Thursday, 11 July 2013 was a rather dull day.
India and Sri Lanka were to play the finals of an inconsequential tri-series in the Caribbean. Once the match got underway, I checked the scorecard intermittently and went to sleep thinking that India will win the game easily.
For some reason I woke up in the middle of the night and checked the score. The headline was that India were five wickets down with plenty of runs still to get. I quickly opened up the detailed scorecard and to my relief saw that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was still at the crease.
I went back to sleep cocksure that Dhoni would win the match for India. And, just as I had assumed, he won India the game and the tournament, scoring 15 runs off the last over.
Cut to the IPL final that same year. Mumbai and Chennai faced each other in the finals of the tournament. Towards the end of the match Dhoni had a Himalayan target to chase in the last two overs.
Mumbai’s wicketkeeper had started to celebrate the impending win. Rohit Sharma, captain of the Mumbai team, shushed his over-enthusiastic keeper as though to warn him of any complacency with Dhoni still at the crease. Such was the legend of MSD that everyone feared his magical act at the end. The Houdini of cricket such that he was.
My first introduction to Dhoni was when I saw him on TV clips from an India A versus Pakistan A match. The Indian team were on the lookout for a desi version of Adam Gilchrist and Dhoni seemed to fit the bill.
The next time I saw him was in the India-Bangladesh ODI series in Bangladesh. He was run out of the first ball of his debut match. But in the second match India was at the brink of a disaster while chasing down a modest target. Dhoni came in to bat and hit a couple of boundaries.
I told my dad that this guy, playing with a devil-may-care attitude, would win the game for us. However, Dhoni holed out soon and disappointed me. India lost to Bangladesh for the first time in an ODI. At the end of the series I didn’t think much of Dhoni as a future of Indian cricket. Yuvi, Sehwag, Mohammad Kaif and others were my favourites to take India further after the big four retired.
The first time that I realised Dhoni was a special player was in the last match of the India-Pakistan ODI series in 2006 in Pakistan. Dhoni had by then established his credentials as a hard-hitting batsman. However, the innings that he played at Karachi put the fear in every opponent that no target was too far for this player.
When Dhoni came in to bat, the commentator on air said that Dhoni’s coach in an attempt to tone him down had advised him to count 15 deliveries, after which he could start smashing the ball at will. So I began to count down the deliveries.
I am not sure if it came down to 15 or not, but Dhoni started an assault on the Pakistani bowlers that took everyone’s breath away. A match that looked like would have a tight finish, India ended up winning at a canter. Ramiz Raja was spellbound in the commentary box. With hitters like Sehwag and Dhoni, Bob Woolmer felt India could be the first team to break the 400-run barrier in ODIs.
Until this point in time my impression of Dhoni was that he was all brawn. How am I to know that we had only scratched the surface of who Dhoni was as a cricketer?
The 2007 World T20 was the next time Dhoni revealed a new facet of his character to the world: his ability to captain a national side. A lot has already been said of Dhoni’s exploits as a captain during this World Cup, including that Joginder Sharma masterstroke. As much as I agreed with a lot of what was said and written, deep down I felt that he was lucky.
The first time I felt I had to reimagine Dhoni as a cricketer and captain was during the 2008 series in Australia. Dhoni got himself an ODI team, leaving out Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, in one shot. I told myself that there was a captain ready to take tough decisions. He was already preparing for the 2011 World Cup in India.
But what was even more surprising to me was Dhoni the batsman of this series. Until then Dhoni to me was an out-and-out hitter. In this series he started to graft, running the ones and the twos and building up a score. I must admit he looked quite ungainly playing those defensive strokes.
He began to reveal a new side of his batting: the ability to play the waiting game. India went on to win the tri-series in Australia after a long time.
Have you noticed I’ve written nothing about Dhoni’s wicketkeeping? Was his brilliance in front of the wicket such that this base skill of his went mostly unnoticed? Not quite true. Dhoni’s work behind the stumps was so good that he was barely noticed. However, as with Dhoni, he found another level in wicketkeeping such that it will not go unnoticed anymore.
It was in the IPL that I started to notice his brilliance as a wicketkeeper, mainly to spin bowlers. Dhoni packed his team with spin bowlers to exploit the spin paradise in Chennai. I was astonished to notice the speed at which Dhoni’s hands grabbed the ball and flicked the stumps in one motion.
If Dhoni went up for a stumping, the call for the third umpire’s decision was a mere formality. In his whole career I cannot remember a match in which Dhoni struggled behind the wickets. Not even for a part of a game!
That runout to kill Bangladeshi hearts in WT20 2014 will be my highlight of Dhoni the wicketkeeper. That folks measured his running speed and compared it to Usain Bolt’s was overdoing it, even for a diehard like me.
In the first eight to ten years of his international career Dhoni had achieved everything that a cricketer would want to achieve. His trophy cupboard was full of prized possessions: world cups, champions trophies, ICC Test maces – everything. Around 2013 I wondered what was left for Dhoni to achieve.
Dhoni held another surprise for me. Dhoni the mentor came to the fore. He was already a great captain, nurturing talents like Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin et al. Soon he would relinquish his captaincy, but would take up the role of a mentor. If you have watched baseball games, you would have noticed the catcher signalling to the pitcher before every pitch.
Similarly, Dhoni and the bowlers became a mini team within the team, plotting and defeating the batsmen from the opposition. Alas, from now on, when the Indian white-ball team gets on the ground the bowlers will have to think for themselves.
By the time 2019 came I thought I had seen all of Dhoni. However, he held back a surprise until what turned out to be his last moments on a cricket pitch. Boy, Dhoni could even cry! That shocking loss to New Zealand at Old Trafford must have so hurt Dhoni that he shed tears in public. I had seen an angry Dhoni before, occasionally jubilant Dhoni, but a teary Dhoni? Now that he is retired from all forms of international cricket, he might as well stop surprising me!
Anyway, Dhoni, the multifaceted cricket player, will stay in my memory forever.
Go well, Captain Dhoni, as you join Kapil Dev as in the list of players that India will never be able to replace.