The ‘Dhoni’ factor in Indian cricket

MS Dhoni – Batsman, wicket-keeper, part-time bowler and a fine leader of men

There is an advertisement on television that keeps popping up quite a few times every day with kids challenging Virat Kohli to perform acts they perceive to be ‘really tough’. For a man who scored India’s lone century in its 0-4 drubbing down under, challenges need to have a ring.

He finally got one that has a ring, the jarring, mind-numbing, train-honking-meets-screeching-tires ring; of the kind he might never have faced in the international cricketing circuit. Dhoni was ruled out for the league phase of the tri-series and Kohli found himself full-time captain of the Indian team.

He had to not only wear the No.20 size shoes that Dhoni finds really tight but also try and run in them. Unenviable. Unfathomable too. But anyone who follows Indian cricket to a reasonable extent will know Dhoni has pushed his body hard, a bit too hard at times. Even though a hamstring pull might not exactly be the scariest of injuries you will come across, it was enough to bring down one of the fittest and most relentless cricket athletes over the last decade.

Most Indians might feel the injury couldn’t have come at a better time. A couple of weeks earlier and India might not have won the Champions Trophy. The euphoria was yet to die down, and it was a good time for a look-in at India’s vice-captain before the challenges of Rainbow Nation beckon.

We saw what the next generation could do with the bat and ball. Now we got to see what it can do with its head. If anything, that is the one thing you always need in fiery pits of competition.

India missed Dhoni during the tight West Indies chase on a sluggish pitch, where he, in all probability might have squeezed them into submission. India missed him during the Sri Lanka blitzkrieg, a record breaking innings that ended in a nightmarish wake-up call.

Without Dhoni, Kohli’s leadership faced a few stern tests

To be fair to Kohli, that match against Sri Lanka was his first as a captain. He learnt, like all good cricketers, from that monster hit on the rear that Sri Lanka delivered. He brought India back in the next two matches, scoring a scintillating knock himself, leading from the front. With some aid from the coolly elegant Rohit Sharma, he even managed to put India on top of the table, a great way to hand the captaincy back to his skipper for the finals.

Virat Kohli is talented; one has to be if he is captaining the national team at his age. He will learn, there is no doubt about that. It would be harsh to criticize him for anything he pulled off on the field or didn’t in the four innings that he has captained the team. The bane of this young team though, is that Virat is much more assured with the bat and a lot more fidgety on the field.

Rohit Sharma looked like a true-blood successor of Dhoni’s calmness on the field during IPL, but he has miles to go before catching up with Virat in accomplishments. Importantly, most Indian fans and even the team, like Kohli admitted, believe in Dhoni’s aura, that Dhoni’s hat always has that extra rabbit; always, even when Ishant Sharma is getting clobbered all around the park and cricketing logic wouldn’t let you bet even a few cents on an Indian win.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has the ability to surprise everyone around him with a poker face. And how he proved that in the finals! Dhoni isn’t just tactically one of the best skippers in ODIs but also a good wicket-keeper and the game’s best finisher going around. Beyond all this, he is a presence, unwavering and reassuring, a presence that makes his men pull off one miracle after another.

Dhoni’s captaincy, just like his batting, has a touch of ‘zany’ to it, in fact more than a touch. Deep inside his head, there might be a few traces of emotion that tug at his heart strings, but they don’t affect his grey cells and that is his contribution to the team. One glance at his placid face from anywhere on the ground should be sufficient for any cricketer on the field to get back to business.

Dhoni’s captaincy has a touch of ‘zany’ to it

The man who lost his mane and youthful carefree looks to maturity and facial greyness conjures a spell – the equivalent of a yoga teacher numbing you with the words, ‘Calm down, take a deep breath’. That is the Dhoni factor, for it cannot be a mere coincidence that his cabinet has every single trophy worth its salt.

He never had the ‘Steve Waugh Invincibles’ to do it for him and luck is too promiscuous to support someone for so long. As an ardent fan joked during live commentary, the mere mention of his name sometimes seems to bring a wicket.

Everyone witnessed the difference in the second league game against West Indies, when Dhoni was almost playing the football manager, standing next to some of the bowlers, conjuring plans at the boundary line and when they worked, applauding them. Probably, he gave us a glimpse of where his heart lies in the future. I wouldn’t put a jinx on it, but I am already excited.

Without him, India will miss 3 players in one. He isn’t like Mike Brearley or Douglas Jardine, someone who will be remembered for captaincy alone. He has contributed way too much with his bat or even the keeping gloves. This tri-series showed how much the heir-apparent has learnt and he had a chance to learn from one of the very best.

Kohli has a different style of captaincy, which is more in-your-face, more emotional and more flamboyant. That double-edged sword of wearing your heart on the sleeves might not always work, and might even push people off the edge – something Dhoni rarely does, something a seemingly calm Rohit Sharma rarely did while captaining Mumbai Indians, a reason why they went all the way.

It was an  interesting experience for the entire team, for to most of them, especially for the likes of Rohit, Raina, Jadeja and Kohli, Dhoni is almost like the elder brother ready to back them all the way. It is hard to imagine a Raina-Jadeja altercation in Dhoni’s presence, without any disrespect for Kohli.

Virat Kohli has learnt from one of the best in business

It was an experiment the Indian selectors wouldn’t have had the heart to undertake but have benefited from. Kohli, who has now tasted blood, with two wins and two losses, will look at games differently. For one can never be 100% sure, thanks to the vagaries of international cricket and the scheduling whims of the bosses, that Dhoni will be fit and available, come 2015 World Cup down under.

Just when the cricket started becoming a little monotonous, Dhoni’s injury gave Indian fans a reason to sit up and watch, with a creased brow and a tinge of worry. Of course, like always, he came back and finished in style, but his importance just went up a few notches.

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