Close your eyes. Breathe deeply, thrice. Now, think of three best moments involving Mahendra Singh Dhoni from India’s limited-overs series against New Zealand. Open your eyes.
What have you got?
The plotting of Trent Boult’s dismissal in the first ODI in Napier? Dhoni instructs Kuldeep Yadav to bowl around the wicket, to the middle stump. The ball won’t spin from over the wicket, he adds. Yadav follows the instructions. The ball pitches on the line between middle and off-stump, spins away from Boult, kisses the right-edge of his bat and flies to Rohit Sharma at first slip. Yadav runs to Dhoni, laughing, like a kid would to a parent after winning a prize.
You, of course, couldn’t have missed the stumping of Ross Taylor in the second ODI in Mount Maunganui. Taylor’s leg is in the air for a few milliseconds – sufficient for Dhoni to show off his lightning hands.
And, what about the most recent stumping in the last T20I in Hamilton? He stumped Tim Seifert in 0.09s. Enough said.
Repeat the exercise for Dhoni’s last few series or even last few years. You, most likely, will remember his brilliance behind the wickets than with the bat in front of them.
Fascinating, isn’t it, for a man who redefined the batsman-’keeper dynamic in India?
As Australia unleashed the force of Adam Gilchrist upon the rest of the world in the dawn of this millennium, India was struggling to find a decent wicket-keeper after Nayan Mongia.
For over four years, the spot behind the wickets, like a seat in musical chairs, saw several occupants. Because Gilchrist transfigured the ‘keeper-batsman (a wicket-keeper who could bat a bit) to a batsman-’keeper (an attacking batsman who could also keep wickets), especially in ODIs, the candidates, who wanted to take Mongia’s place, had to bat way better than Mongia did even if they couldn’t surpass his wicket-keeping talent.
After several failed experiments, Rahul Dravid volunteered for the role, in limited-overs, till the team found someone in the mould of Gilchrist.
The answer to the Gilchrist problem had a long mane with streaks of brown and made scores of 0, 12, 7 (not out), 3 in his first four ODIs. In the fifth, played in April 2005, he tore Pakistan apart in Vizag with a 123-ball 148. The apocryphal tales of him drinking five-plus litres of milk every day started making rounds.
In October that year, he played an innings that made more people buy into the milk-drinking myth: he jackhammered Sri Lanka in Jaipur, making 183 off 145 with 10 sixes.
In its quest to unearth a Gilchrist-type batsman-keeper, Indian cricket found something much bigger: one of its greatest captains and, arguably, the best finisher in ODI cricket.
Three years after his initiation into international cricket, Dhoni was made the captain of the limited-overs formats. Hitherto, India lacked a lower-order batsman who could bat consistently well at the death, especially in chases. The top-order, meanwhile, was set, more or less.
He, hence, relinquished the riches of No 3 to bat lower. He became a different beast than the monster that devoured Sri Lanka in Jaipur.
The dynamite explosions at the top order were, of course, great fun. But as a time-bomb in the lower order, he evoked far greater thrill. He would stride into the crease in a precarious situation, sans helmet sometimes, poker-faced and would push, prod, make constant adjustment of his gloves, inhale heavily, collect ones, twos, seemingly oblivious to the soaring required-rate. With enough tension built, in the last few overs, he’d detonate.
At the death, he would come into his own.
Despite lacking conventional batting techniques, his Zen-like calm, ability to soak pressure and the monstrous power and hand-speed allowed him the hits at the end that made him one of the best-ever finishers in ODI cricket. No one averages better than him in successful run chases in the history of the game.
Dhoni, certainly, isn’t a spent force as a finisher. But age, perhaps, has diminished his bat-speed and power. He doesn’t conjure the big-hits as often as some of his younger teammates, like Rishabh Pant, for instance, who’s India’s Test ‘keeper. And, Dhoni is no longer the team’s captain.
So, what could justify his inclusion in the team till the World Cup?
It’s something that was largely ignored for the most part of his career: his indisputable presence behind the wickets. His ‘keeping techniques were questioned and criticised in the beginning of his career by the likes of Syed Kirmani. But he ranks third on the list of most dismissals by a ‘keeper in ODIs and first, if only stumpings are calculated. The freakishly fast stumpings he pulls off frequently is just one of the many facets of his ‘keeping.
The glovework apart, the ‘keeper, because of his position in the field, is usually entrusted with the task of reading the game and provide his captain with inputs. And, at the moment, there is no one who does this better than Dhoni.
“He keeps telling the bowlers to bowl a particular delivery, what a batsman is planning to do,” said Sunil Gavaskar, recently. “He has a sense of what a batsman is thinking... That value you cannot calculate at all.”
Innate shrewdness, eternal awareness and an uncluttered mind make it possible for him to predict the mode of dismissals and instruct bowlers.
Perhaps for the first time in his career, Dhoni is being valued more for his presence behind the wickets than in front of them.
Yet, these bits of advice and presentiments that we speak of are hardly new. Some of his illustrious seniors have recounted, on several occasions, examples of his astonishing acumen.
We, now, hear it clearly because of the enhanced stump mics. And, as the most senior member of the side, he speaks a lot more with the bowlers.
With Dhoni, especially in limited-overs cricket, it always feels like he just knows things. We could recall specific instances or look for numbers to explain this. But this old Greg Chappell quote does the job: “He’s an old soul. He has been here before.”