An inveterate on-field gambler Mahendra Singh Dhoni has a knack of doing things differently. At times, it seems as if he loves to prove his detractors wrong. Many a times, the Ranchi hero has come out with out-of-the-box ideas to surprise the opposition and spellbound the cricket fraternity.
It doesn't mean that each time his on-field antics worked for Team India. He did commit a lot of egregious mistakes. The recent one was ignoring Ajinkya Rahane - one of the best Indian batsmen across all formats - from the initial matches of the on-going Mahatma Gandhi-Nelson Mandela series. Also, he did look listless and short of ideas while leading the Test side on many occasions in the past.
Even after that, one thing that defines the man is his sheer chutzpah with that irresistible charisma. Whether his decision works or back-fires, his uncanny propensity to back himself makes him a world-class leader. It’s not just restricted to his on-field decisions, Dhoni does back his players. Cricket is a team sport, but it’s his ability to lead from the front and give his players the much-needed confidence which helped India win two ICC World Cups – T20 WC 2007 and 50-over WC in 2011 – under his captaincy.
Despite not having a very sound batting technique, Mahi has been celebrating the 'best finisher's tag’ in limited-overs cricket since his arrival at the biggest stage of world cricket. Very much like Virender Sehwag, he plays to his strengths and takes world-class bowling attacks to the sword.
If we look at Dhoni’s batting technique, he was never destined to play Test cricket. It’s always a tough ask for a tailored-made lower middle-order batsman of limited-overs to excel in whites. But Dhoni did change his batting style. Even after knowing certain facts - shouldering balls and taking blows on the body don't suit him - he tried to learn the art of Test batting. In a format where batsmen like Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina failed to make a point even after getting ample opportunities, MSD has six centuries and a double ton to his name with a far better average than the two batsmen.
But changes that Dhoni did in his batting style to suit the longest format certainly affected him in limited-overs, to an extent. His mindset changed completely. A batsman, who was known for charging the bowlers from the word go, started playing a waiting game. Nevertheless, to his credit, MS was never just a wicketkeeper-batsman, he was a born leader.
Dhoni always follows his instincts and shows a brave face in the end regardless of the outcome of a match. But since taking over the reins from Rahul Dravid in 2007, to date, he has been labeled ‘lucky’. His sixth-sense, smart moves and cricketing acumen were coined as ‘luck’ by few cricket pundits. Is it because he comes from Jharkhand, a state known for its rich minerals than producing cricketers?
Many have criticized him for backing players like Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Suresh Raina and few others. For that matter of fact, Sourav Ganguly too had backed players like Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan during his leadership. Every skipper has his favourite(s) in the team. Dhoni is not the odd man out here, or is he?
Ashwin has emerged out as one of the finest spinners in world cricket. Raina is not only an integral part of Team India in coloured jersey, but a match-winner as well. Undoubtedly, Jadeja had been given a long rope even after his extended slump in form across all formats, thanks to the backing of the skipper. But somewhere deep inside, we all know that India have always been in search of an all-rounder. The Saurashtra bowler was filling the spot to an extent. One can still argue that the southpaw failed to develop the skills over the years to survive at the highest level, which his spin partner Ashwin has done quite successfully.
Coming back to Dhoni, the way he left Test captaincy by announcing his retirement from the longest format, when no one was expecting the move, enigmatic 34-year-old set a testimony that he won’t let others decide his fate and will leave on his own terms. A few so called pundits took it as a sheer political move as they associated his retirement with N Srinivasan. According to those ‘wise’ people, Dhoni sensed that Srini's authoritative grip over the richest cricket board (BCCI) had started to slip away and it’s better for him to step down before being asked for. Now you can call him an egoistic, brusque, streetwise or an astute cricketer, it’s up to one’s own purview.
We hardly talk about Dhoni’s fitness. Knowing the kind of rigorous schedule Indian cricket team has had over the last decade or so, it’s not easy to cope up with all kinds of pressure, especially when you have three responsibilities on your shoulders that too across all formats. We have hardly seen Dhoni leaving the field in between a match or missing out on a major series due to an injury. Again, despite being the oldest member of a young Indian team, he is one of the fittest players in the side. When we see him sprinting between the wickets, it reminds us of Sachin Tendulkar, who ran with the same intensity throughout his career with those similar broad pads.
As far as limited-overs cricket is concerned, we can still rate him as one of the best cricketing brains. Even players of Faf du Plessis and Michael Hussey’s stature, who have played under MSD’s captaincy in the Indian Premier League, are so impressed with the man that they are never tired of speaking of his cricketing acumen. The kind of support MS still gets from legendary players like Sunil Gavaskar and Gary Kirsten, speaks volumes about the poker-faced skipper.
It’s hard to do what he did in Indore during the 2nd ODI against South Africa – it’s a sign of a real fighter. Under immense pressure from all quarters, he led the side from the front and turned his critics into his fans.
His game-changing knock of 92 at Indore doesn't promise that India will beat the visitors in the on-going five-match ODI series, but it certainly proves that India still need this gutsy skipper-cum-wicketkeeper-batsman to keep leading the side with examples.
With the ICC T20 World Cup a few months away, Dhoni should be given some breathing space to lead the side without any pressure.