I thought of several titles to describe Mahendra Singh Dhoni: Zen master, Fire fighter, Tight rope walker, Deadly Finisher, Captain Cool. But I realized the most defining quality of Dhoni is his ability to be still and calm in the midst of chaos and imminent risk and high-pressure situations. It is far easier to remain at peace in a forest meditating alone, than to drive a Ferrari in full speed with a knife waiting to behead you everytime you fail the expectations of a billions cricket loving souls. Yet that is Dhoni’s unenviable job everyday.
For a 90s kid like myself, the first fond memories of Indian cricket, was Sachin’s dance pummeling Australia to smithereens in the Desert Storm of Sharjah. While the Indian teams of that period and early 2000s, were good, they could never win big tournaments and would often fail in high-pressure situations like knockouts and it was deeply disappointing to kids like me. We lacked the cold-blooded instincts and nerves of steel needed to finish games and the belief that we could win major tournaments. Then, came Dhoni to Indian cricket and players responded favorably to this guy. His calm demeanor and the attitude of keeping it simple outside the field and un-orthodox methods of Dhoni on the field seem to work like magic. Suddenly, we were travelling better atleast in limited over’s cricket, winning for example CB tri-lateral series defeating Australia in Australia. What followed next was India going on to be contender for every major ICC trophy and bilateral series. India held the No.1 Test ranking for 18 months starting December 2009, won the World Twenty20 in 2007, the 50-over World Cup in 2011 and the ICC champions trophy 2013 under Dhoni’s leadership. How did Dhoni pull off this remarkable turnaround for Indian Cricket?
Intuition. It quite often that people call Dhoni lucky, whenever his moves on the field have worked like a charm. But those are not happy accidents. Intuition is indeed spontaneous but it is built on knowledge gained by careful observation of cricketing situations throughout one’s life. Which means you are never switched off or daydreaming, when you are in the cricket field or during practice or watching a game, you pay attention to everything. How the pitch is changing in the course of the game, body language of players, opponents and your teams strengths and weaknesses. All this data is stored in your brain supercomputer and when a particular situation arises and you are calm and mentally quiet, you receive the answer as an inspiration to the problem effortlessly. Doesn’t mean all solutions will work all the time, but this how intuition comes in handy to Dhoni.
Management. This job of a Captain is probably harder than even having to make cricketing decisions. Imagine having to handle an emotional player like Sreeshanth. Dhoni’s approach has always been to take a back seat and let his players express themselves in their own way. This was very important considering he also had to captain senior players who had played international cricket for far longer than himself. Dhoni also backs his players even if they fail several times, giving them sufficient time to develop. This of course paid great dividends sometimes, like Ravinder Jadeja, who is probably one of the most consistent spinners in world cricket across various formats now. However, in my personal opinion he has given too many chances to some undeserving players and left out others. Dhoni is extremely flexible on the field but can be stubborn out of it. Knowing exactly what words of encouragement each player needs is also hallmark of Dhoni’s captaincy. Only recently in the match against Bangladesh in World T20, we saw how brilliantly he helped a young Bumrah, turn it around in the last two overs after a horrid time in the initial part of the game and telling Hardik Pandya to play with freedom and do what came naturally to him before the last ball was typical Dhoni. He has had to endure average bowlers for most of his Captaincy period. And yet there are few captains who could squeeze the most of what each player had to offer like Dhoni does routinely. Who else could have made national heroes of a Joginder Sharma and a Hardik Pandya?
Situational awareness. There is no one with more street-smarts atleast in modern day cricket than Dhoni. Who can forget the Jhonty Rhodes like run out manufactured all by himself in the Bangladesh game just the other day? This is only possible if one is completely in the present moment and thinking what the situation needs rather than what you are expected to do normally.
Calm in the Storm. Dhoni takes all the pressure on himself and also lets his players play their natural game. When the stakes are high, he takes the responsibility upon himself like during Worldcup Finals 2011; he promotes himself up the order to see the game through to the end. In victory, he gives credit completely to his teammates and even stands in a corner during the victory photoshoot, letting the youngsters get the limelight. In failure, he takes all the blame. His calmness not only makes his team confident and nerveless but scares the opponents. His philosophy during batting chases, expressed in his own words “Take the game to a point where the opponent is more afraid of defeat than yourself” and then unleash the dragon and crush them. Most often the thought of bowling to Dhoni in the death overs is a scary proposition for opposition teams. What can you bowl to a guy who can dispatch yorkers or bouncers out of the stadium at will?
Dhoni’s greatest teaching to all of us is to stay in the moment. The point of life is not to win or avoid defeat but keeping your eye on the ball, the present moment. If you can do that and remain still and calm being aware that victory will probably follow defeat at some point and vice versa, one can conquer life itself. The lessons learnt from failure and disappointments can then help lay the foundation of much greater present and future. No matter how tense the situation or how high the stakes one can be calm and handle it like Dhoni. What is possible for one is possible for others.
Gary Kirsten once said that he would go to war with Dhoni by his side. That is kind of trustworthy and self-sacrificing leader that Dhoni is, who leads by example rather than empty words. Even if Dhoni let himself be shot by the opponent, that would merely be a strategy to fool or divert them and pull the advantage back for his team. If I wanted to defend my fortress, I would have a Rahul Dravid lead the charge and if I wanted to conquer a fortress, I would use a Virat Kohli or Sachin Tendulkar. But if my fortress was already breached, I would trust nobody but Dhoni. Very few men can wriggle me out of danger by making a strategy in the spur of the moment from his mind palace and then have the audacity to pull it off amidst the chaos and confusion of war as Dhoni possibly could.
PS: Like all great men Dhoni had faults too, but have intentionally avoided them for this article. This was written with the sole purpose to express what we can all learn from the genius of Dhoni. Ganguly’s contribution to Indian cricket must not be forgotten. That Dhoni stood on the shoulders of Ganguly is beyond doubt of any avid cricket follower.