Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Good Will Hunting and Osho’s epitaph

Test cricket has always been the measure of a cricketer’s fortitude, mental stamina and technical ability but approval from the purists never seemed to be on his agenda. He may not have been a great test player but he is no doubt one of the greatest cricketer’s India has produced. And in that paradox lies his uniqueness.

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Never born. Never died. Only visited this Planet Earth between December 11, 1931 and January 19, 1990.  – Inscribed on the epitaph of controversial mystic, Osho Rajneesh

In the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays Will Hunt, a mathematical genius who is forced to confront his demons that are keeping him from fulfilling his potential. A telling scene in the movie shows his best friend Chuckie (played by Ben Affleck) imploring Will to do justice to his incredible gifts and tells him that he is waiting for a day when he finds that Will has left town without leaving as much as a note or offering an explanation. And that moment comes to bear when one day he rings the bell at Will’s house to pick him up for work and he doesn’t answer the door. He has, as Chuckie hoped he would, simply taken off without a note or an explanation, presumably towards a future befitting his intelligence and capabilities. That’s how Mahendra Singh Dhoni chose to let the world know of his intention of not being a test player anymore – without a note or an explanation.

There was no guard of honour, no farewell press conference, no emotional send-off from the game’s most revered format. He just simply walked away like Will did in Good Will Hunting. And in Dhoni’s case, the end was like the beginning – unexpected. Indian captains don’t always resign in a straightforward manner. Two of Dhoni’s predecessors, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, resigned without any prior notice. Rahul Dravid’s captaincy suffered a jolt after the first round exit at the 2007 World Cup. A few months after the debacle, he led India to an overseas test series victory over England after 21 years. Just when it looked like he was regaining his equilibrium after the forgettable World Cup, he returned from England and abruptly quit captaincy. It was only after his retirement that he let his guard down and revealed how captaincy had sucked out the joy from his game. Anil Kumble, who was in the autumn of a magnificent career, was given the task of leading the side and nurturing Dhoni for the ravages of test captaincy. A year into his role, father time caught up with his aging body and fighting spirit and in the series against Australia (which was also Sourav Ganguly’s final series) he called time on his career at his favourite ground, the Feroz Shah Kotla. The news of his retirement was conveyed through the mega screen on the ground and the crowds rushed in to catch a glimpse of his final moments as an Indian cricketer. There was a sense of poignancy too – the Feroz Shah Kotla was where he cemented his place in the history books by taking all 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan. Dhoni took over officially as captain in the next test which was played at Nagpur, a match which India went onto win and seal a series victory.

In Test cricket, Dhoni inherited everything a captain could wish for. The side was on the ascent and he had one of the greatest middle orders of all time in the triumvirate of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. Virender Sehwag was still his pomp, Harbhajan Singh hadn’t lost his sting and Zaheer Khan hadn’t yet run of steam. India’s climb to the top began with Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy and when the No. 1 ranking in Tests was finally accomplished in 2009 , MS Dhoni was at the helm. Sure, the credit wasn’t entirely his as the work had begun in right earnest even before he made his debut but for a while, he seemed like an alchemist who turned whatever he touched to gold. And then all the gold turned to lead weight.

Maybe the beginning of the end was England 2011. Precisely, July 21, 2011, when Zaheer Khan pulled over in his 14th over and was excused from the remainder of the series. In hindsight, it seemed as though the series had been lost at that pivotal moment. And the fall was swift and cruel. A bowling attack that lacked application coupled with an aging batting line-up saw India losing the series 0-4  and relinquishing their No.1 ranking. The Australian series a few months later was to be a memorable swansong for the star studded batting line-up, the last chance to stake claim to a frontier that hadn’t been conquered. Instead it resembled a tour ripped out from the pages of an Indian fan’s worst nightmare and ended in a 0-4 annihilation, heralding the end of a glorious era. There were to be no excuses this time around, no list of injuries and illnesses that had plagued the side during the ill-fated tour to England. IPL fatigue, everyone’s favourite punching bag, couldn’t be summoned to the boxing ring. Dravid and Laxman retired soon after, leaving Dhoni with the unenviable task of rebuilding a side.

The home series loss to England in 2012 came as a setback on the road to redemption. On turning tracks that were expected to aid the spinners, it was Monty Panesar who seized the day and led England to a 2-1 series victory. When Australia visited, India avenged the 0-4 humiliation by paying them back in the same coin. The series saw Dhoni score a career best 224 and the innings was a throwback to a time when he played without a care in the world. By now, he was no longer a carefree player with the flowing mane, the grey hairs a testimony  to his ever growing burdens. Bereft of a bowling line-up that could take 20 wickets and bowl to set fields, he seemed at sea in the Test format. Gautam Gambhir’s and Virender Sehwag’s fluctuating fortunes at the top of the order after an impressive run didn’t help. It was said that he was voted out by the selectors but kept his job because of his proximity to the most powerful man in world cricket, N Srinivasan. He was accused of being defensive, an ODI wonder, but a test cropper. There were calls for his axing as the test captain – the small town boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Through it all, he didn’t say much.

2014 was a challenging one, but gratifying in some aspects. The tours of South Africa and New Zealand saw the team put up impressive performances, but victories were still elusive. The highly anticipated England tour saw a spectacular effort at Lord’s where he instructed a reluctant Ishant Sharma to bang the ball in short. The ploy paid off and a stunning victory ensued. But the euphoria was short-lived and it all careened off course from there. The side crashed to 3 successive defeats, each worse than the one before, bringing back memories of the 0-8 whitewash where a fight was conspicuous by its absence. If successive defeats in away tours were taking a toll, he didn’t reveal it. And when Virat Kohli’s in-your-face captaincy earned plaudits in the Adelaide test, maybe he thought the time was right to make way. No, walk away.

The thing about Dhoni is that he isn’t a prisoner of statistics. Playing 100 test matches was surely not something on his to-do list. Yes, he is India’s most successful test captain but history won’t remember him as a great test player. For in his own strange manner, Dhoni redefined cricketing greatness.

Test cricket has always been the measure of a cricketer’s fortitude, mental stamina and technical ability but approval from the purists never seemed to be on his agenda. Dhoni always seems to come into his own when playing a limited overs game for in the shorter formats, he doesn’t have to worry about a bowling attack that sprays the ball all over the place because he backs himself and his team to chase the target. It is a format where the ability to take 10 wickets isn’t an essential ingredient to victory. And if it all boils down to him taking the team home, he relishes the challenge even more. He may  not have been a great test player but he is no doubt one of the greatest cricketer’s India has produced. And in that paradox lies his uniqueness.

In another life, MS Dhoni was a ticket collector from Ranchi. His journey from a small town in heartland India to leading the Indian side is a story in its own right. He inherited a position he never aspired for and went about it with a quiet dignity. When his name was dragged into the muck of the IPL scandal, he must have simply wanted to get on one of his numerous super bikes and ride away from it all. His story isn’t over. He is still a vital cog in the limited overs format and will lead India in their defence of the World Cup title. After that it is anyone’s guess.

I am not a fan or follower of godmen or spiritual gurus. But in this regard, the epitaph of Osho Rajneesh attempts to portray him as a mystical figure whose passage on earth was just a pit stop in his seemingly eternal journey. Dhoni’s cricketing journey is quite similar. Many writers have pointed out how he seems unfazed by the circus of fame and adulation and how it isn’t tough to imagine him leading a contented life outside the environs of the pressure cooker of international cricket. Maybe he’ll join the army. Or just ride his bikes. When his time finally comes to walk away, maybe he’ll just fall off the face of the cricketing world, just another visitor to the game of cricket.

And one hell of a visit it has been.

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