In this series, we take a look at Indian cricket’s greatest captains, India’s record under their leadership, the most significant triumphs as well as the low points, and what made them stand out as skippers.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is many things to Indian cricket. The batsman who went from a swashbuckling young dasher to mature master-finisher. The wicket-keeper who made stumpings cool and performed no-look run-outs for fun. The superstar who normalised the fact that superstar cricketers can, indeed, come from any corner of the country.
But most of all, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is India’s Captain Cool. Even when he is not the captain.
Years down the line, when a new generation of fans look back at the history of Indian cricket, they will remember Dhoni as the man who led the country to a World T20 title in 2007, a World Cup title in 2011 and lifted the Champions Trophy in 2013. Dhoni is the first and only captain to have achieved that trifecta in the game so far, and that is a record that could also stand for generations to come.
India’s record across formats under Dhoni’s captaincy
No cricketer has captained India in more international matches than Dhoni (332). No cricketer has won more matches for India as captain in international cricket than Dhoni (178). No other captain in the game has, indeed, won all three major ICC trophies in white-ball cricket. Those numbers tell you the story of how successful and significant Dhoni’s time as Indian captain was. He also boasted an incredible record in tournament finals, winning seven out of 11 times he led India in a knockout match at the end of a multi-team event.
India’s record across formats under Dhoni
|All formats||2007-2018||332||178 (#1)||120||6||15||1.483|
Personal record during captaincy
After showing signs early on in his career of being an aggressive counter-puncher, Dhoni evolved into one of the best finishers the game has seen. It is always interesting to see the impact of captaincy on a cricketer’s personal record, and as the tables below show, Dhoni fared better as the leader of India than otherwise. And as his ODI records show, his average went up while strike rate went down, that gives one a basic idea of how his roles changed with the bat in the Indian set-up.
MS Dhoni's record in Tests
|Not as captain||30||48||1422||148||33.06||62.47||1||9||176||27|
MS Dhoni's record in ODIs
|Not as captain||150||125||4132||183*||46.42||89.82||4||26||327||103|
MS Dhoni's record in T20Is
|Not as captain||26||23||505||56||38.84||134.66||0||2||41||18|
Most famous triumphs
- ICC Men’s ODI World Cup, 2011: Of course, Dhoni finished it off in style and India won the World Cup after a gap of 28 years. The party in the dressing room started soon after he hit that six off Nuwan Kulasekara and as the Indian captain, he was phenomenal on the night of the final. You have, surely, heard this before, haven’t you?
- ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, 2007: It was a special win for many reasons. But the fact that it came in 2007, not long after a horrendous low-point (and not just for Indian cricketers but also for the fans back home who took things too far after the ODI World Cup elimination), made this triumph all the more sweeter. A brash, young, long-haired Dhoni showed the world for the first time he was going to be a successful captain.
- ICC Champions Trophy, 2013: In the list of India’s most famous triumphs, the 2013 Champions Trophy often comes as an afterthought after the two World Cup wins for many. But this tournament was unique because Dhoni found a way to win with spin bowling and a new-look top order. The win also came on the back of an IPL scandal that would have surely affected the team morale, if not for Dhoni’s calming presence as captain.
- Commonwealth Bank Series, 2008: “The process was criticised, when the one-day team was selected, and the timing of the selection,” Dhoni said about this win. One wonders, if the CB Series did not go according to Dhoni’s plans, would he have been as successful as India’s captain? Would he have been backed? The World T20 was a fun victory, but this tri-series win truly paved the way for the Dhoni era.
- Test win at Lord’s against England, 2014: What came afterwards was forgettable, but Dhoni did manage to lead his team to a Test victory at Lord’s. Those do not happen often.
- India becoming world no 1 in Tests, 2009: Having officially taken over the reigns of the Test team in 2008, Dhoni became the first Indian captain to lead the team to the world No 1 ranking in 2009. The team stayed at that pinnacle for over 600 days during the 2009-2011 period.
Low points in captaincy
The tears that were forming in his eyes after the semi-final exit in the 2015 World Cup is as much a part of the Dhoni legacy for his legion of fans as that six he hit at Wankhede in 2011. While it was a campaign where India punched above their weight, given their poor form in the build-up, the defeat played out in an unfortunate manner on a section of Indian media. But purely from a cricketing point of view, it meant Dhoni’s hopes of leading India to another World Cup did not come to fruition.
Unarguably, Dhoni’s lowest points as captain came in the longest format, especially away from home and 2014 must rankle him the most. Dhoni, in fact, led India to wins in a Test away from Asia only four times in 30 matches. The argument is that he was too defensive as a captain to win Tests away from home, while the lack of a consistently potent bowling attack did not help either.
Standout qualities as a leader
Like how ‘The Wall’ is, in hindsight, not the greatest of nicknames for Rahul Dravid, one has to wonder the same about Captain Cool for Dhoni. Yes, indeed, he never flustered easily on a cricket field but to attribute his success to him being cool does not do justice to the cricketing brain that he has.
Dhoni, from him early days, came across as a street-smart cricketer who read the game brilliantly and that translated into his captaincy effortlessly. Sure, there is an element of luck associated with his high-profile gambles paying off, but behind all that was the word that became synonymous with his captaincy: process.
Over the years Dhoni became a hard man to read, as he started giving convoluted answers to the simplest of questions in press conferences (perhaps, knowingly). But in his early days of captain he was a bit more open to the public. In this 2008 interview with ESPNCricinfo (not long after he had overseen the World T20 campaign as well as the memorable CB Series triumph in Australia), he spoke about what was important to him as captain:
“One of my theories is to be captain on the field and off the field you need to totally enjoy each other’s company. I don’t like discussing cricket off the field.
As captain you’ll take vital decisions and your thinking or decisions can have a big impact on the game, but a lot depends on the individuals you give jobs to. That’s why I’ve always said the captain is the guy who accumulates all the pressure and then channels it to different individuals - bowlers or allrounders or batsmen. Basically he’s a selfish guy who picks guys to do the job for him. It’s very important for him to motivate others who’ll do loads of jobs for him.”— via ESPNCricinfo (March 2008)
Now, compare that with what Gary Kirsten, who gelled so well with Dhoni as India’s coach, had to say about India’s successful 2011 campaign:
“There was plenty of external pressure but the internal dynamics of the team environment were calm and secure. We never panicked, regardless of how well or badly we played. The players believed in each other and we always knew someone would deliver for the team.
“We moved away from focusing on individual success and more around what we wanted to achieve as a team. This was a fundamental shift and forced us to look at how we behaved and operated as a group of people, every day. In short, we focused on anything that could make the team environment a great place to be, with lots of fun and enjoyment to go with it.”
The common thread is evident to see. You can read plenty more from his teammates and rivals about what made him the great captain he is, but in essence the aforementioned quotes sum him up. Dhoni thrived on bringing the best out of his team, be it for India or with Chennai Super Kings. He trusted the process completely (and perhaps to a fault, when results continued to evade him in Test matches away from home).
It is often said the captain is only as good as his team, but Dhoni invariably made sure that the team was more than the sum of its collective parts. That, perhaps, is why his Champions Trophy victory in 2013 will remain unique forever. His child-like joy after the final delivery in the match quickly made way to his calm demeanour in the post-match celebrations as he took a step back and let the team — his team — rejoice.
That, ultimately, will be the legacy of Mahendra Singh Dhoni.