Mahendra Singh Dhoni is going to be 38 on 7 July. That’s a ripe old age for a cricketer, though Dhoni appears as fit as ever—his hand and eye are in precise coordination, and the rotors of the helicopter shot are spinning fine. In the warm-up game against Bangladesh, he smashed 113 runs off just 78 deliveries. But is he going to call it a day after the World Cup? After all, media has been rife with speculation over the last two years.

Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev and Dhoni have possibly been the three most popular Indian cricketers ever. And, at the risk of enraging readers, I have to say that Tendulkar and Kapil should have retired a bit earlier than they did. Kapil hung in there for maybe an extra two years to beat Sir Richard Hadlee’s then-world record of 431 Test wickets. Today, Stuart Broad has more wickets than Kapil from fewer Tests.

Tendulkar had set his heart on his 100th international century and 200th Test. When his 100th ton came, after 370 days and 33 innings of excruciating wait, it was his second-slowest one-day century, a key reason India lost that match against Bangladesh, only the third time ever, and could not reach the Asia Cup final. He was given his 200th Test and farewell via a hurriedly organised series with the West Indies.

Dhoni’s career has been marked as much by his talent as by his shrewdness. He has always known when to walk away. Under his leadership, India was the No. 1 Test team in the world for 18 months, beginning December 2009, but after that, things went steeply south. In December 2014, in the middle of a series in Australia, he announced his immediate retirement from Tests, stunning everyone, including those who had been clamouring for his sacking as skipper. He strode off, leaving his critics stranded.

In January 2017, he gave up the captaincy in the limited-overs forms of the game. Without the captaincy load, Dhoni could now focus on his game and play his last World Cup.

It would also give Virat Kohli ample experience captaining the one-day side leading up to the Cup. Dhoni’s own goals and India’s interests meshed.

This has worked wonders. As wicketkeeper-batsman, and with his vast experience and superb tactical sense, Dhoni is possibly the team’s biggest asset in this Cup.

The morning after the India-Pakistan match held on 16 June, I received a WhatsApp visual collage. Dhoni tells Rohit Sharma to stand at mid-wicket; Sharma complies. He tells Kuldeep Yadav to bowl a googly, Yadav obeys. Kohli says: “But Mahi bhai, I’m the captain!" Dhoni replies: “I know, now go to mid-off." I forwarded this to my collegemates’ group. My UK-based hostel-mate Vijay Singh messaged: “I saw this during Ind-Aus match at Oval on 9 June. Dhoni took total control when India let go quite a few 4s and there was a big display on screen at end of 39 overs. Aus was 5 run more than India and Dhoni took over."

I asked Vijay to tell me more. When the 37th over ended, Australia, chasing India’s total of 352, was looking at an asking rate of over 11 runs per over. But Australia scored 28 off the next two overs. Then, writes Vijay: “We saw, Dhoni, very naturally and fluidly, take control. Before every ball, he was instructing and changing positions of fielders and having a word with the bowlers. In the 40th over, Australia lost two wickets." When Bhuvaneshwar Kumar struck Steve Smith on the pads and appealed, the umpire was unmoved. Kohli took Dhoni’s advice, asked for a review, and Smith was adjudged out. Two balls later, Marcus Stoinis was clean bowled.

In the 45th over of the match, Dhoni moved Kohli to deep mid-wicket. Almost immediately, Nathan Coulter-Nile mis-hit, and sent the ball straight to him. Writes Vijay: “All of us at the ground could see who was in charge. Australia’s scoring slowed down, and they continued to be under tremendous pressure, leading to India’s win. I wondered whether it was an accepted norm for Mr Cool to take control when things were not normal." I think Dhoni just steps up when he thinks he should, and Kohli is mature and smart enough to let go.

I belong to that generation which was in school when the 19-year-old Kapil Dev, in his very second over in international cricket, became the first Indian bowler to make a batsman ask for a helmet.

Ten years later, we saw a 16-year-old Tendulkar dance down the pitch and hit Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir, then the world’s best leg-spinner, for four sixes in a single over.

We have seen Dhoni go from a youngster with long blonde-streaked hair to salt-and-peppered eminence. We don’t want to see him leave, and it’s entirely his call what he chooses to do. Whatever he decides, he will certainly choose correctly.

But more than anything else, we want India to win the World Cup, so here’s something to consider. Dhoni hit 113 in the warm-up match against Bangladesh. Stats guru Mohandas Menon has noted that the only other World Cup warm-up match century Dhoni has scored was in 2011. And India won the World Cup. Let’s believe in good omens.

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder editor of ‘Open‘ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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