is still a good leader, and a firm man to have on the field. But his batting, and his understanding of his own batting ever since the new ODI rules came into play, has complicated things in his own mind. He overthinks, over-analyses, abandons his natural game and affects the batsmen before him. He is no more the name, the force that oppositions would worry about while running through the top order. In the quarterfinal, when all was lost again, he scored 65 – accumulating pointless runs with nobody around to support him. There was a time when he didn’t need that support, and when he could stride in and take charge and destroy most bowling attacks alone.
Others would support him. His dipping average (even his not outs have dried up) is a testament to his mortality. After all, time is the unkindest cut of all. Perhaps the fact that a Bollywood biopic on him will release in 2016 should have been an indicator about how his sights are already on a field beyond the green ones he currently occupies. There are other places he’d rather be at, and maybe, he is just looking for the right send-off.
Maybe, when he walks out to lead Pune in this year’s Indian Premier League, he will walk out as a retired international cricketer – just days after leading India in his final World T20 tournament. If they end with a win, he will leave a secure man; if they tank, MS Dhoni’s legacy will always be remembered as the man who derived success in between equally notable failures.