Mahendra Singh Dhoni, born July 7, 1981, is the most successful captain of India on many, many counts, and a wicketkeeper-batsman of a pedigree the nation had never known before. On his 32nd birthday, Cricket Country’s Arunabha Sengupta takes a look at the many landmarks already traversed by this unique cricketer.
That electric evening at Wankhede. Excitement spilling into the ground from the packed stadium in echoing waves of anticipation. The atmosphere sizzling with concentrated focus of the entire nation. Nuwan Kulasekara running in with five runs to win. The scene played over and over in the euphoric memories of the Indian cricket fan. And then down came MS Dhoni’s willow, the uninhibited swing resonating with the momentous occasion, and the white ball streaked through the night sky, soaring over long on, into the ecstatic crowd.
After a 28-year wait, India had won the World Cup. Dhoni had been having a less than ordinary tournament till then. Every move of his had been mercilessly criticised, severely hauled over calumnious flames of downright abuse. With the benefit of hindsight, a loss and a tie in the initial games had been piled up as the sins from which he could get absolution only through a win in the final. His lack of form with the bat had been placed under colossal microscopes for relentless censure. Every small stutter along the way, of every member of the outfit, had been crucified in the media — print, electronic, television and social. In such circumstances, on the final day, the captain had promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh, had walked right into the epicentre of action, and had struck the match-winning 91 from 79 balls.
As the ball was sent into the orbit, Dhoni’s celebratory display was a momentary smile after which the triumph reflected only off the stump in his hand and a twinkle in his eye. The innumerable poison darts of denigration had struck the placid, impregnable, ice-cool equanimity of the Indian captain and fallen away neutered and impotent. He had not made the one mistake that mattered, that of not winning the Cup.
The moment of triumph was a defining snapshot of MS Dhoni. He has hit 247 sixes in international cricket till now, 75 in Tests, 152 in One-Day Internationals (ODI) and 20 in Twenty 20 Internationals (T20I). But, this one stroke stamped the essence of the player and the man. And perhaps two more underline the story of this phenomenal cricketer.
The first was hit at Faisalabad in 2006. At that point of time, his experience was limited and his hair long. He had already made his presence reverberate across stadiums with his power-hitting in ODIs.
His fifth appearance had fetched 148 at Vishakhapatnam, the second Indian wicketkeeper to hit a century in ODIs — and here we must add that the first was Rahul Dravid. Six months later, he had clobbered the Sri Lankan attack at Jaipur to chase down a target on the brink of 300, hitting 15 fours and 10 sixes in an unbeaten 183. Yet, his flair had been only mildly visible in the four Test matches till then. Now he walked in at 258 for four, with the huge Pakistan total of 588 looming ahead, follow-on very much on the cards. Shoaib Akhtar was breathing fire with the second new ball, Mohammad Asif sending them down at scorching pace. An injury-plagued Sachin Tendulkar was struggling to negotiate the furious attack. The Pakistan bowlers had tasted blood and were moving in for the kill. Sohaib charged in and bounced the newcomer. Dhoni rocked back and pulled. The ball came off the middle of the bat like a crack of thunder, and sailed over square-leg for six. If Pakistan had doubts about Dhoni’s pedigree, they were laid to rest with this one stroke. Tendulkar departed soon enough, but Dhoni continued to flay the bowling, driving and lofting off the front foot when they pitched up, and merrily unfurling the hooks and pulls when targeted with the short balls.
Dhoni hit 148 that day, and India ended up with a slim first innings lead. The realisation did briefly dawn on the nation that here was a wicketkeeper batsman the like of whom India had never known before. It would be a while before the public would quickly transition into their favourite pastime of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
By the end of the tour, Dhoni had struck 68, 72 not out and 77 not out in the ODIs that followed, to win India the series emphatically and earn sumptuous praise for his batting and hair style from Pervez Musharraf.
There was a third special six. It came about at Chennai against Australia earlier this year. It was the first Test of the series and a titanic tussle had ensued for the upper hand.
Australia had scored 380 and India were in a spot of bother at 196 for four when Dhoni walked in. Not only was it a crucial phase for the Test and series, it was also a moment of reckoning for Dhoni himself. After the World Cup win, India had lost eight away Tests, four in England and four in Australia. Seven of them had come under his leadership. In the interim period, home series against West Indies and New Zealand had been won, but they had been largely taken for granted by the press and public. India had struggled abroad with poor bowling and ageing senior cricketers.
And once a new-look line up had been fielded, they had been defeated 2-1 at home by a superbly equipped England side. The calls for Dhoni’s head had risen to a deafening chorus. It was primarily the lack of alternatives that had saved his job at the helm. Now Dhoni proceeded to script his destiny with his bat. After a period of sensible consolidation, Moses Henriques was brought on for a fresh spell. Off his first ball, Dhoni planted his left-foot down the wicket and launched him over mid-off for a spectacular six.
The stroke will continue to send shivers down the spine of the hapless bowler for a number of years to come. It will also go down as an audacious triumph of strategy. The Indian captain picked the bowlers to hit and the spots to hit them with aplomb. And when the ball was new and hard, he shrewdly capitalised on it to plunder a flurry of boundaries, snatching the initiative briskly and surely out of the grasp of Australia.
Dhoni went on to hit an epic 224 and Australia never recovered, not in the match, not on the tour. India won the series 4-0, like so many of Dhoni’s achievements a first for the country. In the course of the demolition, Dhoni became the most successful captain of India. He also silenced the rather ridiculous line of reasoning, driven by specific agendas or glaring errors of perception, that he did not possess the technique to bat in Test matches. Dhoni’s saga of successes is plentiful, but these three sixes provide a snapshot of path through which his brilliant star has risen across the skies of Indian cricket.