MS Dhoni’s approach to cricket is spiritual, writes Sanjay Manjrekar
When it comes to exceptional cricketers, the murmurs about them start way before they play for India; and those murmurs go right to the top, to the dressing room of the Indian team. Sachin Tendulkar was of course a prodigy, so everyone had heard of him before he had even made it to the Mumbai Ranji squad. I remember Navjot Singh Sidhu telling me about Virender Sehwag, that he had not seen anyone hit the ball better than Sehwag, barring Tendulkar. High praise for someone who had just made his entry into the Ranji team, but Sidhu was so right!
Then there was Lalchand Rajput telling me about a teenager he had seen in action, called Virat Kohli. Rajput thought Kohli, who was playing Under 19 then, had the potential to rub shoulders with Tendulkar (Tendulkar being everyone’s favourite benchmark of batting excellence). I had looked at Rajput in disbelief; but again, how right was he?
In the same way, Ravi Shastri had excitedly told me about Mahendra Singh Dhoni. New talent thrilled Shastri. Even when he was playing for India, he was happy to see exceptional players making it to the Indian team, and he went out of his way to motivate and guide them. Shastri was very secure as a player.
So, Shastri was telling me about this long-haired guy called Dhoni who seems to have a bit of swag about him and can really belt the ball. Yup, that was Dhoni’s calling card then—the long-haired boy who can hit the ball a mile.
As we know now, there was so much more to Dhoni than the long hair and the power; but back then who would have thought that he would end up making such a tremendous impact on Indian cricket?
The first good look I had at him was probably the first good look you had at him. That was when he hit that 148 against Pakistan in Vizag in 2005.
What stood out for me was that the big hits were not slogs across the line, not what we call ‘hit or miss’ shots. Dhoni hit everything straight. I remember saying in commentary that there is a very good chance that this batsman will also be consistent because his big hits were mostly in the V. His awareness of the situation and his running between the wickets were other indicators of the long career that lay before him.
But, above all, Dhoni’s iconic status today is because of the way he led the team. The 2007 World T20 was when MSD found this very special place in the hearts of Indian fans and he has been resident there since. It wasn’t so much his keeping or his batting in that tournament that caught people’s eyes, it was his captaincy. Not just his tactics—which were very good—but also his demeanour on the big nights.
India had won world titles in cricket before Dhoni, but the team could still get tense and nervous on the big days or near the finishing line. That stopped with Dhoni. Way back in 2007 we knew—Indian cricket had the calmest leader in the world on the big stage.
I have done a few tosses with him before big games and this composure was palpable out at the pitch—Dhoni was approaching the big game like it was any other match. The same could not be said about many of his counterparts. That was Dhoni’s big gift to Indian cricket—to play the big final and treat it like any other game. It was for this reason I picked his Chennai Super Kings as certain winners before the 2010 IPL final against Mumbai Indians, led by Tendulkar.
With time, Dhoni’s calmness began filtering down to the rest of the squad. The calmest Indian team was Dhoni’s Indian team. That composure meant that India started chasing targets with far more authority, started winning in chases with far more consistency. It’s a habit Kohli has taken forward.
Dhoni is a self-taught cricketer. He did not believe in one principle or one formula to win. His mind was always alive with ideas. At my age, I now understand that all situations in life are different and need varied approaches to tackle it. Dhoni knew that in his 20s. That’s probably why Dhoni did not believe in team meetings. How could you predict what would happen on the ground? Better to have the confidence that whatever happens, his team would find a way to meet the challenge.
His approach to cricket is spiritual. I remember the way he would look downcast at post match interviews even after India had won, because the team had not played in the manner he would have liked. He uses the word “process” a lot; he absolutely and genuinely believes in it. It isn’t a fashionable or convenient cliché for him.
If the team did not follow the process well, then the win, for him, was because of luck. That did not make him happy. For him, the “right” process was playing clinically and smartly as per the situation and not allowing the emotions raging inside get the better of you. Which is why, often, he would not look too unhappy with a loss—because in his mind his team followed the right process.
Why did Dhoni win so much? My answer is: because he didn’t obsess about winning too much, like he didn’t worry about losing too much. He focussed on the steps to get there—the process. Looking at the trophy in the distance longingly only gets you to stumble on your next step right before you.
Finally, how will I remember Dhoni the cricketer? Well, as one who was almost robotic in the way he handled the pressure moments in the game. I used to marvel at his presence of mind, his game awareness, his ability to stay in his bubble while the world was going crazy around him.
Which other batsman in the world, in a title winning run chase—17 to get in two overs with one wicket in hand—intentionally picks only two runs in the 49th? He backed himself to get the remaining 14 runs in the last over, and he got there with three balls to spare. And after that mind-boggling feat, in the winning team photo, you can see him standing quietly in one corner.
That’s how I will remember him.
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