By Jamie Alter
It was the day before Diwali, but the firecrackers exploding at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium were unmatched by any that would succeed November 1, 2005. Bazaars were packed with last-minute shoppers; cookware stores spilled their goods onto the streets; coolies strained under loads of TV sets, DVD players and washing machines and sweet sellers were doing roaring trade.
Amid this ruckus, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was stamping himself into cricket’s history books with an innings unparalleled by any Indian effort for a long time. His ten sixes in the match – the most by an Indian batsman – carried him to a record 183 not out against a hapless Sri Lanka. Dhoni, less than a year into his international career, was adjudged Man of the Series in India’s 6-1 rout of the tourists, but the resounding effect of his performance that day echoed louder than many could have envisioned.
From being run out for a golden duck on his debut against Bangladesh to being crowned the No 1 ODI batsman in the world a year later, Dhoni surpassed all other Indian batsmen in their introduction to one-day cricket. Less than a year later, he had led India to the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa, when few had given them a chance at competing. From that famous win, Dhoni went on to become the era-defining Indian captain who won all three ICC limited-overs trophies – the World Cup, Champions Trophy and World T20 – as well as leading the team to No 1 in Tests, all while providing sheer entertainment as a batsman and wicketkeeper in limited-overs cricket.
He was – is – that rare cricketer who got the adrenaline running in viewers and had the potential to bring so much to the game, not to mention carry it away in a matter of an over or two. This is what made Dhoni a superstar.
To whom do we credit his meteoric rise? Surely sheer talent cannot be the reason Dhoni scaled such heights? The Ganguly-Wright and Dravid-Chappell pair worked well in terms of promoting young Indian talent, and the burgeoning role that television played in bringing the game to remote corners of India was also a factor.
The fact is that Dhoni is the product of a system that encouraged youth and which gave cricketers from all corners of India a chance. Once neglected in favour of players from big cities, the India of 2005-06 when Dhoni became a superstar had youth from villages, towns and districts that would have been overlooked two decades ago. And, crucially, Dhoni epitomised that new breed of youth whose hunger was unbridled, and whose confidence stemmed from competition.
Dhoni’s need for speed and love of fresh miles in the mornings are well-documented, and tell the story of a small-town man thirsting for the elements. The blasé and raw manner of his batting, be it the way he whipped the ball over midwicket with a flick of those supreme wrists, or when he thumped it past mid-on, set Dhoni apart. Coaching manuals may as well have been written in the third century BC for Dhoni, for he defied rule of thumb in his approach to hitting the ball.
Indian cricket has always needed big hitters. Polly Umrigar has been quoted by many as being the hardest hitters of the ball they have seen. Sandeep Patil brought a sense of urgency to an Indian line-up filled with classical stoke-makers. Before Sanath Jayasuriya, there was Kris Srikkanth who was known for his bizarre tactics against the fast bowlers. It is from such men that Dhoni borrowed his effectiveness, but the time it took him to scale the top was jaw-dropping.
There are three basic aspects to Dhoni’s game: speed, confidence and unflappability. Despite an unorthodox technique, he generated remarkable bat speed, and his running between the wickets is one of the fastest cricket has seen. And then there was the ‘it’ factor: the seemingly nonchalant disregard for opponents and that unfazed exterior and interior.
Asian batsmen are known to be wristy craftsmen, and Dhoni was the Andy Warhol of this artistry – bold, aggressive and constantly redefining. When he drove, it was in crudely reaching out to the ball by extending his wrists. His leg-side game was about rocking back and working a ball from off stump to fine leg.
Dhoni admitted, in his formative India days, that Adam Gilchrist was his idol but he took his game higher. In ODIs, he averaged 69 with a strike-rate of 96.16 in games India won, with seven of his ten centuries and 44 of his 73 fifties coming in victories. Of his 51 unbeaten ODI innings, 47 delivered India victories. These are remarkable numbers. That Dhoni broke Gilchrist’s record for the highest score by a wicketkeeper in ODIs with that Jaipur blitzkrieg showed that he was a man who did not want to bat in anyone’s shadows.
I have chosen to dwell today on Dhoni’s achievements in ODIs because it is here that his legacy will be remembered. He is, after Ricky Ponting, the most successful ODI captain of all time, and his batting and wicketkeeping stats are phenomenal.
Of his peers, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Kumble, Laxman and Sehwag left indelible marks on Indian cricket, but for his rise from Jharkhand to becoming a once-in-a-lifetime cricketer who changed the landscape with his achievements as batsman and captain, no other player had such a significant impact on Indian cricket than MS Dhoni.
(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author an actor).