Home >Opinion >Mahendra Singh Dhoni: Strategist or maverick?

How do you distinguish between a hunch and deep strategy in sport? Did Mahendra Singh Dhoni really, really know what he was doing when he brought on Ishant Sharma for the fateful 18th over in the Champions Trophy final that got the team two crucial wickets and took it to the brink of victory? Is he plain lucky or a genius?

I suspect Alastair Cook, the beleaguered England captain looking to break a four-decade-old jinx (they haven’t won a 50-over ODI tournament since the World Cup started in 1975), is not the only one beset by this dilemma. There seemed to be no method, only madness, when Dhoni brought on Sharma for that over.

“It’s a zero sum move," was the unanimous opinion of former players and captains. “There you are," they said in triumph when the lanky fast bowler went for 10 runs and even bowled two wides in his first few deliveries. Then came those two wickets and the match was turned on its head.

This was, of course, not the first time Dhoni had played maverick. In the 2007 ICC World Twenty20 he asked Joginder Sharma, the least known and experienced of the Indian bowlers, to bowl the last over in the nerve-wracking final against Pakistan.

Nobody was convinced, but they all had to swallow their cynicism within minutes as Joginder got the dangerous Misbah-ul-Haq and India won the title by a whisker. This was his first assignment as captain, which is when most prefer to stick to the straight and narrow. But Dhoni had shown a penchant for the offbeat.

More recently, in the 2011 World Cup final, he promoted himself in the batting order ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh to the astonishment not just of experts but also his own dressing room. Less than 2 hours later he was to complete a terrific win for India with a bazooka shot that sailed over long on for six.

The recurrence of success in his methods suggests a captain who thinks differently surely: somebody who is willing to take massive risks based on deep self-belief rather than established canons of cricketing thought. I suspect this comes largely from Dhoni’s cricketing background, which was anything but orthodox, and is reflected in almost every aspect of his personality on the field.

Ranchi, his hometown, was the boondocks where Indian cricket was concerned. Not a wunderkind, to get recognition ahead of several others required flair, hardiness and a strong survival instinct. His batting and wicketkeeping techniques are hardly copybook; rather, they are essentially utilitarian but punctuated so often with such astounding derring-do as to make him unpredictable and lethal.

Granite-like physical strength, superb reflexes and a sharp, ever-alert mind have been some natural attributes which he has used to great advantage. Oftentimes, players have their natural ability blunted by excessive coaching. Because Dhoni had to fend for himself in his formative years, he has lived by his wits even as an international cricketer.

The unconventionality and earthiness in his captaincy, as in his performances with bat and gloves, stems from the fact that he has not been rigidly mentored. This has also made him a very keen learner, as Greg Chappell had lauded during his tenure as India coach.

But he has done this without compromising on intrinsic self-belief, which keeps him secure and rooted at the best and worst of times. It is extraordinary how Dhoni hardly ever gets ruffled even in the deepest crisis. If anything, a crisis steels him even more.

To me though, the more telling aspect of his persona is his apparent disdain for the glory most players clamour for. After the ICC World Cup 2011 win, he languished at the rear, allowing Sachin Tendulkar to hog the accolades; after the Champions Trophy win recently, he took a back-seat and allowed Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja and Virat Kohli the limelight.

A shrewd understanding of the dynamics of the dressing room is a necessary part of a captain’s job, but to forego the huge attention that comes his way requires deep reserves of character and mental strength.

Where does Dhoni go from here? A re-engineered team—with the selectors complying with the captain’s demand for younger, fitter, ambitious players—holds out promise of defending the World Cup in 2015 successfully. But in the interim there is the bigger challenge to make his side the best in Test cricket too.

Under his captaincy, India flirted with the No.1 position briefly before two horrendous whitewashes in England and Australia saw a mighty crash. That was Dhoni’s bleakest phase. Had, say, Virender Sehwag or Gautam Gambhir been in good form, or Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid willing, Dhoni would have lost the captaincy.

He survived by the skin of his teeth—amid controversy and a massive blame game—but has come back reloaded with a 4-0 whitewash of Australia and the Champions Trophy to re-establish his credentials.

Whether all this establishes Dhoni as a genius or not is of academic interest: from a ticket collector to India’s most successful captain makes for one of the greatest stories in modern sport without a doubt.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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