You can hire the best of coaches and be the best in terms of skills, but what all top sportsmen desire most is the ability to handle pressure - the attribute that differentiates between a match-winner from just another fine player. However, that quality is inborn - you either have it or don’t. The key is to have ice-cool nerves.
Michael Jordan had them in plenty, helping him make many astonishing last-minute moves to script stunning turnarounds on the biggest of stages. Javed Miandad was another, he could pull off the impossible when the pressure was on; the same went for VVS Laxman as he came up with those Test match specials.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is showing he is built in the same mould. In Port of Spain on Thursday night he provided another example of it. In the tri-series final against Sri Lanka, his ability to lift his game to another level under pressure shone through.
He had it even as a small-town boy learning his cricket in the muddy maidans of Ranchi. Sample this anecdote from Anshuman Raj, who was Dhoni’s teammate in various sides including Central Coalfield Limited and Jharkhand: “We were in the final of a tennis ball tournament and the equation had got down to 16 runs in the final over, with a strange rule that six was not allowed. Dhoni and I were at the crease and he got the runs without allowing me to face a single ball. I had a reputation as a big hitter and was upset he didn’t give me strike. When I confronted him, he replied: ‘I knew you would get out by hitting a six’. Although I chided him that he was showing too much faith in his own ability, his mapping of the situation had left me impressed,” recollected Anshuman.
“He is a very cool character and has tremendous confidence in his own ability.”
Those who have played with him are not surprised that he is building his legend around the ability to produce extraordinary feats when hope is sagging. There have been many such heroic last-over batting heroics for his Indian Twenty20 league team, the Chennai Super Kings too.
“He has the ability to read what’s going to happen in the game and (in a tough chase) he controls every little factor to push it to the last over. It’s a structured strategy he follows almost every time,” said VB Chandrasekhar, who was a national selector when Dhoni was picked and then was instrumental in getting him to CSK. “In one of the CSK games, he got out after getting the team close to the target. Even though we won, he was fuming.
When I complimented him, he said: ‘I am not happy, I am burning inside. I should have finished off the game’. That is Dhoni, he likes to take responsibility and execute it,” said Chandrasekhar, who was the head of CSK’s cricket operations in the first three seasons.
Some may have the temperament, but it’s equally important to have the ability. His confidence is built on the awareness that he is blessed with both. Dhoni knows he has the power and technique to connect the big hits and clear the field at will.
He’s good at adapting to the conditions too. When Dhoni played in the Caribbean on his first tour in 2006-07, he struggled to time the big hits (aggregating 95 in five ODI; 29 in three games in the 2007 World Cup). He fared better when he went back in 2009 (182 runs in four games). And the way Dhoni bided his time and launched the big hits only in the final over, it was proof he had done his homework. Even with India down to the last wicket.