Mahendra Singh Dhoni came into the Indian side as a wicket-keeper, after experiments with several of them, including Deep Dasgupta, Parthiv Patel and Ajay Ratra, hadn’t yielded the best results. Strangely, it is as a wicket-keeper that his legacy has always been a bit suspect. But was he really a sub-par wicket-keeper or did his exploits as captain cool and flamboyant batsman overshadow his role behind the stumps?
Dhoni has already joined the pantheon of India’s greatest captains across all forms of the game. Indeed, given his record of winning the One Day World Cup, the T20 World Cup and leading the Indian team to the summit of Test cricket, he can legitimately claim his place among the best captains in international cricket. His batting record isn’t nearly as flattering though given his abilities as a finisher in the shorter form of the game, he would certainly be in contention for the title of India’s best wicket-keeper/batsman. Of course, old timers like me will still give that title to Farokh Engineer though Dhoni has a much better Test batting average of 38 compared to Engineer’s 31, according to ESPN Cricinfo. But Engineer often opened the innings for India and he also played in a side where the batting began with Sunil Gavaskar and ended with Gundappa Viswanath. And to those who think Dhoni could tonk the ball, Engineer once plundered 94 runs before lunch on the first day of a Test in 1966-67 against a West Indies attack comprising Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith and Gary Sobers!
Nostalgia apart, Dhoni’s glove work wasn’t immediately impressive. At the best of times it lacked the tidiness one expects of the best wicket-keepers. His technique in this too, like that of his batting and captaincy, was uniquely different owing little allegiance to the coaching manuals. Thus, he would stand in front of the wickets to collect the ball when it is thrown in from the deep, and to the spinners he would actually reach out to take the ball instead of waiting to soak it in. In this he was closer to the lineage of an Alan Knott or even Rod Marsh, rather than classical keepers like Syed Kirmani, the gold standard among Indian wicket-keepers.
On the all-time high list of dismissals in Tests, ODIs and T20s combined, he’s at number three behind Mark Boucher and Adam Gilchrist though his dismissals per innings compares quite unfavourably with them as well as with other contemporaries like Brad Haddin, K.C. Sangakkara and AB de Villiers.
But the thing about Dhoni has always been how effective he was despite his limitations. There has always been a street smartness about his game that gave an extra edge to his performance. Running a batsman out with an underhand flick while he had his back to the stumps is a Dhoni specialty much like the helicopter shot he patented. Many a young keeper can be seen on the maidans of Mumbai and Ranchi practicing that bit of wicket-keeping innovation.
As he fades away into the sunset, it is a good idea to reassess his contribution as a wicket keeper—not great perhaps but certainly competent.