The players' captain

Personality : MS Dhoni's biggest legacy will be the way he groomed youngsters by giving them the long rope

The players' captain

“If captains like Mahi bhai tell you that you have to jump from the 24th floor, you would readily do that without thinking even once”   -- Ishant Sharma
“If my captain asks me to die on the field, I'll do it" -- R Ashwin

“I am ready to stand in front of a speeding truck for my captain” -- Robin Uthappa

These statements by some of India’s well-known cricketers may sound a bit melodramatic, but they are heartfelt and sum up the kind of captain that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was. Dhoni has been called many things in his career but the one that sat comfortably on him was the sobriquet “captain cool.” The first impression, they say, is the best impression and Dhoni in his very first assignment as captain left a lasting impression by leading India to the title in the 2007 World T20. Named the skipper ahead of the more-established names such as Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh, he showed why he was the chosen one.

A significant part of Dhoni’s career overlapped with some of India’s greatest cricketers, yet he managed to carve a niche for himself without the talent they possessed and with little cricketing pedigree, coming as he did from the state of Jharkhand, which until then was known more for gun-totting Naxals than willow-wielding cricketers. Who would have thought a cricketer from the hinterland of India would go on to become the country’s most successful captain across all three formats?

Dhoni didn’t have the luxury of graduating from well-established cricketing systems like the ones in Mumbai or Delhi or Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. Heck, he didn’t even want to be a cricketer in the first place. He was supposed to be a football goalkeeper who, at the insistence of his school cricket coach who was desperately looking for a stumper for his team, donned wicket-keeping gloves. Dhoni was destiny’s favourite child.

There is a scene in Dhoni’s biopic (MS Dhoni: The Untold Story) when a young Yuvraj Singh walks past the Jharkhand players at a basketball court and leaves them awestruck with his style and swagger. The next day, Jharkhand go on to lose that under-19 match against Punjab despite Dhoni’s heroics. Dhoni, later discussing the outcome of the match, says his team had lost the match the previous night itself at the basketball court. Mentally, Jharkhand had conceded the match to Punjab, something that Dhoni has never done in his career. He was surrounded by some of the biggest and brightest cricketers in the team he led but rarely was he overawed by their presence. He respected them for what they were but he let everyone know that he was the final authority. He was firm but fair. Perhaps the background he came from helped him take the decisions that he took.

Barely a year into his limited-overs captaincy, he decided to phase out the likes of Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman, who he thought were too slow for the modern-day game. He wasn’t either afraid to rotate the “slow” Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir -- an act which could have been construed as sacrilege in a hierarchy-ridden system -- as playing them together meant loss of some runs while fielding. Very early in his captaincy, Dhoni understood the importance of having a fit and swift fielding unit to do well in the shorter versions. If India today have one of the best fielding units in the world, a large part of credit will have to go to Dhoni. Nothing ruffled him more than a lethargic attempt by a fielder.

What then defines Dhoni’s legacy as captain? Is it winning three ICC trophies and leading India to the No 1 ranking in Tests, the only captain to accomplish such a feat in the world? Is it the on-field gambles that he took or off-field strategies that he came up with? Is it the fact that a small-town boy with no background whatsoever in the game went on to rule Indian cricket like few others before him?

While all these are defining features of Dhoni’s legacy, the single most important aspect of his leadership was the manner in which he groomed youngsters. Any bowler or batsman worth his salt received ample opportunities to prove his worth in the team. Without the backing of Dhoni, the likes of Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja, to name just a few, would have found it difficult to stay on the radar.

Though Dhoni was best suited to bat at No 4 in ODIs, he allowed the young batsmen to go up the order so that they could bat when there was less pressure to accelerate and ample time to settle down. Instead of going after batting glory, Dhoni chose to build a batting group and in the process emerged as one of the finest, if not the finest, finishers in the 50-over format.

At No 4, Dhoni averaged 58.23 per innings while at No 5, he managed to score 52.72 runs every outing. At six, where he batted the most (112 innings), he averaged 45.16 and at seven 47.76 – both impressive averages for ODIs but significantly less compared to when he batted up the order. If you have a captain who puts his team and his team-mates’ interests first, why wouldn’t you jump from 24 floors for him or stand in front of a truck?

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