Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 6 January, 2017, a day after MS Dhoni stepped down as India’s limited-overs captain to hand the baton over to Virat Kohli. Dhoni announced his retirement from all forms of the international game on Saturday, 15 August, bringing the curtains down on a career in which he led India to victory in the 2007 ICC World T20, 2011 ICC World Cup and 2013 ICC Champions Trophy.
“Anhoni ho gayi honi, aur mein ban gaya Dhoni,” (The improbable happened and I became Dhoni) Mahendra Singh Dhoni beams in a soft drink advertisement. It shows a passionate youngster trying his best to become a famous sports star, but failing every time, until he gulps down a specific brand of soft drink, and suddenly metamorphosises into the star that is Dhoni.
While the catchy rhyme depicted perhaps the easiest way to become Dhoni, there is still a deep thought that goes into the question, “What made MS Dhoni… MS Dhoni?”
Twelve years ago, a long-haired, fearless youngster burst onto the scene with the confidence of a man who just got a big promotion the day his girlfriend agreed to marry him, and captured the imagination of billions with his flamboyance. A breezy 148 off 123 balls against Pakistan in Vizag in just his fifth ODI made him a hero overnight.
There was a penchant for big hundreds, then came the finishing moves and the world No 1 limited-overs ranking followed. India’s search for a wicketkeeper-batsman was over.
Dhoni could become one of the greatest limited-overs batsmen, you thought. But there was more to Dhoni than just being a destructive batsman, you felt. He could, in fact, have become one of the best wicketkeepers in the history of the game, you averred, but wasn’t there more to Dhoni than just astute wicketkeeping? He could have ended up way better than Michael Bevan as a finisher, but there was indeed more to Dhoni than just calm finishing.
Dhoni was steadily on the path to greatness, but still he was not the Dhoni as we know him today. Something was incomplete. The cricket world had seen great batsmen, wicketkeepers and finishers over the years. Dhoni needed something different: the X-factor that separated him from the rest, to create his own legacy.
A street-smart cricketer needed an important finishing touch and it came in the form of captaincy which brought out the best from him.
The 2007 World T20 launched Dhoni the captain and it proved to be one of the most path-breaking moves in history of Indian cricket. The Dhoni era had begun – one that would pull the country out of despondency following the first round exit in the 2007 World Cup. One that would establish India’s domination in limited-overs internationals. One that would power them to the pinnacle of the Test rankings. One that would change the dynamics of Indian cricket altogether. And one that set the stage for the birth of the real Dhoni, as he inspired a raw Indian side to the World T20 title in Johannesburg.
Dhoni wasn’t a born captain. Captaincy never came naturally to him. In fact, he hadn’t captained a side even in club or first-class cricket, “It (captaincy) came to me quite late. Till class 10 or 11, I wouldn’t really go upfront and say things. I would wait and watch. Twenty20 was my first opportunity.” Dhoni told Cricinfo back in 2008.
However, he adapted to captaincy quicker than anyone else. The learning process was already in progress and the improvement happened exponentially. “I was pretty clear in my thoughts and it (captaincy) came to me gradually, watching the game from behind the stumps – how it (the game) progresses, how it is played in different parts of the world,” Dhoni added.
Soon, the Ranchi boy added an altogether different dimension to cricket. Tense situations got converted into relaxed ones. Creativity came to define captaincy. Innovation took centrestage. Calmness was laced with aggression. Randomness got mixed with calculation. Hunch was married with belief and courage was mixed with a degree of ‘gambling’. This was the Dhoni way – one that made the opposition look more clueless than an Englisman facing spin. It was all complicated, yet through Dhoni’s eyes it looked very simple.
With Dhoni you never knew what was coming. He was predictably unpredictable and this was where half the battle was won. He added style to substance. He added method to madness. He enthralled and entertained and that unpredictability brought about excitement.
One moment he could throw straightforward answers, the next, he can just go round and round and beat around the bush to provide no tangible information. He would confuse everyone around him, but his biggest strength was that he was pretty clear in his mind.
“I almost get the impression that he feels that if he thinks and plans too much, his mind will get cluttered,” Rahul Dravid once told Cricket Monthly. “I think he doesn’t want to understand the full weight of being the India captain. He doesn’t want to delve into those things. He doesn’t want to be bogged down,” he added.
Google Dhoni’s best quotes and it will throw up quite a few which depict the clarity of his mind. “You die, you die. You don’t see which is the better way to die,” he said while comparing two Test series whitewashes, one in England and the other in Australia.
“It’s like having 100kg put over you. After that even if you put a mountain, it will not make a difference,” Dhoni said on another occasion, explaining what the pressure of expectations was like for cricketers in India.
Ironically, despite the high unpredictability factor, you could always trust Dhoni to power India past the finish line, with his batting and captaincy. It’s not just the fans but even the players and support staff had developed this trust factor. “I want to go to war with Dhoni by my side,” former India coach Gary Kirsten once famously said.
It is his uncluttered mind and the trust in himself and his players that made Dhoni unflappable. And without captaincy, the world have been deprived of witnessing these special qualities on display.
Would Dhoni have been Dhoni had he not tossed the ball to Joginder Sharma to bowl the nerve-wracking final over in the famous World T20 final win?
Would Dhoni have been Dhoni had he not promoted himself above an in-form Yuvraj Singh in 2011 World Cup final victory?
Would Dhoni have been Dhoni had he not handed the ball to Ishant Sharma – the most expensive bowler on either side – in the death overs against England in the 2013 Champions Trophy final?
Would Dhoni have been Dhoni had he not forced a very-hard-to-convince Ishant to bowl bouncers in that historic Test win against England at the Lord’s in 2014?
Would Dhoni have been Dhoni had he not handed over the captaincy to Sourav Ganguly in the final moments of the latter’s international career in Nagpur against Australia?
Would Dhoni have been Dhoni had he not provided lighter moments like “Oye Sree (Sreesanth), udhar girlfriend nahi hai, idhar aa ja thoda” on the field?
Would Dhoni have been Dhoni had he not brought smiles on the faces of the Wankhede crowd chanting “ek do… ek do… Sachin ko ball do“, by throwing the ball to Tendulkar in the final moments of his international career?
Well, in the real world, the rhyme would go, ‘Anhoni ho gayi honi, Dhoni’s captaincy made Dhoni… Dhoni!’