MS Dhoni always gave a clear picture to a player about what’s on his mind: Ashish Nehra in tribute
Ashish Nehra, the former India fast bowler who played with MS Dhoni and followed his career over the years, paid a heartfelt tribute to his former captain. Nehra, who played his final India ODI and IPL T20 match under Dhoni, harked back to the year 2004, and recalled his first memory of the then-young wicketkeeper batsman among many other things.
“I first saw Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the early winter of 2004 before we were to go to Pakistan. It was the Duleep Trophy final and I had a stiff back but then skipper Sourav Ganguly told me that ‘Ashu, play the final and tell us how you feel,’” Nehra wrote for PTI.
“It was the match where I first bowled to MS Dhoni and I don’t remember how much he scored but once you have played for India, you have an idea which player can make it. What I saw in that brief knock made me realise that he can survive in international cricket.
“At that time, I was consistently hitting 140kph and one of his strokes was a mis-hit that went for a six over third man. The sheer power amazed me. If you ask me about his keeping, he certainly wasn’t in the league of Syed Kirmani, Nayan Mongia or for that matter even Kiran More back then.”
Nehra went on to describe how Dhoni transformed from a promising, energetic youngster to a world beater. Dhoni’s calmness boils down to his introvert nature, which Nehra touched upon pretty nicely.
“With time, he got better and when he ended his career, he was the keeper with the quickest hands due to his sheer cricket smartness. When he arrived in Indian cricket, he wasn’t a gym person but had an incredibly strong lower body as he played badminton and football regularly. What was my first impression when he came into that Indian dressing room in 2004-05 season? I would say he came across an introvert and was polite to a fault,” Nehra added.
Looking back at Dhoni’s early days of sharing the dressing room with some of the greats of Indian cricket, Nehra revealed how a shy Dhoni would mostly keep to himself and avoid interacting too much. It was a trait which Nehra says, remained till the very end with Dhoni.
“Five of us - Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Zak (Zaheer Khan) and myself - had dinner together on most days during tours. I don’t recall Dhoni ever joining us. He was always reserved. He would never go to any senior cricketer’s room and mostly kept to himself. That was 2004-05 but till I last played in 2017, he remained the same when it came to socialising,” Nehra pointed out.
“Approachable but an introvert, who loved being in his own room, which was open to all. Probably the only cricketer, who never went to anyone’s room but would welcome juniors in. You could enter Mahi’s room, pick up the phone, order room service, play video games, talk cricket, and if you had an issue with regards cricket, you could tell him. But yes, no outside gossip, no backbiting. He never let discussions drift that side.
“That’s why he always wanted issues in the dressing room sorted there only. Nothing was meant for consumption of outside world. His biggest skill was his incredibly strong mind that made him what he is today.”
While the void left by Dhoni will be a big one to fill, the likes of Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson are looked upon as the next possible candidates for the wicketkeeper’s slot. Pant has been compared with Dhoni due to his power and big-hitting skills, but Nehra believes the 22-year-old wicketkeeper has a long way to go.
“If you ask me, I have seen Rishabh Pant at Sonnet since he was 14-year-old chubby kid, trust me Pant at 22 has more natural talent than what Dhoni had as a 23-year-old in 2004, when he first played for India. But whether Pant can be as strong-willed as Dhoni will tell you if he can replicate that success,” Nehra said.
In the past, Dhoni has been rumoured to have had strained relations with some of India’s seniors. Legend has it that he infamously asked for the selection panel to drop Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly from India’s ODI setup due to their lack of agility on the field. Later, in 2012, Dhoni’s rotation policy which saw one of India’s top-order batsmen getting dropped in the next game, attracted controversy.
“I have heard the rubbish about Dhoni being incommunicado when not playing. He had utmost respect for all senior players, gave them their space and I can vouch that he handled the transition phase pretty well because of his mind-reading abilities. He gave respect and hence got respect,” Nehra explained.
“It never happened that he didn’t give a clear picture to a player about what’s on his mind. Why is he better than the best? Because no one could control emotions better than Dhoni. What do you think, he never felt hurt, insulted or angry? But he knew how to conceal it. It’s his second nature.”
Nehra called Dhoni a wonderful reader of the game and credited him for handling his comebacks during the last phase of his career. “He was a good reader of other people’s mind and that’s what made him one of the best man-managers the game has ever seen. He handled my comeback and the phase between 2009 and 2011 really. He made me bowl the maximum overs in Powerplays and would use me in three or at times four spells,” Nehra added.
“In a match where you are defending 325, he would tell ‘don’t worry if you go for 70 runs as long as you get wickets. I am with you.’ He ensured that selectors in that era didn’t resort to a lot of chopping and changing. Once you leave the game, and sit on the selectors’ chair, you tend to find it easier to indulge in that
Having played a T20I against South Africa in Durban 2011, Nehra returned to the international fold after five year in 2016 – for a three-T20I series in Australia, which India won 3-0. He played 19 ODIs in the next one year, including the World T20 2016 in which hosts India finishes semi-finalists. In November of 2017, Nehra announced his retirement and bowed out against New Zealand in his home ground of the Feroz Shah Kotla.
“He had a crystal-clear idea about his go-to bowlers in slog overs, the shaky ones who could be clobbered at the death. That’s called mind reading and you can’t beat MS Dhoni on that. If he knew that a player had limited abilities, he would use him accordingly without being frustrated or abusing him and that’s leadership,” Nehra said.
“He knew his bowlers in T20 cricket. During my last phase in international cricket, he would make me bowl three overs in Powerplay and the other three would be by three different bowlers. Even if I went for 18 in first two, he would tell me ‘don’t worry, you bowl the third and if it’s a 12 also, it’s okay if a breakthrough comes along.’ Use of optimum resources was his strength and making top international players like Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja has been one of his biggest contributions.”