In no other team sport does a captain have a more influential decision-making role than in cricket. I don’t mean any disrespect to those who sport the captain’s armband in, say, a hockey or football team. But where a football or hockey captain can only inspire with his deeds, a cricket captain is more than someone who merely walks out for the spin of the coin. Just sticking with football and hockey, the planning and strategising is done off the field, by the manager or the coach who formulates ideas with respect to formations, man-marking, approaches, substitutions, and the like. The captain is just another player for the most part. Things couldn’t be any different in cricket.
It’s not as if the back-room staff don’t have much of a contribution to make. If anything, in the T20 format, the cricket coach plays pretty much the same role as the football manager, though even in that variant of the sport, the captain has to make instantaneous decisions. The longer the format, the more intricate is the role of the captain – be it when it comes to field placements, bowling changes or deciding which bowler comes on from which end. Simply put, the captain is the central figure on the park when the team is fielding. He is the one directing traffic and therefore it is imperative that every player has one eye on him all the time.
It goes without saying that every captain is a leader, too. Leadership traits manifest themselves differently in different individuals. Some like the attention; they thrive and feed off it, like Virat Kohli. They are full of energy and intensity; they don’t mind being in your face; they use the captain’s tag to excellent effect. And then there are those like MS Dhoni – actually, strike that. There is, after all, no one quite like MS.
So much has been said about MS that I don’t want to fall into the trap of being boringly repetitive. His calmness under pressure, the ability to mask his emotions and the speed with which he arrives at calculated game plans are obvious characteristics that have been widely eulogised. But having worked at close quarters with MS for nearly five years, the one thing that has fascinated me is the loyalty he has been able to command from all comers.
That was one of his main strengths as a leader, even though he never went out of his way to attract loyalty. MS treated people – players as well as support staff – in such a way that you organically developed loyalty not only towards him but also towards whatever he did. MS is a great teacher without attempting to be one. One of the many pithy messages he sent out, and which made a deep impact on me, was to never want anything too much. His philosophy was simple: when you want something too much or too badly, you get attached to it. Once that happens, emotion comes between you and what you are trying to achieve. His view was that if you want something too much, you should find a way of letting go of it and strike a middle path where you develop detached attachment. That was something he often stressed during team meetings.
Even during his last pre-match meeting as a Test captain, one of the things MS told the team was, “When it comes to Test cricket, the problem with some of you is that you want it too badly. If you want something that bad, you tend to overthink and over-analyse; you tend to get a little stiff and your body is not at its best. You have to let go, then you can see the results for yourself.”
None of us knew at the time that MS would retire after the Melbourne Cricket Ground Test in 2014, but that was him. He could have gone on and played at least a hundred Tests if he wanted to, but he was never fascinated by or attached to numbers and statistics. That’s why when he spoke about not getting obsessed with things to the exclusion of everything else, it immediately registered because he didn’t preach anything that he didn’t practise.
Commanding loyalty isn’t an easy accomplishment, it’s just a really tough process. But for MS, it came effortlessly. One of the main reasons for that was the way he conducted himself, not just within the cricketing environment but outside of it as well. He is just such a good person, that it’s impossible not to like him from the off.
MS is a great exponent of focussing on the small things, on doing them right. Primary among them was not criticising anyone openly or harshly. It’s not that he didn’t read the riot act, but he didn’t make a song and dance of it. He is of the view that the intention is to get the player to be a better version of himself, not to make them feel small, slighted or belittled by being hauled over the coals in public.
I am not saying that’s the only way to go about things, but that was the preferred mode of operation so far as MS was concerned, which obviously worked exceptionally well for him. Like good coaches – beyond a point, MS was no longer just a leader, a captain or a player, he had transcended all this – he also gave people options to better themselves without losing sight of the bigger picture. One of the pitfalls of being immersed in the unforgiving cauldron of international sport is that sometimes, you forget the reason why you embraced the sport in the first place – that is to have fun. MS kept reminding young and old alike that it was essential to integrate the fun element into day-to-day thinking.
Quietly, without drama and without appearing that way, MS was a teacher at every opportunity, showing more than telling people what is right and what’s not, what is acceptable and what isn’t. He was forever approachable. Till such time that he was with the Indian team, his door was open to all and sundry from the time he woke up till it was bedtime. Once he closed it shut at night, that was it; it wouldn’t open till the next morning, come hell or high water.
Excerpted with permission from Coaching Beyond: My Days with the Indian Cricket Team, R Sridhar and R Kaushik, Rupa Publications.