‘Has any cricketer embodied the pride and very essence of Indian cricket more than Mahendra Singh Dhoni?’ I wondered before being shown a mirror which asked, ‘What about that little fella from Mumbai? Or that aggressive South Delhi boy wearing his heart on his sleeve?’
This has been a dichotomy of the last five years but I am not ashamed to admit that I never really tried to find a distinctive answer to this question. Partly because I (don't) understand MS Dhoni at a very organic level, which clouds my thinking while getting the long and short of his phenomenon, or partly because the mysticism that MS evokes is too dramatic for all of us to comprehend. There was a blinkered doggedness but no exuberant fist-pumping, there was an inhuman ability to keep calm in the worst of situations but no signs of his losing his sleep over a mere sport, which he understood, can never be the single biggest denominator to dictate his life and happiness.
Amidst all these other-worldly qualities to defy the pressure that comes with one of the most important jobs in the country, Dhoni remained statistically India’s greatest-ever captain, one of the finest batsmen in the world across eras, technically the soundest and most effervescent keepers of our time and if that was not enough, an astute reader of the game who decides the game’s course more than the game itself.
However, do we, for all our fascination for the springy Jharkhandi, overstate one quality to leave out the least romantic of it all? We all celebrate his World Cup achievements, his game-ending sixes, his last over finishes, his lightning-quick stumpings, and how he hand-held the spinners to unimaginable results? Do we acknowledge MS Dhoni enough for the all-time great batsman that he is?
A relentlessly measured cricketer, Dhoni’s immense power and magnificent eyes were the major reason that propelled him to score 10,773 ODI runs at a fantastic average of 50.57. How many lower-order batsmen can you name who achieved the landmark? None? It is because there are none. Not one player in history has even come close to the brilliance of the former Indian skipper who is conclusively the greatest lower-order batsman who ever lived. In the process, not only did he have to change his style to suit the demands of the team, towards the backend of 2008 when Ajantha Mendis started pinning down the Indians like he was up against a school team, but also made sure he remained effective in his style and substance for over a decade after that.
Dhoni started enjoying the pressure and when he knew that the game was finite, he prospered like a very few had - the unquestioned ability to control the tempo of the game at his own will was very rare in sport. Perhaps, no one apart from Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, and Virat Kohli come close to what Dhoni did in the middle-over phase of an innings, where his ability to negotiate the strike was second to none.
Of all 21st century batsmen who have more than or 2000 runs to their names while batting at Nos. 5-7, MS Dhoni has scored 8,132 runs 47.6 while being dismissed in every 55.6 balls. Average wise, only AB de Villiers and Michael Bevan were better, with 79.8 and 51.3 respectively, but run-wise, the next best is Angelo Mathews, who has 2765 runs lesser than the former Indian skipper. Isn’t it a tribute to his resilience and a pretty solid generalisation of Dhoni’s capability as a batsman?
Now that we have come to understand in terms of Dhoni’s scoring ability, let’s delve deeper into the other paraphernalia that made his legend. While batting between No.5 to No.7, Dhoni’s partners at the other end averaged 34.5, scoring at 100.7, being dismissed in every 34.2 balls. With Dhoni staying in the middle for an average of 56 balls per dismissal, it almost ensured that the chances of a collapse were slim, with the runs coming thick and fast. Why was this special? Because only de Villiers, in the 21st century, has played with greater returns in ODI cricket, but his partners never had that luxury to dictate the course of action. Read this line again while remembering that Dhoni still achieved over 10,000 runs. Let that sink in first.
It also comes down to the physiological factor too - the intangibles that make legend - as our judgement of Dhoni as the single biggest superstar coupled with his insane work behind the stumps cloud our judgement for one of the unquestioned batting legends of our time. The first thing when an Indian player talks about MS Dhoni is not the runs he scored, but the reverence for his captaincy and backing they received when probably no one else would have given that. Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Suresh Raina in limited-overs cricket, and Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma in Tests owe their careers to the man who stuck by them when things were pretty dire otherwise.
While that is a great indicator of his immense contribution to the Indian cricket as a captain, the runs he scored during his 15-year-long international career wasn’t just an amplifier but a serious negotiator for greatness in his own standing. How would you otherwise explain the impact of someone who batted in 75 successful ODI chases for India and when he remained undefeated, India won 47 out of 49 games. If you feel Dhoni remained undefeated because of his tendency to take the game to the final over, 40 of these 47 chases were completed before the final over. In aggregate, 134 of the 145 chases in which Dhoni batted did not involve his presence in the final over of the chase. He was definitely more than a last-over a finisher.
On his 39th Birthday, probably it is imperative to understand Dhoni in a whole new level, where we learn and unlearn, before finally having the perspective. Was he a great skipper? Definitely. Was he an even better batsman? Undoubtedly, Yes. And for us, for all the fans of this beautiful sport, this is the most rational objective on a man who mystified mysticism through the eternal sunshine of his spotless aura. A dynamite of Indian cricket and a forever icon.
Cricket FootBall Kabaddi