Captain's challenge

Cricket

Captain's challenge

M S Dhoni

Mahendra Singh Dhoni isn’t prone to sentimentality, but even the normally taciturn Indian captain should feel awash in a wave of nostalgia upon touching down in a country that catapulted him to Captain Marvel two years back. Skipper by default after the big boys pulled out of the inaugural World T20 in 2007, the uncomplicated Jharkhandi scripted one of the more stunning upsets in cricket history by masterminding an extraordinary Indian coup in South Africa. Long before a team short on T20 experience and beginning the competition as one of the rank outsiders had thrown the form book out of the window and crowned itself World Cup winners, the one-day captaincy too had been bestowed on Dhoni after Rahul Dravid decided he had had enough of the hot seat.

That World Cup triumph was the first indication that Dhoni was a natural leader. In the 24 months since, the legend of Dhoni the captain and leader has grown substantially. Following Anil Kumble’s retirement from Test cricket last November, Dhoni has assumed the mantle in all three formats, and hasn’t done a bad job of it at all!

As he returns to South Africa for the first time since that epochal T20 conquest, Dhoni can look back on the journey that has been since with justifiable pride and delight. The towering highs almost completely overshadow the occasional lows; under Dhoni, India have won more matches than they have lost in Tests, 50-over cricket and the T20 version, a record few international skippers can boast of.

Unlike some of his more erudite and scholarly predecessors, Dhoni is less of a thinker. Like them, though, he is every bit a doer, which is not to say that he doesn’t lay emphasis on planning and preparation. It’s just that he brings his own unique skills to the table, and given his record, who is to say that that has not stood him in good stead.

There isn’t one single aspect of Dhoni’s leadership that stands out. He doesn’t wave his arms around like a general, he doesn’t make captains wait at the toss, he doesn’t indulge in gamesmanship or trash-talk, and seldom gets involved in a war of words, even though he can sometimes convey the wrong impression because his command over the English language isn’t impeccable.

What he does brilliantly well, though, is rouse his team into playing to its potential, if not above itself, more often than not. He does it backstage, away from the public glare, and runs a tight ship. He has his favourites – he is as human anyone else, lest we should lose sight of that! – but he seldom plays the favourites game, and most certainly not at the expense of the team’s interests.

Enormously fortunate

Of course, Dhoni is enormously fortunate, as he will admit, to have some of the genuine
greats of the game at his disposal, men who have been there and done that, and who are committed to the core. Between them, Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid had more than done their bit to break Dhoni in gently after the latter’s brief apprenticeship period in Test cricket under Kumble, and while Dhoni is his own man, it is inevitable that some of the composure, the cricketing intelligence and the ability to read situations that the aforementioned trio possesses in ample measure would have rubbed off on the 28-year-old.

As the Champions Trophy beckons, it will be up to Dhoni to ensure that India shed their recent poor run in the biennial 50-over competition. When the tournament was in its originally conceived shape as the ICC Knockout, India made the semifinals in the inaugural edition in Dhaka in 1998, and the final two years later, in Nairobi.

In its first coming as the Champions Trophy, the event witnessed honours being shared for the only time as Sri Lanka and India played upwards of 110 overs spread over two days, and still couldn’t arrive at a result in an era where the match started afresh on the reserve day.

Added incentive

Since then, India haven’t progressed beyond the first stage, failing to make the semifinals in England in 2004 and in their own backyard in 2006.  Now, having already had a taste, if only for 24 hours, of the top ranking in the one-day format, India aren’t unaware that a second Cup triumph in three weeks will establish themselves as the official number one 50-over side in the world, a tribute to the consistently attractive brand of cricket Dhoni and his band has portrayed in all corners over the last two years.

Dhoni has taken to captaincy like to the manor born, leading from the front in no unmistakable terms. His own approach to batsmanship has had to perforce be altered in deference to team interests, and while the right-hander might not be the same bruising destroyer he was at the start of his career, he is a far more effective, efficient package without completely sacrificing entertainment.

The return to the side of Dravid and the incandescence of Tendulkar should see Dhoni bat with more freedom than he has since taking charge, but don’t necessarily count on it. The ability to surprise is Dhoni’s USP, even if India going all the way at the Champions Trophy won’t necessarily be a massive surprise.

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