Starting from Indian cricket’s hinterland and finishing as an exception in the game’s history, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s rise as captain has been a story of bucking the trend and beating the odds.
Before the turn of the new millennium, nobody outside the country’s major cricket centres stood a chance of playing long for India, leave alone leading the team for close to a decade.
Such is India’s uneven sporting surface—cricket was no exception until recently—that there was a sense of rawness about Dhoni when he broke into international cricket in a One Day International (ODI) in Bangladesh in 2004.
His uninhibited approach to the game—so different from the finished products that emerged from recognized cricketing centres—came through in his captaincy in the form of intuitiveness, the way he backed his gut feeling and did not seem to fear failure.
When he relinquished his limited-overs captaincy last week, Dhoni closed at a record 331 games across all formats. A colossus among captain-wicketkeepers at that, given that second on the list of most matches across formats is Bangladesh’s Mushfiqur Rahim, who is yet to reach 80.
The reason why a wicketkeeper doesn’t stand a good chance of becoming captain is because his primary role is already physically demanding and mentally exhausting. But Dhoni bucked that trend in a trophy-laden career to finish as the country’s longest-serving captain across formats. In an age of specialists, he led in 60 (27 wins) of his 90 Tests—taking the side to the No.1 ranking in 2009—199 ODIs (110 wins) and 72 Twenty20 Internationals (41 wins).
Accepting responsibility, soaking up pressure, seizing the initiative—his captaincy, like his batting, possessed all these characteristics, along with that rare amateur spirit of an enthusiast who pursues his goal without thinking about the potential outcome at a time when players were reluctant to take up the captaincy. For, Dhoni took over as ODI captain after Rahul Dravid resigned and Sachin Tendulkar turned down the offer to return as skipper.
Barring his elevation as captain in the shortest form of the game, when he led a young Indian side to success in the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007, leadership in the other two forms was thrust on him during trying times for the team.
“We were told that Mumbai is a city which is always on the move. See, me and my boys have brought the entire city to a standstill today,” he famously said at his first ticker-tape welcome as a trophy-winning captain after the World Twenty20.
There was definitely a small-town boy touch in that statement. And a touch of amateur spirit in his gesture of asking Sourav Ganguly to lead the side in the latter stages of his farewell Test match, the final match of the series against Australia in Nagpur in November 2008. It was Dhoni’s first as full-time Test captain after spin legend Anil Kumble had bowed out earlier during the series.
“Captaincy is a spark and it is not just preparation… It is spark on the field which MS (Dhoni) has. He has got that extra bit of luck which you require in captaincy,” Ganguly said during his final media interaction as a Test player.
As Test captain, Dhoni succeeded Kumble—the ageing leg-spinner had taken over as a stop-gap following Dravid’s abrupt decision to stand down as ODI and Test captain to focus on his batting after two years at the helm.
This effectively meant that the boy from Jharkhand had become the ODI skipper within a week of winning the World Twenty20, and Test captain the following year.
This comfortably makes him the longest-serving India captain, a role widely regarded as the toughest job in a cricket-loving country that has little patience with failure.
Along the way, he scored over 15,000 international runs, and effected 716 dismissals across formats and became the only international captain to win the all three ICC (International Cricket Council) global trophies—the World Twenty20, Cricket World Cup (50-over) in 2011 and Champions Trophy in 2013.
“(I) Have seen him emerge from an aggressive player to a steady and decisive captain. It’s a day to celebrate his successful captaincy and respect his decision,” Tendulkar tweeted.
It is not always comfortable leading a team with former captains in it (Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid) but Dhoni’s unique personality—a simple guy from the cricketing backwaters of Jharkhand—possibly made it easier.
It is a tribute to his personality that Chennai Super Kings was built around the legend of Dhoni, the captain. He turned it into the most successful franchise in Indian Premier League history.
The late Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi is regarded as a path-breaking Indian captain and Ganguly as the one who turned a bunch of talented individuals into a force to reckon with. “I’ll place Dhoni up there with the best for the way he built a world-beating side,” says spin great E.A.S. Prasanna, who played under Pataudi.
“Unlike Pataudi and Sourav,” he adds, “Dhoni came up the hard way in life, and that has possibly given him a better understanding of people. And he also left an excellent side for Virat Kohli.”
Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp.