Room No 1414 of the Southern Sun in Elangeni here houses India’s new one-day international skipper.
A few hours after he reluctantly spoke to the media about his elevation, Mahendra Singh Dhoni leant back in his chair, stretched, the tension of the day somewhat relaxed, looked at the bat lying on his bed and took us back to where it all started.
Excerpts from a freewheeling chat on life, cricket, growing up and the challenges ahead:
From August 2004 till now. How has the journey been?
Ups and downs — it’s never been static. I had a dream patch where I did really well. Then I was asked to bat at No. 6, No.7. I think, for me, from a cricketer’s point of view, I have done really well. Whatever was needed from me for the team, batting at No. 6 or 7, I’ve done that. But if you compare stats, it’s really different. But I am really happy the way I’ve performed, the way I have improved the glovework, and the way I have contributed to the team.
You were a slow starter in ODIs and Tests and had much competition during the early days. How did you cope?
Competition brings out the best in you. You cannot stop the other guy from playing well, but you can always play well, raise the bar. So for me it always meant concentrating on my game, trying to score runs and do well with the gloves. If another guy performs better than I do and replaces me in the team, I have no issues at all. If you go out of the side, you go back to the domestic circuit and tell yourself, ‘I will improve the areas that need work. I will be back’. Whoever’s playing best should be in the team.
You have always said that as a child, you had never imagined playing for India. When did you first realise you had it in you to make top level?
I think the turning point was the (2004) A tour to Kenya and Zimbabwe, especially when we played one-dayers. I scored a couple of centuries (against Pakistan A), was Man of the Series. I realised I would my chance to play for India. I told myself I could get there, whether the next series or a couple of months from then. If I did well, I could sustain it. Otherwise, back to the pavilion, back to scratch.
How difficult is it to come up from scratch and then go back to it?
<b1>It’s very difficult. I didn’t do well at all in the three games in Bangladesh, got a so-so start, not even a so-so start. Got run out in the first game. I think the three matches that followed (against Pakistan at home) were the key. The team was announced for the first two games but I didn’t get much opportunity to bat in game 1. When I was promoted to No. 3 for the second, I thought it my last opportunity. Fortunately, I got 148 and what that match did was it bought me eight to 10 matches, time to settle at that level. That’s what you need. A good start, so the guys (team) have confidence you, and you get to play more matches.
You established yourself as a big hitter. And you’ve adapted to Tests. How difficult is it to adapt?
It’s very difficult. When you are playing that kind of innings, at times you get carried away and play a shot and get out, then feel you shouldn’t have played that shot. But for me it was a new challenge. Of course I can play shots, if I get out it’s okay, my reputation is that.
But playing an innings (like at Lord’s) is not me. But it’s a challenge, and I love challenges. Whether I succeed or not, that’s a different thing, but I love challenges. I love different things thrown to me. I love it. Whether it’s batting at No. 3, 4, No. 6 or 7, I’ve always loved it. I think that attitude towards challenges is the key to success for me. That’s what is working for me.
Do you think something was missing from your batting during the England ODIs?
Not really, I was batting according to what the situation demanded. Of course, if you bat at No. 3, you have less pressure. But when you bat at No. 6 or 7, the platform given by the top five guys is the key to your batting. If you’re given a good platform, you can go in and go for your shots straightaway. But when you lose early wickets, you curb your natural instincts to play strokes. You have to adapt to the team’s needs.
A lot of players say opportunities at No. 6 or 7 are as good as no opportunity. How difficult is it to make your mark at No. 6 or 7?
I think it’s very difficult to make a mark at No. 7. Especially when you are playing in the subcontinent. With our batting order, by the time you get to bat, it’ll be around the 40th or 42nd over. So when you go in, it’s like going in and going after the bowler. So on a good day, the maximum you’ll have is 30 runs. And if you don’t, it will be around 10.
And this is what people don’t realise. They get into statistics too much. They talk about a player having scored only these many runs in the last five games at such a less average when his reputation is that of a big hitter. They should consider the number of balls played, the conditions, the batting slot. It’s really difficult to make a mark batting at No. 6 or 7. In that way, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif did a brilliant job.
Do you consider yourself lucky in getting an opportunity to bat at No. 3 or 4 early in your career?
Definitely. And I think it was more the kind of game that I played, whenever I got in at 3, I looked like a batsman who looks to go for a big innings, get a good start and capitalise in the middle overs. I think that won the confidence of the captain, who promoted me to that number. I think it’s very important to settle down in the team, so you can experiment with your batting.
How difficult is it to manage both wicketkeeping and batting?
Well, it’s tough and you should enjoy both. The wicketkeeper very different from the others on the field. He is one person who, even if not the skipper, can ask anyone in the field to move left or right. In a way he commands the field, where exactly the batsman is playing and all those things. He has to boost the bowler and the fielders and everyone. He should enjoy that.
And of course, everyone enjoys batting. It’s tough when you’ve batted, when you’ve gone through a long innings, to keep wickets for 50 overs. I’m just talking about ODIs here, not the Tests. Keeping wickets for 50 overs in places like Kochi and Jamshedpur takes a toll on the body but you have to be prepared for that.
You already have the highest score by a wicketkeeper in ODIs. You’ve topped the ICC rankings and equalled the record for highest dismissals in ODIs. Where does Mahendra Singh Dhoni go from here?
Playing for the team, wherever it takes me. It’s not about the rankings or averages. It’s more about what the team needs from me. Like now, the team thinks I am a good finisher, so I will bat at No. 6.
That’s where I need to set an example and motivate others. You’ve as much responsibility as an opener has. If the opener starts the innings, you have to finish it. I think finisher’s job is more important.
If you are chasing, whether the score is 250 or 300, you know you’ll get to bat. And often, you’ll have to bat under pressure. Every role has its own importance. It can be a small role but it can be the most vital role. So you should enjoy the challenge and enjoy the things that have been asked from the team. If they want 30 runs from me in 15 balls, I go and do it, and I know they are happier than me. That gives me pleasure.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you get out of the cricketing mindset?
Go back home, get some rest, play with my dogs, spend some time with my family and stay in Ranchi.