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There is a sudden sniff – an unknown something, it makes the moment brighter. It pumps hope into our hearts and breathes life into our breath. What on earth could that be? Was it by any chance, the smell of victory? But, no! Weren’t we already condemned, to live with defeat? Hadn’t we begun making peace with this fact? Who could pull us out of this dive and then so hard that we would end up being flung into the throne reserved for the winner? Who had come to our rescue?
To demonstrate possibilities and then to make them reality from an impossible situation, fight on grittily, be the difference between defeat and victory, be able to resolutely stave away fierce spells by oppositions, plot their downfall and do it extremely decently, inspire comrades and the millions watching, give them a reason to explode into unrestrained celebration and still walk away calmly – one has to be superhuman. But how much one could be so, will only be understood through how many more ways in which Dhoni chooses to. For he alone can set such benchmarks! No sport-watching experience in the past decade and a half can claim to be complete without having felt the force of his presence – Be it when he is sending ball after ball to various parts of the boundary or when he is talking to his bowlers almost through each delivery, tweaking their art, extracting their skill and leading them to pick wickets. Mahendra Singh Dhoni may better be described as a “revolution”, for his achievements in the game have begun to become too big for him to be celebrated as just another cricketer.
When he started off-long haired-brute of a batsman-nobody could ever predict that he would evolve into a suave finisher that he is now. The little else that came out apart from his mighty hitting prowess in his early centuries – especially the two famous innings against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, could never be a harbinger to the cricketer he was to become. While the change has been constant, to suddenly compare Dhoni in his first years of international cricket to what he is now, is bound to leave one shocked by the contrast. That said, there was always the hero element in his game. Only perhaps that he began as He-Man and transformed into James Bond.
Nobody in the modern limited overs game has been a better architect of innings than Dhoni. He could start off – seeming vulnerable and sometimes even disillusioned and, a slow infusion of life and fluidity in his innings would occur – almost with surgical precision. Then, the dabs got more affirmative, the flicks – more generous, the punches – bulkier, the running – more purposeful. It seemed a recipe in the making – all of its phases and steps having been perfectly documented which Dhoni was just executing as an honest chef. Just when both he and the audience had had enough of the ‘commoner’ phase – where he would have played the tackiest game ever known, he would turn his bat into a mighty barrel and anything that came at him would be dispatched with great alacrity and unflinching consistency. The booms gave goosebumps to the cricketing world, the whacks – helped the ball shirk off the influence of gravity – while the game was muscled into submission. It seemed like he read out a charter and everything bowed in acceptance.
Wicketkeepers have generally been diminutive figures physically-until the emergence of a new muscular breed to which Dhoni himself belongs – And their agility was their foremost offering to their teams. With Dhoni, we see how a sturdily built man – crouches into the frame of a keeper and emerges as one of the safest in world cricket. He might not come to mind when one thinks of acrobatic keepers, but some of his catches will leave one stunned in silence. Where Dhoni creates a new world order and writes a new discourse are in his stumpings. They are a stupendous display of the ability of a human to sense and respond aptly to situations in the shortest possible time. All that the ball has to do is to beat the bat and the batsman – to very minimally go off balance. The stumping occurs, the ball is rolled to the umpire and there’s hardly any appeal. Perhaps, it is just him telling the umpire that the batsman has been stumped clean! These acts seem to goad time to reinvent itself and arrive at smaller units of measure!
What makes Dhoni so special is how he handled the rigours of captaincy while having to focus on every delivery. To strategise, to push the bowler to execute it and then still have the space in his mind to accommodate the larger picture is testimony to his mental strength and confidence in his abilities. Just to understand the magnitude of this achievement, we can look around the cricketing world and find that a “keeper-batsman-captain” is a very rare kind of a player and then, the combination is so stressful that even greats like Sangakkara and de Villiers could not play that role throughout the extent of their careers.
South Asian sporting culture delves too much on personal brilliance and ambition – even in team sport. That’s precisely the reason why we see that personal milestones matter a hell of lot to some of these players, a lot of their fans and also why despite having arguably some of the greatest players, the teams for their part have never been so. With Dhoni, we see this myth shattering. A century does not evoke mad celebration and neither does a failure push him to show his emotions to the world. He carries the ability to detach himself from the aftermath of an emotionally draining contest – one that is a rarity in Indian cricket. To be so unruffled by failure and not consumed by success is a truly yogic shade that comes to the fore in all of his appearances for his teams.
For the muscle he has, for how he has belittled bowlers’ abilities and how he has pieced together teams for India, Dhoni is too composed and calm a man. He could have thumped his chest after that six that tipped the entire nation from the cliff of hope into the ocean of celebration on that memorable night at Wankhede or punched the air furiously with unrelenting mania after he gambled and snatched victory from Misbah’s hands at the Wanderers. How could he still remain sane? When what he and his teams achieved was not?
The talk of stalwarts will never be complete without mentioning his name, the might of a cricket team’s captain will perhaps nowhere be better demonstrated than in a reading of Indian cricket’s years under his captaincy, runs were never run more ferociously than by this man, hoicks were never timed more opportunely than when he decided to, no mind was more clever on the field, defeat was rarely taken as honestly as he did and victory never more unassumingly and graciously.
Dhoni’s story rises from the hinterland – away from the power centers of Indian cricket. It spirals furiously and takes everything that comes in its way – the hearts, the love, the adulation, the respect, the awe and the honour. It clatters at the doors of convention so hard that they come off. It re-writes norms and establishes a new order akin to how empires have. In the “press conference pun” and the “taunting his bowlers” fun, we have fallen in love with him, so much that if we were any bit purist and had a thing to comment on his style, we wouldn’t mind being hit by his “Helicopter shot”.
Oh my! How he leaves us stumped!
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