A World Cup without MS Dhoni
MS Dhoni's wicketkeeping was instinctive par excellence but more rewarding was the leadership that didn’t cost India a great batter
Three years, in theory, should be long enough to overcome an MS Dhoni-sized void. Reality paints a different picture though. One may argue India have recomposed themselves; and that if not Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma can give us 2011 once again, perhaps more. It’s a tall order anyway, considering how 2007, 2011 and 2013 are the immediate standout reminders of Dhoni’s legacy. But those wins alone didn’t embellish Dhoni’s eminence.
In a system hardwired to goad great batters into taking up captaincy, Dhoni was an outlier, a blend of foresight and bravado with razor-sharp instinct. His most courageous act was probably refusing to integrate into the system that made him captain. India, as a result, got a leader who made no bones about preferring white-ball cricket, was a pillar of calmness amid the chaos and refused to reveal even a sliver of that turmoil that comes with this job. You could rarely make out looking at Dhoni’s face if he was furious or ecstatic.
In hindsight, it now seems Dhoni probably took it all upon himself so that others could focus on being the best version of themselves. He was the reason Sharma could afford to take a few balls before kicking into rhythm, or why Kohli didn’t need to focus on the aerial shots. Gary Kirsten, India’s coach in 2011, vouched for that trait in a podcast earlier this year.
“India is a tough place with a lot of hype around individual superstars, and you often get lost in what your own personal needs are,” he said. “Dhoni, meanwhile, was standout as a leader as he was so focused on the team doing well, he wanted to win trophies and have great success and he was very public about that. And that pulled a lot of other guys into line, and quite simply, Sachin started enjoying cricket as well.”
That high of 2011 was bound to wear out over time. As reflexes weaken and joints start creaking, an athlete inevitably has to look long and hard into the mirror before taking that call. Today, Dhoni lives through mutual funds ads, smiling out of mineral water bottle labels and endorsing floor grouts, as most retired sports persons do. But he hasn’t completely receded from our collective memory. Every March the country is sucked into a guessing game over Dhoni’s next encore for Chennai Super Kings.
Well into his 40s, when most athletes embrace middle-aged downtime and choose more behind-the-scenes roles, Dhoni still makes us wonder if he will surprise watchers by coming up the batting order. If CSK have their way, Dhoni could play forever. The body may be half a step behind but Dhoni provides an irrefutable psychological edge that probably fuelled the decision to bring him on board as mentor during the 2021 T20 World Cup. Ravi Shastri thought it was a masterstroke and Kohli felt Dhoni could help with “intricate details of where the game is going”, setting off premature predictions of a rerun of 2007 with Dhoni in a unique role. India didn’t even qualify for the semi-finals.
It looked like a match made in heaven because nobody masterminds wins like Dhoni. In the 2007 ODI World Cup, Dhoni was a marauder with a streak of modernity that kept an ageing side relevant. In the next two cycles however, India grew up to be only made up of Dhoni despite the talent alongside him: Kohli, Rohit, Jadeja and the rest. Not winning a World Cup in either of those editions would have been a travesty. But Dhoni didn’t let that happen. 2019 brought with it a camouflaged thrill of watching Dhoni operating in a silent role, maneuvering fields and plotting chases till he couldn’t keep pace with Martin Guptill’s throw from the deep.
So, a win and two semi-final appearances later, here India are, finally on the cusp of an ODI World Cup without Dhoni. They knew this day would come. Yet nothing could have prepared them for this eventuality. First, on to skills. On subcontinent pitches, especially while keeping up to the stumps, you need hands that won’t let batters catch a break. Intuition, reflex and precision all distilled into one clean and quick whiplash of a take, Dhoni was like Manny Pacquiao throwing punches in perfect cohesion, Messi nutmegging defenders, Roger Federer sneaking up to an unreturnable serve or Bolt finding his sixth gear in the final stretch. No wonder the only position up for debate — aggravated no less by Rishabh Pant’s accident — is that of the wicketkeeper-batter. So that’s one distinct disadvantage India are already starting with.
What made Dhoni special was his astute game sense. Kohli had his own brand of leadership, as does Sharma, and both have been good in their own ways. But Dhoni’s was the most result-oriented, coated with an additional veneer of relief that it never cost India a great batter. You can’t put a number on that level of assurance. Which is why India will probably never find that comfort zone in white-ball cricket. Dhoni may continue to reside in the twilight, teasing us to believe that one last dance is left in him, as a coach perhaps? Till that happens, if ever, all India can do is reminisce and hope.
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