M.S. Dhoni is known for taking the game down to the wire. Even when the match situation feels utterly hopeless, he believes in just hanging in there.
Over his long career, which came to an end Saturday, Dhoni succeeded in delivering that knockout punch at the finish line more often than not. But there were always situations when the odds were stacked so heavily that even the greatest finisher couldn’t find a way to get across the finish line. The sequence of events that led to Dhoni’s retirement from international cricket had a similar ring to it.
Dhoni’s last international game was the 2019 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. A game that India lost after a brilliant fightback courtesy Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja. After that loss, Dhoni took a break from international cricket.
One got the feeling that he wanted to stay fresh for one last lung-bursting hustle for Team India’s pursuit of WT20 title in 2020. But this time, the odds were so huge that the whole world was reeling under it. The 2020 edition of WT20 was cancelled as Australia gave up on hopes of staging a world tournament amid the pandemic.
Ever the pragmatist, Dhoni took it on the chin and announced his retirement from international cricket in the run-up to the Indian Premier League (IPL), avoiding any needless distraction and speculation over his international career.
What the video says about him
Trust a champion keeper to stump you when you are least expecting. As the whole cricketing world was gearing up for the IPL, Dhoni’s announcement of retirement on Instagram came as a surprise even as the choice of words was quintessentially Dhoni: quirky, spontaneous, casual, and unpolished.
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The video that accompanied it was a carefully chosen montage of his career highs and lows. It also showed the past, present and future stars of Indian cricket that played alongside Dhoni in India colours.
In a career spanning over 14 years, 90 Tests, 350 ODIs and 98 T20Is, Dhoni stayed an enigma with his zen-like balance, with even former teammates feeling unsure of what makes him tick. In a June interview, former India captain Rahul Dravid even wondered if results actually mattered to Dhoni when he would perform his renowned finishing act in limited-overs games.
But if you take a long hard look at that video, you might get a glimpse into Dhoni’s inner workings.
First, the choice of song: ‘Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon‘ (I’m a poet only for a moment or two), sung by Mukesh and written by Sahir Ludhianvi.
While describing Dhoni earlier this year, his Indian teammate V.V.S. Laxman said in a tweet that cricket was never a matter of life and death for him.
Blessed with the rare equanimity of viewing cricket as a sport and not a matter of life and death, @msdhoni’s calling card was composure, especially under pressure. The 2007 World T20 triumph catalysed the stirring captaincy saga of a leader who talked through his deeds. pic.twitter.com/N2LukWwD3f
— VVS Laxman (@VVSLaxman281) June 9, 2020
For him, the cricket pitch was just a stage where different performers play their part and leave. Sports psychologists talk about how being emotionally neutral helps athletes perform at their best every time. You might successfully groom another wicket-keeper batsman or another captain but the sort of emotional control Dhoni had can’t be taught or acquired. It’s one of the things that makes him almost irreplaceable.
Then you notice the choice of pictures in that montage. There are more pictures of Dhoni with teammates than solos. Athletes have a tendency of making their retirements all about themselves with obligatory thanks to teammates. Dhoni’s video was a tribute to his teammates first and a tribute to himself second.
And if you needed further proof of his equanimity, he gives equal importance to his career lows and career highs. He recalls the ducks he scored in crucial games along with the famous finishes he shaped for India. He remembers both adulation and brickbats from the fans. For Dhoni, success and failures provide equal opportunity for introspection.
The last give-away in that video was how the pictures depicting failures are all solo images of Dhoni. He owns the failures, keeping them close to his chest. Victories sit comfortably on his shoulder and are always shared.
This is one of the most important leadership lessons we teach budding leaders. India’s former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam summed it up beautifully once while talking about how his seniors at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) shared credit for victories and owned up defeats. No wonder Kalam always believed India can win a game while Dhoni is still in the middle. He was not alone!
Dr #Kalam never watched TV but often he would ask cricket scores, whenever India was playing. If things looked bleak, he would ask, “is the captain @msdhoni still not out?” If i said “yes”
He would smile and say “Don’t worry the captain would set it all right” #DhoniRetires pic.twitter.com/pu1qXWqjkS
— Srijan Pal Singh Kalam 🇮🇳 (@srijanpalsingh) August 15, 2020
Answer to every cricket fan’s prayer and more
When Dhoni burst on the scene, Team India was desperate for a keeper-batsman. So much so that in 2003, then captain Sourav Ganguly used Rahul Dravid’s services as a batsman-keeper to maintain the balance of his team.
Dhoni’s 148 against Pakistan at Visakhapatnam in April 2005 announced his arrival at the big stage. Six months later, he cemented his position further in another brutal display of power-hitting as he scored 183 against Sri Lanka at Jaipur.
He solved not one but two perennial headaches for the Indian team. It not only had a proper keeper-batsman now, but the power hitter it craved for since the heydays of Kapil Dev.
During India’s tour of Pakistan in 2006, President Pervez Musharraf was impressed not just by Dhoni’s cricketing skills, but also with his stylish mane. Perhaps another first for an Indian cricketer.
Like a gift that keeps giving, Dhoni continued to add more feathers in his cap over the years. From India’s most belligerent cricketer, he evolved into its most pragmatic leader. He is, till date, the only captain who is decorated with every prize the game has to offer — T20 and ODI World Cups, Champions Trophy, IPL and Champions League.
A patriot and a people’s champion
Dhoni’s influence on Indian minds transcends mediums. While transforming Indian cricket, he also changed the perspective on how far small-town kids in India can go while staying true to their roots.
There was a time when despite early success, Dhoni’s primitive methods, both with bat and gloves, didn’t make him a favourite among the purists. Former Indian wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani’s criticism of Dhoni’s keeping technique early on in his career was just one such example. But as Dhoni continued to defy traditions and achieve unprecedented success, he changed many perceptions along the way.
Thanks to him, Indian cricket today is less obsessed with coaching manuals and more with attitude, fitness and results.
Another striking aspect of his success story is how he stayed grounded. No nonsense, no pretense remained the hallmark of his conduct. In an era dominated by social media noise, Dhoni managed to stay the same reticent Ranchi boy that made his debut in late 2004. The only overt display of emotion came in the form of his love for the nation and admiration for the armed forces.
While many of his former colleagues divulge intimate details and personal displeasures that prevailed in the Indian dressing room from time to time, Dhoni never had a bad word to say about any of his colleagues. Heck, you wouldn’t find him saying anything even against Greg Chappell, the perennial punching bag of Indian cricket.
His success and his methods are life lessons for many of his fans. Across the country, many Dhoni devotees (myself included), think of “what would Dhoni do” whenever they find themselves in a tricky situation.
So even as Dhoni chose a somewhat self-deprecating song to announce his retirement, as fans, we should remind him that his true worth is captured in another song written by the same poet in the same film. A song called ‘Main har ek pal ka shayar hoon’ (I am a poet for every moment):
“Rishton ka roop badalta hai buniyaadein khatam nahi hoti
Khwaabon ki aur umangon ki miyaadein khatam nahin hoti…”
(The form of relationships changes, but the foundations last forever
The time for dreams and desires never expires.)
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