Mahendra Singh Dhoni is Street-smart. He always has been. As a young boy, he never was in awe of any cricketer. He had no idol. He never watched cricket on TV. He never was very passionate about cricket till his mid-teens. Cricket along with basketball, badminton and football was just another sport for him. He played all the sports which came his way and was the goalie of his school football team. His sports teacher asked him to keep wickets in the cricket team. Seeing the popularity of cricket in the country, Dhoni agreed to. At the time, being good at a sport was the only means for him to get into a decent university. Excelling in sports was much easier than burning midnight oil for studies. Yet, there was a hitch. Being a son of a pump operator meant he would have to support his cricket on his own. Cricket is an expensive sport.
He did a lot of things for that. Blessed with the strength of a bull and speed of a gazelle, he knew that he had the basic attributes to excel in the sport. And he also had immense stamina. He took to playing tennis ball matches and taking money for it. Took up a job of a ticket collector. But kept playing. An entry to a university never happened, but he entered seamlessly in the most glamourous field in the country. Suddenly, in fray for a place in the Indian Cricket team. That too didn’t happen without drama. The Bihar Cricket association didn’t deem it appropriate to intimate a player from Jharkhand that he has been selected to represent the East Zone in the Duleep trophy. A congratulatory call from a friend of a friend was the means by which Dhoni came to know he has been selected. Yet it was too late, and despite desperate efforts by his friends, Dhoni missed the flight to Agartala.
However, Dhoni went to the next match in Pune as the 12th man. He kept performing enough to remain in the fray for the next 3 years, but the national call up won’t come. Things changed in 2004, India A, ODI and Test match debuts happened in a year’s time, and the small-town boy had made it big. Dhoni quickly became a brand second only to Sachin Tendulkar. Within three years, Dhoni was leading the Indian Cricket team in all the three formats.Much has been written and cinematographed about his story thereafter, and there’s no point in repeating the same here.
The Indian team which went to England in 2011 under Dhoni was on a high, having won the 2011 world cup. They felt invincible but were brutally brought to the ground by the English Cricket team. Just like the West Indies had slaughtered the Indian Cricket team with vengeance after winning the 1983 world cup.
The first test was the test match # 2000, and Dhoni, winning the toss, put England in. Bad move to start with. Initial success came as Cook fell for 12 when England had made 19, and Strauss for 22 when the score was 62. Then the South African imports, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pieterson got together and added 98 between them before Trott fell for 70 workmanlike runs. His name is Trott, but he made his runs in a saunter always. Bell (45) added another 110 runs with the in-form KP. Thereafter, another import, this one from Ireland (Eoin Morgan) lasted only 3 balls and didn’t bother the scorers, and with England score 270/5, India could hope to make a comeback in the match. But wicketkeeper Matt Prior and Pieterson added 120 brisk runs and snatched the game away from India. England declared at 474/8 and KP was unbeaten on 200.
Zaheer Khan picked 5 for a 106, but just when he was bowling well, got injured and was ruled out of the remaining tour. The Indian openers, Abhinav Mukund and Gautam Gambhir put on 63, but both were back in the hut by the time the score had reached 77, and it fell on the senior pros Dravid and Tendulkar to salvage the situation. They added 81, but that was not enough. Thereafter, it was a mere procession to the pavilion with only the captain and the ex-captain showing any resistance. Dravid finally got himself on the Lord’s honours board with an unbeaten 103 and Dhoni made a patient 28 off 102 balls, and added 57 with Dravid, but as India were wrapped up for 286, even saving the match was going to require a gargantuan effort. Yet the bowlers hadn’t lost heart. They made the new ball talk, and reduced England to 62 for 5, and then 107 for 6. But the first innings villain Prior was not done with tormenting the Indians. He scored an unbeaten 103, and along with Stuart Broad, (74 off 90 balls) added 162 and put India completely out of the game.
Indian second innings was a sad story. All their batsmen got starts, but only Laxman (56) and Raina (78) could convert. India all out 261, but they played 96 overs for that. Anderson (5/65) and Broad (3/57) destroyed the Indian innings, and led England to a handsome 196 run victory, to draw the first blood in the series.
In the second test, Dhoni again won the toss and put England in. Yuvraj Singh had come in for Gambhir. But this time around, the bowlers proved him right. Ishant Sharma, Pravin Kumar, and Shantakumaran Shreesanth all claimed 3 wickets apiece and bundled England out for 221. Stuart Broad (64) top scored for England. India opened with Dravid and Mukund, and Mukund was out without scoring. Dravid and Laxman then added 93 stoic runs and Laxman fell making 54. Tendulkar failed so did Raina and Yuvraj combined with Dravid to add 128. Yuvraj made 62 and after he fell, the remaining 5 Indian wickets could add only 21 runs. Dravid was out 9th, making 117, his second century of the series. Broad claimed a six- for and India secured a lead of 57 runs. In the England second innings, Ishant Sharma removed Cook cheaply, and then came Ian Bell. He held the England Innings together with a masterly 159.
Dhoni recalled Ian Bell to bat again when the latter was given wrongly run out. It won Dhoni the spirit of cricket award for the year 2011, but lost India the match. Prior, Pieterson, Prior and Bresnan all responded with big half centuries and England put up a mighty 544 and set India an improbable 478 to win. Bresnan and Anderson scythed through the Indian batting and reduced India quickly to 55 for 6. Sachin Tendulkar (56) and Harbhajan Singh took India past 100, then the little master fell, and Praveen Kumar threw his bat around for a run-a-ball 25. But 478 was too imposing a target and India folded up for 158, losing by 319 runs.
India were down and out, trailing 0-2 in the series and in the Birmingham test, they were ground to dust. Batting first, India scored 224, Gambhir and Laxman made 30s and the captain made a fighting 77. England put on an epic 710/7, Cook making a career best 294 , Morgan made 104 and Strauss, Pieterson and Bresnan made fifties. In the second essay, India made 244, the captain made another fine 74, and Tendulkar and Praveen Kumar made 40s. India lost by a small matter of an innings and 242 runs.
A thoroughly demoralised India went to the Oval to play the final test England won the toss, made 591/6 and put India out of contention right from the day 1 of the match. Ian bell made a silky 235 and Kevin Pieterson hammered 175. In reply, India reached 300 for the first time in the series, the “Wall” standing tall for a stoic 146 and carrying his bat through the innings. All the batsmen did come to the wicket, but they might as well have not, as their stays were short, and contributed precious little. Dravid found an unlikely ally in the rotund Amit Mishra who scored 44 and added 87 for the 7th wicket.
The injured Gambhir walked in to bat, hung around grimly for an hour and added 40 for the 8th wicket with Dravid. RP Singh threw his bat around for 25, and India made an even 300. Following on 291 runs in arrears, India made 283 in the second innings, Sachin Tendulkar (91) and Amit Mishra (84) being the only innings worth a mention. Another innings defeat, and a 0-4 whitewash. India were never in the game for the whole series, and barring Rahul Dravid and Dhoni, none of their batsmen showed the grit to graft in tough situations. The bowling was lackluster and so was the fielding. No wonder the result came out as it did.
Yet three years later, Dhoni was again at the helm when India toured England. And he was there on Merit. India was the number one test side in the world, it’s young batting line-up was formidable on the paper at least, and the bowling attack too was of a high quality. BUT THERE WAS A HUGE DIFFERENCE THIS TIME AROUND. None of the fab 4 were in the team, and the team had a point to prove, that despite losing 4 great batsmen to time, they yet were a formidable unit.
In the first test at Nottingham, Dhoni won the toss and chose to bat first. India made a formidable 457. Murali Vijay made 146 gorgeous runs, Dhoni made 82, but the highlight of the innings was the 107 run 10th wicket partnership between Bhubaneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami. Both scored individual 50s. England replied with 496. Their rising star Joe Root made an unbeaten 154 and added a mighty 198 runs with James Anderson for the last wicket. Anderson made 81. Garry Ballance and Sam Robson made fifties. It was a peculiar case where the 10th wicket partnerships had crossed the 100-run mark in two successive innings of a test match. India batted again making 391/8 declared, debutante Stuart Binny made 78, Vijay and Pujara made 50s and Bhubaneshwar Kumar made his second fifty of the match, scoring 63. The five days were over and the match ended in a draw. But both the teams looked even Stevens in their form, promising a closely fought series ahead.
The second test was at the Lord’s. Captain Cook called correctly, and put India in. India made 295, riding on rookie Ajinkya Rahane’s unbeaten 103. Anderson took 4/60. England replied with 319. Garry Ballance made 110 and Liam Plunkett 55. Bhubaneshwar Kumar took 6 wickets for 82 runs. India in their second innings, made 342, Murali Vijay making 95, Sir Jadeja made 68 and Bhubaneshwar Kumar, carrying his batting form from Nottingham to Lords, made another 52. England were set 319 to win, but the lanky Ishant Sharma went through their batting line up like a hot knife in butter, and bowled a man-of-the-match winning spell of 7 for 74. Only Joe Root (66) and Moeen Ali (39) showed some fight and England folded up for 223. India had won at Lord’s after 18 years, and gone one-up in the series.
Stung by the defeat at Lord’s, England came back strongly in Southampton, piling up 569/7 in their first innings. Cook made 95, Butler 85, and Ballance and Bell scored big hundreds. The hero of Lord’s, Ishant Sharma was out of the team due to injury and the rest of the bowlers looked hapless. India scored 330 in reply. All their batsmen got starts, but only Rahane and Dhoni could make 50s. England didn’t enforce the follow-on and scored a brisk 205/4 in their second innings. Cook and Root made 50s. Ravindra Jadeja took 3 for 52. Set 445 to win, India made only 178. Rahane made his second 50 of the match, but that wasn’t enough. Of all the people, Moeen Ali, who bowls innocuous looking off spin took6 for 67. India has this knack of making heroes out of unlikely players. England levelled the series with two more tests to go.
The fourth test found India hitting a new low, getting bundled out for 152 and 161 in their two innings. England made 367 in their only innings of the match, riding on fifties from Bell, Root and Butler. The only scores worth mention from the Indians were a vigilant 71 by the captain in the first innings and a brace of fighting 40s by Ravichandran Ashwin in each innings. But that was not enough. India lost by and 54 runs as the match ended in 3 days’ time.
In the final test at the Oval India stooped further, making only 148 in their first innings, the captain again making a valiant 82 and after being reduced to 9 for 90, adding 58 valuable runs with Ishant Sharma who hung on grimly for an hour and a quarter. In reply, England made 486, Cook, Balance made fifties, Butler made 45 and Joe Root a fine, chance less unbeaten 149. In their second essay, India capitulated for 94, thus ending the disappointing series, the only bright spot being the win at Lord’s. After this series probably, it was total loss of motivation for Dhoni to Continue leading and Playing for India in the test matches, and he suddenly announced his retirement from the format in the following Australian tour.
Yet, Indian Cricket will never forget MS Dhoni’s contribution. He was the coolest head in the team, always unperturbed, through the Best and worst. And his journey is one of the most amazing tale of self-belief and perseverance.
Starting as a small-town basher, the guy went on to become one of the most successful Indian Cricket Captain. He placed India at the top in all the three formats of the game, winning the T20 and ODI world cups, and also getting India ranked at Numero Uno in the ICC Test Rankings. A goodish wicketkeeper (wouldn’t call him one of the best), a very aggressive batsman, when he got in, and a very astute, and attacking leader, for most of his career (He appeared a bit lackluster due to loss of motivation probably, towards the fag end of his Test Captaincy career).
As a captain, we would rate Dhoni as inspiration. He never appeared to be agitated, irritated, or never did his shoulders sag in adversity. Dropped catches, bad batting displays, typically Indian bowling woes overseas, nothing could ruffle his feathers anytime when on the field. He looked like a tower of peace, notwithstanding what was going on around him. That doesn’t mean that he was off guard or unaware of his job. He did it well, most of the time. He gambled quite a lot, and also had the guts to back himself in tough situations. More often than not, he was also able to inspire his players to rise to the occasion. It is not so easy to captain a team which has a Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, and Kumble in it, but MSD did this with consummate ease, and to a very good effect. He didn’t like criticisms. He kept backing players like Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin, though they were not always consistent performers, and could extract flashes of brilliance from them, nurtured Virat Kohli’s potential, and also the senior players were not far behind in contributing.
People who go by stats, forget that by changing or sacking or blaming a captain, they are doing no good to the game or to the team more so in case of Dhoni.
Despite all these achievements, his leadership in England Tests was not rewarded with results, and though he came out as a fighting batsman on both the tours, he found no support. And this was again to be repeated in the 2018 England tour, under a different captain, who came out as the best batsman of the Series for India, yet couldn’t secure a series win for them…
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