With MS Dhoni having announced his retirement via an Instagram post on August 15, 2020 – India’s Independence Day, significantly – the mind wanders to a line from Bob Dylan’s 1976 protest song ‘Hurricane’ about the wrongful imprisonment of the late boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter:
“Rubin could take a man out with just one punch/But he never did like to talk about it all that much/It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay/And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way/Up to some paradise/Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice/And ride a horse along a trail”.
Now Dhoni has next to nothing in common with the subject of Dylan’s anthem – even though he announced his arrival with that hurricane innings against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam – but there is a resonance to the lyrics of that tune. His batting aside, such was Dhoni’s fan following and media scrutiny, especially as the years turned on and he gave cryptic indications of his future, or even kept silent, choosing to post videos of himself and his little daughter, Ziva.
And he has, in choosing to retire from international cricket – read ODIs and T20Is – on a Saturday evening via a short social media post as most of the nation celebrates 73 years of independence, again whipped up a hurricane.
Dhoni’s countless fans will, of course, question the timing of his retirement. I, frankly, am among those who believed that Dhoni had played his final match for India at Old Trafford on July 10, 2019 – the World Cup semi-final that ended in heartbreak for Virat Kohli’s team. I wrote about it in these pages too. Dhoni’s at times painful, at times defiant innings ended on 50, as did the match as a contest, when Martin Guptill ran him out with a direct hit.
That 50 should not be the lingering image of Dhoni. He gave so much more to Indian cricket and thrilled a generation with his cavalry. His six off Nuwan Kulasekara to win the 2011 World Cup will remain forever.
Dhoni, at his best, was capable of knocking out opposing teams with a single shot – most famously, his helicopter sixes – but was not one to dissect his batting or talk about his achievements. He often said that he hadn’t followed the game closely during his formative years as a cricketer, didn’t boast of knowing much about the game’s history or legacy and didn’t follow cricket when he wasn’t playing. He was happier cleaning and riding one of his many super-bikes back home in Ranchi, away from the arc lights and away from cricket in his own paradise.
It was as if cricket was a job for him, and one that he did with all honesty and full commitment, but once he was off duty it was like cricket was off the table. He was damn good at it, but it didn’t consume him.
Legend has it that as he entered a press conference during the first few years of his international career, he told a senior Indian journalist that his fifth match for the country might be his last. But he wasn’t worried, outwardly, and flashed that debonair smile as he entered the press enclosure.
Another witty anecdote involves a question from a journalist about whether Dhoni got bored. “Bored?” he replied. “No, I play Angry Birds on my phone.”
All this ads to the persona of Dhoni as being different from anyone in Indian cricket history. There is a reason that Sachin Tendulkar pushed for Dhoni’s name as India captain for the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in 2007, the same tournament that India won to change the face of global cricket. Standing at slip during Test matches, Tendulkar was impressed by Dhoni’s reading of the game and how he would tell the skipper Rahul Dravid where to move fielders and what would work. It was that spark, that sense of intuition, the reading of the game, that saw Dhoni make a name as a maverick and successful captain for several years. He is the only Indian captain to win all three major ICC tournaments and lead the side to No 1 in the Test Championship.
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When he was captain, in the initial few years, his team-mates have spoken of how unlike during Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy, there were no team meetings. Instead, the mood was more of a baithak – a sit-down, informal chat session – where Dhoni would play the role of problem-solver. He was also known to hold such sessions in his hotel room. Once, when asked where all the players would fit in one such room, and if more chairs should be brought in, Dhoni is believed to have replied saying ‘who needs chairs when we have the ground to sit’.
There is, of course, no denying his frailties as captain and man-manager in the latter part of his Test captaincy, when India lost series in Australia and England badly. Did he overstay his time as limited-overs captain? Perhaps, but then beyond Kohli there really was no alternative at the time.
In the past few years, naturally, Dhoni struggled to maintain fluency in limited-overs cricket. He remained unparalleled as a stumper, but the strike-rate dipped and the shots of old faded. Occasionally, the Dhoni of old surfaced, such as in Australia and New Zealand in early 2019. When
The cracks surfaced during the last year of his ODI and T20I captaincy. In a span of a week during the 2016 T20 World Cup, Dhoni cut off a Hindi journalist in Bangalore after India’s one-run win over Bangladesh and then invited an Australian journalist onto the dais at the Wankhede Stadium to repeat his question regarding Dhoni’s future. The journalist was a soft target, for Dhoni would never do the same to a member of the Indian media, and it showed the signs of a man creaking. Did it border on arrogance? Many present that day, Indian and foreign, believe so.
But these are but blips in Dhoni’s otherwise stellar India career. He deserves pride of place in the. pantheon of Indian cricketing greats. He helped change Indian cricket, and left his indelible mark.
And no, Dhoni is not gone from the public’s view, not just yet. He will play the 2020 IPL for Chennai Super Kings, and will draw eyeballs for sure. He may play the IPL for a couple more years, even though he’s 39.
On second thoughts, Dhoni and Carter do have one thing in common: they were both champions of the world. Dhoni, in fact, on three occasions – when leading India to the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in 2007, to the top of the Test rankings in 2009 and to the World Cup in 2011. For that, we owe him a loud round of applause. Encore.