It is now close to 10 years since India's senior men's team last won an ICC white ball trophy. That Champions Trophy win at Edgbaston on 23 June, 2013, one witnessed India pulling off one of the great escapes against the home team, England.
The Indian squad celebrated the win like never before because that triumph came after a period of drubbings in Test matches, both at home and away. Virat Kohli went crazy in celebrations not just on camera, as was seen in images from that day, but also off camera as one saw from close quarters.
All through this, there was one man, who was simply unflappable. He would not react unnecessarily to the historic win even as his heir apparent, Kohli, kept shouting at the top of his voice.
This captain had just won his third ICC title in white ball cricket and was anointed the greatest by everyone. But Mahendra Singh Dhoni, just stayed calm and stoic. Never did he go over the top in his celebration and was understated as he did a victory lap with the squad at the historic Edgbaston ground.
Nearly a decade later ,as Chennai Super Kings sealed their fifth Indian Premier League (IPL) title at Ahmedabad on Monday, we saw similar scenes for a moment. There was a second’s lapse in the camerawork by the world feed production crew where they accidentally juxtaposed Dhoni looking downwards before the final ball.
It was wrongly patched together, but it summed up Dhoni as a leader of men who does not like to show his emotions publicly as much as the others. Whether it is winning a World Cup title in 2011 or an IPL title or even a crushing defeat, he is the same. This ability to stay in the present sets him apart from the rest.
Captain Cool, and the Master of Timing
What also sets Dhoni apart is the fact that he very quickly assesses and understands the strengths and weaknesses of his teams.
He knew for a while as India’s Test skipper that he just did not have the bowling attack to take 20 wickets away from home and therefore opted for a safety first, almost a defensive strategy to tire out rival batters.
He knew for a while that his ODI squad needed a recast, first in 2008 and then in 2012. On both occasions Dhoni knew he was looking ahead rather than staying just in the present. It paid dividends in the form of the 2011 World Cup title and the 2013 Champions Trophy triumph.
In the same vein with the Test squad, he knew his champion batters like Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag were on the last legs in their careers. He resisted change to the line-up on that ill-fated disastrous tour of Australia in 2011-12. A lot of former cricketers pressed for a young Rohit Sharma to be drafted in, but Dhoni did not want to be the one to push for a generational shift which was already on the anvil.
He knew that his time as a Test player was over when everyone else expected him to join the 100 Test club. The moment he saw Kohli leading India adequately during the series in 2014-15, Dhoni quit quietly without much fanfare and that too moments after he spoke at a press conference. Similarly, when he saw that Kohli was ready to lead India across all three formats he quit the white ball leadership in January 2017 again without any drama.
His retirement from international cricket in 2020 was also uneventful, an Instagram post just confirming what had been known by all for over 12 months.
Captain Cool, and the Chennai Changes
With such a history of being himself, Dhoni knew well that the time for a shift was nigh even at Chennai Super Kings. He prepared to step down from his role as skipper in the 2022 edition letting Ravindra Jadeja step up to the challenge. But that turned out to be a disastrous move. Jadeja always seemed to be looking over his shoulder at Dhoni for approval.
The experiment did not last long and Jadeja quit captaincy soon enough, with Dhoni taking over the role of captain once again. The 2022 edition ended in a disaster for Chennai.
The picks at the 2023 auction, except the massive punt on England Test captain Ben Stokes did not inspire confidence. The choices for new ball bowling were also depleting every day. Kyle Jamieson and Mukesh Choudhary were lost to injuries before the season started.
Just as the season began Deepak Chahar got injured again! Then Sisanda Magala flew in as a replacement for Jamieson, but got injured through the season. Stokes was injured as well.
Any other squad would have thrown in the towel. But with Dhoni at the helm, it was difficult to imagine that happening. He backed the likes of Tushar Deshpande and Akash Singh. By the end of the season Deshpande turned out to be one of the top wicket-takers.
The Sri Lankan pair of Maheesh Theekshana and Matheesha Pathirana were delayed in joining the squad because of national commitments. But from the moment they joined they were a regular fixture in the playing XI or as an impact substitute. You could see that Dhoni the skipper was having an effect as he guided them just the way he used to do with the likes of Jadeja in his pomp. Pathirana also made an instant impact and that was enough to negate the losses of the key new ball bowlers.
Right since the start of the season there was speculation about Dhoni’s fitness, particularly his knee. He was always spotted with a brace around his knee and that led to speculation over whether he will miss a few games. That did not happen at all. He turned up for every game, kept brilliantly. But this is where the genius of Dhoni stepped forward as he realised that his knee would impede his team’s chances so he held himself back as much as possible.
It would seem to be a brilliant reading of the game as almost always he came out to bat in the last couple of overs in almost every game.
Even then his sixes off a rapid Mark Wood of Lucknow Super Giants at his beloved MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai was stuff of legends. The crowd simply exploded that day in Chennai and at almost every venue through the 2023 season. Each game was almost like a farewell tour for the man who won many hearts through his two-decade long love affair with the game.
Captain Cool, For One More Year
Dhoni was never one to get sucked into nostalgia or this kind of fanfare also broke character as he began acknowledging the adulation even while he dropped some hints along the way. Every stadium turned yellow each time the Chennai squad turned up for a game almost as a tribute to the man. When Rajasthan Royals’ Sandeep Sharma held Dhoni at bay in one of the games, everyone felt could this be it?
Fortunately for Dhoni’s fans, he carried on while Rajasthan fell by the wayside.
The grand finale was expected to be the icing on the cake for a storied career. It almost seemed as if even the Gods did not want this to end so soon.
They delayed the final by a day, cried their hearts out just like they did during the 2019 World Cup semi-final when India finally lost the game on the second day against New Zealand with a Dhoni run-out.
This time even the Gods wanted to see a fairytale finish.
When play finally began a Dhoni special was needed to dismiss the rampaging Shubman Gill. Everything seemed to be going according to script.
But when Dhoni was dismissed for a golden duck, it did seem like the same old story of 2019. However, Jadeja who failed in 2019 for India, delivered magic for Chennai in 2023.
Dhoni remained calm for a moment, but even he could not resist showing a bit of emotion thereby confirming that he is human after all!
He is now the wily old fox of Indian cricket, who has moved into a higher plane as was evident through the season for Chennai. Almost as if he was the non-playing captain who was watching calmly as his players did the tricks.
The other good news coming from the three-day finale was that Dhoni is holding out hope for yet another hurrah. That is however still 10 months away, who knows what happens between now and then.
Till then let us enjoy some more yellove!