Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s cricket career has been about turning the unconventional into the normal. Thus, it isn’t entirely surprising that he quietly bade adieu as limited-overs skipper instead of seeking a grand occasion. Two years earlier, in Melbourne, Dhoni had given no inkling that he was retiring from Test cricket altogether while addressing a post-Test news conference. The announcement came minutes later.
Although Dhoni is on the final stretch as a player, everyone expected him to lead in the ICC Champions Trophy this summer. After all, forward planning is crucial, and the buzz is around triumphant Test skipper Virat Kohli. And Dhoni will be 39 by the next World Cup in 2019.
However, Dhoni has been unlike many great players who drag their feet in the twilight of their careers. And his outstanding career has showed that professional sport need not always be about fitting in.
The man who started as a football goalkeeper and became India’s first cricketing mega star from the hinterland, put power over proper shots in batting and confounded the purists while making the keeper’s role his own for a decade.
Dhoni was India’s best natural athlete in cricket after Kapil Dev. He stood out for his acumen and an undemonstrative approach that earned the nickname “Captain Cool” and respect of the all-time greats he led.
But Dhoni was losing his “finishing touch” as batsman and a certain staleness had crept into his leadership. It was obvious that key bowlers Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav were all responding brilliantly to Kohli’s leadership. Staying on as skipper would have only brought Dhoni under pressure every time India lost. Giving up captaincy will allow the selectors to look ahead.
Dhoni’s leadership, especially in the shorter formats, will be cherished. The man who played the “helicopter” whip-shot and once was India’s endorsement king, was rarely demonstrative on the field.
The ODI numbers of Dhoni are outstanding — 9,110 runs at an average of 50.89 with nine centuries and 61 half-centuries, besides 359 victims behind the stumps and one scalp as bowler. But he has seldom played for statistics and giving up one short of 200 ODIs as captain is an example.
As India captain, Dhoni saw the team become the No 1 Test side in 2009, after winning the World T20 on captaincy debut in 2007, the 2011 World Cup and the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013.
Continuing in the post would have meant fielding more questions about his future. The touchiness about his captaincy last year saw him ask a bemused journalist to come and sit with him during a press conference to ask about his future.
As Dhoni walks away, he can be really pleased about one thing — encouraging boys from the heartland to dream big.