There’s just something about him.
It’s the belief — and for the plethora of Pakistani fans like me who grew up wanting the Indian cricket team to fail, the fear — that for this colossus of a man, anything is possible. That as long as he is standing out there in the middle, the match isn’t over, that India have not lost. Not yet, not until he has had his say.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Over the years, his very name has become associated with that feeling. With good reason too because Dhoni is not like everybody else. He isn’t weighed down by a billion hopes on his shoulders, he is elevated by them. And from that vantage point, he looks at 50-over cricket like no man ever has.
If ever there was a statistic that summed up what pressure does to Dhoni then it’s that his average in Pakistan is 136.5—more than his average in any other country in the world.
Paddy Upton was India’s mental conditioning coach during their 2011 World Cup campaign and he recalls the incident when Dhoni decided to promote himself up the order in the final against Sri Lanka.
“When Dhoni tapped on the glass window and indicated to Gary [Kirsten] that he was batting ahead of Yuvraj [Singh] and then when he walked down the stairs at Wankhede, I turned to Gary and said that MS is going to win us the World Cup. These were my exact words,” Upton said in an interview with Firstpost.
India had just lost Kohli and were in a spot of bother at 114-3 while chasing 275. Back then, he wasn’t quite the Kohli we have today but it was still a huge wicket. It made no sense for Upton to be sure of victory right after losing him.
But then again, what threat can logic hold against a man who took the helicopter shot and turned it from a party piece into a weapon of mass destruction?
Dhoni has batted in 75 of India’s successful chases and he’s finished not out in 47 of them. That’s more than 60% of their successful chases. If India win, there’s a very good chance he is there till the very end. Of the 50 times he has been not out while chasing, India have won 47 times and lost just twice. One loss was against Pakistan back in Kolkata in 2013 in which he ran out of partners and the other was the dead rubber against England in the group stages of this World Cup. If he is there till the very end, there is a very good chance that India will win.
His strike-rate is a criticism he has faced as he slows down with time. Before being made captain, he scored at a strike-rate of 94.7, as captain it went down to 86.21 and ever since leaving captaincy it has reduced further to 81.64. But Dhoni knows how important his wicket is for India.
His strike-rate when batting first is 94.33 but only 80.5 when batting second. In successful chases, his average is 102.7. In unsuccessful ones, it’s 28.56. When Dhoni clicks, India click. India have been successful 116 times and unsuccessful only 67 times when chasing with Dhoni in their side. India, and Dhoni, often click.
And so we come to the match against New Zealand. The semi-final was over for all intents and purposes by the time Dhoni walked out into the middle. Or at least it should have been. But that darned brain thinks differently doesn’t it? He doesn’t function like the rest of us do. And so, with considerable help from an excellent Ravindra Jadeja, he was almost within touching distance. In Dhoni’s world, 31 off the final 12 balls isn’t insurmountable, it’s just another Wednesday.
“If 15 runs are needed off the last over, pressure is on the bowler… not on MS Dhoni,” commentator Ian Bishop once famously said.
It doesn’t matter that Dhoni had taken 58 deliveries to score his first 31 runs, it doesn’t matter that he is no longer the brutal bludgeoner of old, it doesn’t matter that Lockie Ferguson is sending down grenades at more than 145 km/h. None of that matters because this is Mahendra Sindh Dhoni and there’s just something about him.
Anyone who says they didn’t believe that Dhoni could pull this off when he slashed Ferguson for six off the first ball of the penultimate over is either lying or hasn’t been paying attention to what Dhoni had been doing for nearly a decade and a half.
For a few brief moments, he threatened to turn back the clock and he almost did but even this grand wizard cannot manipulate lady time.
Dhoni’s bat isn’t the only thing that has slowed down over the years. The few inches that stood between him and the crease as Martin Guptill threw a laser-guided missile of a throw to end India’s World Cup campaign and maybe Dhoni’s career would have been covered a decade ago. But this is not a decade ago and the legs just aren’t the same at 38. No matter how much he willed them, they just can’t carry him like they used to back in the day.
It’s no shame to be slowing down at this age and it will be understandable if Dhoni decides to hang up his boots now, drawing the curtain on one of the finest ODI careers of all time.
This is a captain that has lifted the World T20, the Champions Trophy and the World Cup after all. This is a captain that the likes of Kirsten, Steve Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev have hailed as one of the finest leaders of all time and the finest that India have ever produced. There is nothing left for Dhoni to conquer, no mountains left for him to climb, no uncharted territories to be explored. He has done it all and he has won it all.
If he walks off now, he will do so as the most influential player in the history of Indian cricket. He is the chief architect of India’s golden era and he deserves complete adulation from his fans, at least begrudging respect from all his rivals and a standing ovation from all those who love the sport of cricket. It has been one hell of a glorious ride but the end is surely near now. When it does eventually arrive, cricket will be all the poorer for it.