T20 World Cup: Can four minds work in tandem to win it for India?
- The signs were clear when BCCI made the unprecedented appointment of Dhoni as the team’s “mentor”, spelling out that not only will he have a say in match strategy, but also in team selections.
When the camera panned to the Indian dressing room at one point during Monday’s warm-up game, “mentor” MS Dhoni and captain Virat Kohli were locked in an intense conversation. It looked one-sided—Dhoni was doing all the talking.
Though we don’t know what they were talking about, it felt like a symbolic moment. Dhoni, the man who delivered two World Cups as captain, helping Kohli break his jinx of being a highly successful skipper without an ICC trophy to show for it.
The signs were clear when BCCI made the unprecedented appointment of Dhoni as the team’s “mentor”, spelling out that not only will he have a say in match strategy, but also in team selections.
Dhoni, in a sense, is an assistant coach to Ravi Shastri in all but name—or, he is a non-playing captain. Whichever way you cut it, Dhoni brings to the table his tactical nous, a strategic mind that is very different from Kohli’s.
Add vice-captain Rohit Sharma, who is expected to take over as captain of India’s T20 team after the World Cup, into this new democratic experiment. Another person whose strategic moves as a captain, as evidenced in IPL with Mumbai Indians, is distinctly different from Kohli’s approach.
This Kohli-Shastri-Dhoni-Sharma combination may or may not work. Too many cooks and all that. But if these distinct voices can come together in a harmonious whole, the effect could blow opponents away.
Few words, big impact
Dhoni is a man of few words and his captaincy style, even as he guided CSK to their fourth title this season, has always been about keeping things simple. His team meetings are famously brief. He often trusts people to do the right thing instead of telling them what to do. Jasprit Bumrah recalled the first ever match he played for India, when he was flown into Australia as a replacement for the injured Mohammad Shami in 2016.
In the quick morning meeting, Dhoni told him he would play. Bumrah expected a bowling plan, a detailed discussion on what was expected of him. None of that happened. On the field, Dhoni gave him the ball first change. “He told me, ‘whatever field you want, you just tell me and we’ll give you that, just bowl like you know how to bowl’,” Bumrah said.
Tactically, the CSK captain also has an aura because of his understanding of the shortest format of the game better than anyone else. Dhoni, who won all three of ICC’s blue riband events, the T20 and 50-overs World Cup and the Champions Trophy, could help provide clarity in decision making where the team’s think-tank is not sure. His nine IPL finals and four titles at CSK are also the result of Dhoni’s ability to find the right combination of players.
This season, young opener Ruturaj Gaikwad repaid Dhoni’s trust in him, scoring the most runs in the league. On the other end of the spectrum, veteran Moeen Ali, who could never find his feet with Royal Challengers Bangalore, flourished at CSK under Dhoni. At the 2019 ODI World Cup, one of the reasons for India’s exit in the semi-final was that the team could not settle on a No 4 batter. It’s just the kind of thing where Dhoni’s instincts and experience can prove to be a game changer.
In stark contrast to Dhoni, Kohli is a highly emotional and outspoken man on the field with a demanding, in-your-face approach. His captaincy is fuelled by an ultra-competitive spirit and a call that the rest of the team join into that spirit.
He keeps the players on their toes with his straight talk. The captain is the last word. No one is indispensable. Reputations don’t matter. Sometimes current form doesn’t matter if a player is not seen as the right fit for the match strategy.
One reason that style of leadership worked is because Kohli led from the front. He was simply the best performer in the team. At one time, he was scoring a hundred every alternate innings. His fitness levels were incredible. He did not let any provocations from opposing players slide. Things have changed. Compared to his lofty standards, his batting has looked shaky in the last year.
In fact, Kohli’s dip in batting form may have prompted him to quit the T20 captaincy. During IPL, he played as an opener. At the World Cup he will play at No 3. It will take some adjusting.
In the first warm-up game, he was out for 11, and quite uncharacteristically walked away shadow practising the stroke. While he will continue to bring his firebrand, take-no-prisoner energy to the team, Kohli will also need to get back into the kind of touch he had during the last T20 World Cup in 2016, where he single-handedly powered India into the semis by scoring 273 runs in five innings at an average of 136.50 and a strike rate of 146.77.
The only captain to better Dhoni’s record in IPL is Mumbai Indians’ Rohit Sharma, having won an unmatched five titles.
Plenty of players—including Sharma himself—have pointed out that Dhoni and Sharma share some common leadership qualities, the chief among them being an ability to remain unflustered under pressure. Though unlike Dhoni, Sharma is also low-key as a captain—when Dhoni swaggers out on to a field, there is no doubt he is the leader of the pack. With Sharma, it’s much more subtle.
“With Rohit, he doesn’t make you feel he is the captain,” Hardik Pandya said.
With this soft approach, Sharma has built one of the most ruthless winning machines in IPL.
“I am not someone who runs with a stick behind the players, it’s important to give them confidence, they need to understand their roles. It’s important to find a way to come back when things are not going your way,” is how Sharma described his leadership during a post-match IPL interview.
On the field, he makes straightforward decisions. His laidback style, which when he is batting is often called “lazy elegance”, hides a nerveless and tough decision-maker.
In the 2019 IPL final against Dhoni’s CSK, Mumbai Indians’ talismanic but ageing bowler Lasith Malinga had conceded 41 runs in his first three overs. Yet, when the time came to defend nine runs in the last over, Sharma did not hesitate to hand the ball to his most seasoned death overs specialist. Malinga conceded eight and Mumbai won by a single run.