The Superman in Blue

Sports

The Superman in Blue

Illustration: Akshita Monga

O

ne hundred and ninety-nine ODIs as captain. One short of a well-rounded 200. An ellipsis, not a period; a choice not made; a neargasm.

The temptation to quantify achievement in whole, rounded numbers is universal. 100 crore! 100 days! This desire to be completists, to think in terms of neat numbers has always ruled our mindset, but only Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems to have understood that a man’s contribution to a sport cannot be bettered with just another game. It takes guts – and a wise confidence – to go out at 199, to resist the attraction of a smooth 200.

And Dhoni is perhaps the bravest man Indian sport will have had the privilege of knowing. In a 2008 piece titled “Elegy for the Long Player”, Rohit Brijnath wrote: “This life athletes lead, this ability to bend a nation in praise of you with a few strokes of the bat, is an intoxication without parallel… It is a tremendous power, accompanied by the knowledge that nothing will compare to this in their lives, everything else will be second best. To play on is to know that high is still possible. Competition is an addiction that keeps them here, that brings them back, an addiction so deep that even the perfect ending is somehow imperfect. In a way, this makes sense: how can finishing what you love most ever be satisfactory?”

Dhoni, as we have come to realise in the last few years, is not one to remain intoxicated by the power that captaincy wields. It takes courage to fix something way before it is broken. Look at our rankings today: We are ranked No 1 and No 2 in Tests and ODIs respectively. Before Dhoni hung up his boots as captain, Virat Kohli was leading the Test side well and the split-captains strategy seemed to be working. So why did Dhoni step down? Shouldn’t we have let a good thing keep going until it didn’t?

Dhoni didn’t agree. Despite his record as captain – he has won the ODI World Cup, T20 World Cup, Champions Trophy, and Asia Cup – and the fact that he changed the game India used to play, he chose to stop. It’s because Dhoni has what very few of us do: The unflinching strength to assess himself brutally. He knew well that his batting was affected in the last year and he was no longer the finisher we remembered. He also knew that he could bat well enough at No 4 and set up the game for someone else to finish. But he also knew he was not the best bet to captain India at the next the World Cup.

So he did what nobody else would have had the courage to do: Take himself down from captaincy and still make himself available as a wicketkeeper and batsman so that he contributes in a combination that works best for the next cup.

Our ability to handle pressure, our belief in our ability to see it through, to finish things off, and take our side home are the great lessons Mahi has taught us.

This was hardly the first time we saw Dhoni take such wise decisions. He has an uncanny ability to do things that almost always pay off. We hear his critics talk about things like luck involved in these gambles, but he’s always clear that these were his calculated moves – even when they have gone wrong. Remember when Dhoni gave the ball to Ishant in the Champions Trophy 2013 final? The pacer knocked down two set batsmen in two deliveries and exposed the English tail. Sure he’s a risk-taker, but his homework is always done. Imagine someone who hasn’t performed well in a single inning in 2011 World Cup promoting himself ahead of man-in-form Yuvraj Singh because he didn’t want left-handers to get exposed to Murali? It was a masterful innings and still is the top moment for many Indian fans.

Dhoni, in many ways, stands not just for what makes a great cricketer but a great man. There is nuance and respect for his seniors in the game that he plays. Remember when he asked Ganguly in his last Test, to captain the side for the next few overs against Australia? It was a move lined with sensitivity and done without any visible show of emotion, but it was a heart-warming moment. Nobody can forget when he lifted Anil Kumble for an entire lap on his shoulders or how he let Sachin be the centre of the 2011 World Cup win. Dhoni is the reason why cricket might still be called the gentleman’s game.

The legacy he leaves behind is a substantial one. Virat Kohli might spend the next phase of his career trying to fit into his shoes. He will have to grow up from being the whiz kid to being the mature leader. He will have to learn to leave personal ambition aside and play for greater good. He will have to understand how every decision, right from the moment he takes on the captaincy to the time he steps down, requires brutality and grace in equal measure. Virat will have to graduate from being a sublime cricketer to being a brave man.

In some measure, Virat has already begun blazing his own path. You can hate him for his tussle with Kumble that led to the legend losing his coaching gig, or you can love him for how he led India to the Champions Trophy final, but you can’t deny that he is coming into his own. Meanwhile, Dhoni has gone from fearless leader to elder statesman. The Indian side is starting to fill up with young blood like Hardik Pandya, and they are chomping at the bit to take the reins from the old guard. Where once Dhoni was the same youngster thirsty for success, today he finds himself on the opposite side of the equation.

In the face of rising youngsters like Rishab Pant and Sanju Samson who could fulfil his present duties as wicketkeeper-batsman, will Dhoni stick on until the 2019 World Cup? Or will his unflinching sense of self-assessment assert itself once again? Dhoni has given himself plenty of food for thought since stepping down this January. He had his lowest batting average in five years in this year’s edition of the IPL, and his 108-ball half century against West Indies (in a losing effort) will no doubt be an innings he’d like to forget. He’s proven time and again that he is not one to shy away from a difficult decision. The outcome of this one is a question that will be paramount in the minds of every Indian cricket fan for the next two years.

And, for the umpteenth time in his career, the only one with all the answers is Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

This is an updated version of an article published earlier.

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