Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the country’s new Pied Piper. From his hairstyle to his helicopter shot, Dhoni’s every single move is followed by millions. Sachin Tendulkar may be the presiding deity of Indian cricket, the ultimate batting god who has scored more runs than anyone else, but he is someone you worship from afar.
Dhoni, by contrast, is the folk hero whose meteoric rise is the classic new India story: from sleepy Ranchi to a rapturous Mumbai, World Cup 2011 has ensured a permanent place in the cricketing sun for the man from Jharkhand.
But Dhoni’s larger-than-life image today doesn’t have to do with his cricketing abilities alone, it also has much to do with our desperate search for strong leaders, be it in cricket or public life.
India have had great batsmen and bowlers in the past, what Indian cricket has rarely had is a true leader. Captaincy in the Indian context was historically associated with the maharajas.
For India’s first Test tour of 1932, the Maharaja of Porbandar was appointed captain and Ghanshyamsinhji of Limbdi the vice-captain. Fortunately, the Porbandar Maharaja dropped out because of ill-health two weeks before the tour while Limbdi suffered a back injury just before the first test. As a result, CK Nayudu, the finest Indian cricketer of his time, earned the right to lead the team in its first Test. The fact that he wasn’t originally chosen as captain had much to do with the game’s feudal origins.
Only the royalty was seen to have what it takes to lead an Indian team.
Perhaps, the worst example of how this ‘royal’ touch almost destroyed Indian cricket came in 1936 when the Maharaja of Vizianagram, or ‘Vizzy’, became the Indian captain after manipulating the system to get the top job. This was the tour when Vizzy conspired to send home Lala Amarnath, India’s first test centurion, simply because Amarnath was openly critical of his leadership. It is also alleged that in the first test, Vizzy offered Mushtaq Ali a gold watch to run out India’s best batsman Vijay Merchant.
Indeed, being captain of India was for several decades an assignment marked by intrigue and low-level politics. When the West Indies toured India in 1958-59, we had four captains in five tests, a dubious record that only reveals the depth to which Indian cricket could plunge when it came to the leadership question.
Nor was this a one-off. As late as 1979, S Venkatraghavan was informed by an airline pilot that he had been sacked as captain on the flight back home from England. And right through the 80s, the Indian selectors played musical chairs with two legends Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev when it came to the captaincy stakes.
Even Sachin Tendulkar, otherwise blessed with the Midas touch, found it difficult to handle the pressures of being India captain.
Ironically, India’s first genuine captain of substance was another flagbearer of royalty, the Nawab of Pataudi. While Pataudi earned the respect of his peers, he was also seen as remote and aloof, maybe because he was playing in an age in the 1960s where Indian cricket still hadn’t fully ‘democratised’ itself.
He was eventually replaced by a ‘commoner’ in Ajit Wadekar, who had the distinction of leading India to its first major overseas win.
Still later, Gavaskar and then Azharuddin were also successful captains, but neither was above controversy. While Gavaskar was accused of playing regional politics, Azhar’s fall from grace saw him face a life ban for match-fixing.
Enter Sourav Ganguly, perhaps the first Indian captain to be truly passionate about the idea of being a leader. Ganguly may have been the Prince of Kolkata, but to his immense credit he rose above parochialism and defined an era of Indian cricket where merit mattered above all else. Moreover, he liked the idea of a scrap and instilled a certain self-belief in his teammates.
Dhoni has drawn on the Ganguly legacy, but also taken it several notches ahead. Ganguly wore his emotions on his sleeve, his famous shirt-stripping histrionics at Lords symbolising his rather frenzied approach to leadership. By contrast, Dhoni has brought a remarkable Zen-like calmness to a fiercely high-pressure job. In the last three years as Indian captain, one doesn’t recall a single instance where Dhoni has really let his guard down or allowed himself to be carried away by the surround sound which is now part of the game.
He’s even publicly admitted to his mistakes, an all too rare quality in our leaders. For example, in the crucial India-Pakistan semi-finals, he candidly accepted that dropping off spinner R Ashwin for a medium pacer in Ashish Nehra was a mistake because he had failed to read the wicket correctly.
To get a politician to accept an ‘error of judgement’ takes forever, Dhoni acknowledged his fault almost immediately.
Perhaps, the defining moment of Dhoni’s captaincy though came in the final. Slightly out of form, he could have easily sat in the dressing room and awaited his turn. Instead, he took the risk and promoted himself in the batting order at a time when the game was in the balance. That single act embodied a real intent to win and, importantly, showed a willingness to lead from the front. This wasn’t a leader who was content to let things drift, or allow his teammates to flounder without taking personal responsibility. This was a courageous captain who backed himself to face a crisis without dithering.
The contrast with our many netas who do exactly the opposite almost every day could not be sharper.
Which is why Captain Dhoni is now a national icon.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network, the views expressed by the author are personal)