On his first foreign tour as an India A player to Kenya and Zimbabwe in July 2004, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s roommate was the Delhi and India opening batsman Aakash Chopra. Having already made his Test debut, Chopra as the senior player, reached out to Dhoni and asked him what his sleeping habits were. “Aakash bhai, don’t worry, I will sleep whenever you switch off the lights and wake up whenever you choose to draw the curtains!” was the unassuming response.
“What about food preferences?” asked Chopra. “I will eat whatever is available,” remarked Dhoni with equal simplicity. On the same tour, Dhoni was the backup wicketkeeper to >Dinesh Karthik. During net practice, he would often assist his senior keeper with throw-downs. “But isn’t he your direct competitor?” wondered a team-mate. “No problem, I just like to be involved in the game,” smiled Dhoni. “Look, it was my first India tour and I was just happy to be playing cricket,” Dhoni tells me now.
Thirteen years, more than 300 one-day internationals and 90 Tests later, Indian cricket’s most successful captain is still in a happy space in the autumn of his career, this time under the leadership of Virat Kohli. To understand the secret of his longevity, one has to peep into the enigmatic Dhoni mind that remains as inscrutable as ever. At the heart of his success lies an unshaken belief in never getting ahead of himself, of always living in the moment, of staying in a comfort zone without ever fretting too much. “If you have a glass of water in front of you, why do you need anything more to quench your thirst?” is his philosophical approach to life and sport.
When he was captaining India, Dhoni’s USP was his seeming calmness under pressure. Equanimity is a rare quality to possess in the combustible colosseum of modern-day sport, but it is an attitude to life which Dhoni has mastered, right from the days when he was sorting out tickets as a Class 3 railway employee at Kharagpur railway station. Life as a ticket collector wasn’t easy: hundreds of excitable passengers rushing in and out of trains meant being pushed and shoved all the time. And yet, Dhoni insists that he enjoyed the challenge and eventually became rather proficient at the task. So what were his goals when he was a Class 3 railway employee? “The first task was how to become a Class 2 employee! Where I come from in Ranchi, we don’t think too much about the future but choose to take life one step at a time,” he tells me.
One Ball at a Time
It is this one-step-at-a-time attitude of the quintessential small-town boy which might explain why Dhoni has been so successful in high-pressure situations on the field. Picture the classic Dhoni scenario that has played out so often throughout his career: 15 runs to get, last over and Dhoni at the crease. At that moment, even the best of cricketers are known to crumble in the face of the dreaded eight-letter word: pressure. Not so Dhoni, for whom it has always been a case of thinking one over, or occasionally even one ball at a time. “We always think it’s the batsman who is under pressure, but don’t forget the bowler is under equal pressure.
The bowler knows that if he bowls in the wrong area, I might hit him for six, so he is just as tense as I might be,” is his explanation.
If calmness in adversity is at the core of the Dhoni success formula, then being street-smart provides the cutting edge to his leadership. “What may seem risky to many others comes naturally to Dhoni, it may seem like instinct, but trust me, there is a method to the madness,” remarks Stephen Fleming, the former New Zealand captain and coach with whom he shared a successful partnership at the Chennai Super Kings.
In the 2007 World T20 finals, when Dhoni opted for an untested and unknown Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over against Pakistan, many observers wondered at the wisdom of the decision. After all, the more experienced Harbhajan Singh still had an over left. But Dhoni’s always-ticking cricketing clock told him that Pakistan’s powerhitter Misbah-ul-Haq might be more discomfited with the change of pace of a Sharma than he would be with Harbhajan’s spin that was within his striking arc. Even when Sharma was hit for a six off the first ball, Dhoni didn’t panic. “Daalte raho (Keep bowling),” was his simple message.
That 2007 World T20 win changed Dhoni’s life forever. With his long hair and rippling muscles, he was transformed into the macho poster boy of a new brand of aggressive, fast-paced cricket. But what hasn’t changed through the years is the fierce desire to be his own man. He is still Mahi to his small circle of friends, someone who has built an impenetrable wall around himself, who often won’t carry a mobile and will rarely reply to text messages. He is a private man who is seemingly untouched by mass adulation. Even in his finest hour — the World Cup win in 2011 — he preferred to slink into the background, allowing Tendulkar to be the eternal hero. “I had started playing cricket, after all, because of Sachin,” he says.
The power of his leadership then comes from his composure through good times and bad, not from any theatrics or overt demonstration of joy or anger. Which is why when the team is in a tough spot, Kohli still turns to Dhoni for sage advice. Which is why he is certain to play for India in the 2019 World Cup even at the age of 38. If Kohli’s boundless energy is infectious, Dhoni is like the silent tiger in his lair, moving to his own rhythm, almost untouched by the noise around him. As captain, he rarely spoke to his bowlers or held long team meetings. “Once you play for India, you should know what to do,” is his conviction.
No Indian cricketer has perhaps had a greater impact on the sport than Dhoni: a management consultancy report that traced the expansion of the market economy into small-town India was described as the Dhoni Effect. And yet, few have stayed as rooted: the shy boy from Ranchi who chose cricket over football in school, who likes nothing better than listening to happy Kishore Kumar songs and riding into the sunset on a bike, someone who is still living his own fairytale without ever getting carried away by his iconic status. After all, when you can deal with screaming passengers at a crowded Kharagpur station, then handling a tense situation on the cricket field is so much simpler.