After New Zealand had been rolled over for 189, the crowd at the Oval had settled into a comfort zone. Under gloomy conditions, the supporters expected India to complete the chase without much fuss.
The mediocrity of the target also meant that there were no flashy shots from the batsmen to excite the India-dominated crowd. But, suddenly, when Dinesh Karthik’s struggle at the crease ended, the stadium was infused with life.
MS Dhoni had been spotted walking out. He may not be the captain of the Indian team anymore. He may have crossed the peak of his career. Yet, he remained a darling of the crowds. Even in England, miles away from the support he is showered with back home in India.
When Dhoni made his way to the centre, the gloomy clouds decided to open up and there was a drizzle in the air. It was symbolic in the way that rain often calls for the end of play in a cricket match, and a drizzle is a precursor to it. Dhoni is one of the country’s most successful one-day players. But he is closer to the end of his glorious chapter than the beginning. The drizzle, perhaps, was its reminder.
But the rain was not heavy enough for play to be called off just then. So, Dhoni, with a sleeveless India sweater over his half-sleeve jersey took guard as the chants of “Dhoni, Dhoni” in the background turned boisterous.
A couple of overs after Dhoni has settled in, he played the perfect square cut off Trent Boult to the fence, producing a moment of astonishment.
Boult tried to bounce Dhoni with a sweeper at deep point. The bat thundered into the pitch on a couple of instances as a part of Dhoni’s stance, his eyes did not flinch and, eventually, his super quick hand movement took over. The 35-year-old with disdain for the fielder on the fence jumped and whacked it aerially on the off-side with a flat bat. The ball travelled towards the fielder, who misjudges the trajectory of the ball because of the power on it and palmed it over the boundary.
After the shot, New Zealand captain Kane Williamson smiled. Boult smiled. Dhoni smiled. Such shots had been a part of Dhoni’s artillery for years. And every time he produced such shots, all the opposing captain and bowler could do was smile in bewilderment. With that shot on Sunday, he showed that while the Dhoni story may not last too much longer, it will continue to amaze for as long as it does. And, it is important to soak in whatever little remains of the mastery, because with Dhoni, it is futile to preempt his end.
The unconventional Indian cricketer
Unconventional is a word that describes Dhoni best. He lived up to the word when in the middle of the Test series on India’s tour to Australia over two years ago, he called time on his career in the whites.
The tour Down Under holds great significance for an Indian cricketer. Not a lot of teams and players have travelled to Australia and returned with stories of triumph. For a captain, success on that tour can define his tenure.
Dhoni’s India had been blanked in 2011. But they had put up a sterner fight on the 2014/15 tour.
Fitness issues had ruled Dhoni out of the first Test, which India lost under Virat Kohli’s captaincy. Dhoni returned in the next Test, but could not prevent another defeat. His team, however, managed to draw the next game at the MCG.
With the final Test to go, Dhoni had the chance to help his side finish a difficult series off strongly. Instead, his personal fire to continue with five-day cricket had finished. And with the Sydney Test still to be played, he announced his retirement from Test cricket first to his team and then to the world.
When the team, which had been his for over six years, was told of Dhoni’s decision, there was a sense of improbability about the development. The initial reaction of the players was that of surprise.
Led by the new captain Kohli, the team expressed their shock. They even went on to claim in the games that followed, they expected Dhoni to turn up in the pavilion because it had become a habit to have the former captain as a part of the team.
Dhoni’s move was questioned. They spoke of how the captain had decided to flee his ship amid rough waters, about how he had passed on the baton to a 26-year-old Kohli.
There had been no intimation from Dhoni’s end to prepare the supporters of Indian cricket for what was to follow after the 2014 Boxing Day Test. There was not even a hint that Kohli could pick up in the lead up to the sudden retirement to prepare himself for Test captaincy.
But then, this is how Dhoni functioned. His career had been defined by unpredictability. He surprised when he first brought out the outrageous helicopter shot, and continued to surprise each time he unleashed it upon the opponents. He amazed when he walked in at No 3 to hammer a match-winning 148 against Pakistan in his fifth ODI. He stunned when he strode out ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh in the 2011 World Cup final and helped India successfully chase the title.
After the Melbourne Test in 2014, Dhoni was certain that he had had enough of Test cricket. He was ten matches short of 100 Tests. It was in the middle of a series. But, he walked away.
Two years later, it was surprise 2.0 from Dhoni. Days before India hosted England for an ODI series, he decided to step out of the one-day captain’s boots.
Dhoni the captain had been under pressure with victories not as easy to come by anymore. It had doubled with the success Kohli had tasted as Test skipper. But with the Champions Trophy just six months away, Dhoni was expected to lead the side he had built over the last decade. It was his team, after all, that had lifted the trophy four years ago.
Dhoni would still be a part of the squad, travel to England even, but he had decided that it would be Kohli’s India that would attempt to defend the crown.
Suddenly, India’s most loved captain, who had brought home the World Cup after 28 years was no more their leader. The affair between Dhoni, the captain and the Indian fans had been intense. It had lasted for over ten years. However, it had ended now. Suddenly. Just as the sight of Dhoni in the Indian Test whites had vanished, overnight.
Dhoni led an India ‘A’ team within days of the announcement, though. It was a tour game for the visiting English. At the toss he assured his fans that the captain in him was not done yet. He wanted to lead in the IPL this year. But that was not to be, as Rising Pune Supergiant replaced him with Steve Smith at the helm.
Apart from the flashes of genius he displayed with the bat in the Champions Trophy warm-up tie against the Kiwis on Sunday, it was vintage Dhoni in the field too.
Like he has for years, with his face tilted, he shrugged his shoulders and stood behind the stumps. He passed on his gems of advice to the bowlers and had suggestions handy for Kohli, who would often run up to his former captain for guidance as he led the Indian team for the first time on English soil. He made alterations to the field, thanks to the best view he enjoyed from behind the stumps. And, to cap his classic display on the field, he even sheepishly flicked throws onto the stumps with quick glovework in trademark Dhoni style.
The rain eventually was too heavy for play to continue. The players walked off, when the crowd had only begun to enjoy Dhoni’s antics with the bat. But the rain had called an abrupt end to the game, and to Dhoni’s stint in the middle.
Similarly, the drizzle on Dhoni’s career is underway. To adore his game before it eventually starts to pour is all that his supporters can control.