Mahendra Singh Dhoni heralded the T20 revolution in India by leading the team to its maiden T20 World Cup win. Now, we may no longer see him in the format he made his own.
As a sportsperson grows older, they all fight to stay relevant. When form dips, it is tougher to find one’s feet again and you’re always looking back to see who is catching up with you. When a series goes awry, you wonder if you will don the team jersey again.
Time, which was once your ally, is now a thief.
Dhoni can’t be old. It’s impossible. Yesterday we saw him pulverize attacks and finish matches with a flourish. Well, it feels like yesterday. No one wants to see their heroes to grow old. When their time comes, they should go out in a blaze of glory, before they begin to fumble against lesser mortals.
It’s been a little over 11 years since MS Dhoni led India to its maiden T20 world cup victory. That tournament was a revelation, an education and a celebration, all in one. No one knew the format. No one thought it would explode and turn cricket over its head. No one knew that one day there would be T20 leagues and players would choose club over country. No one knew that so much money was lying dormant and when it came out, it was like some oil well had been discovered.
Dhoni led a team of young tyros that didn’t feature any big names.`Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and
Anil Kumble, all politely excused themselves from the tournament. Even they couldn’t see the future of the game and the leap it would make.
How many moments in your life can you describe as surreal? Getting drunk doesn’t count as one. We struggle to find surreal in life, that’s why we attempt to manufacture it.
But that’s the only word I can use to describe that inaugural T20 World Cup – surreal.
The first match against India and Pakistan ends in a bowl out, a practice that has since been stopped and replaced with the super over. The format didn’t know how else to complete a match that was tied.
Against South Africa, an excellent bowling effort led by RP Singh, Sreesanth and Pathan meant that the home side was knocked out of the tournament. A younger Dinesh Karthik flies in the air to pull off a stunning catch to dismiss Graeme Smith. Shaun Pollock is bowled by a stunner by RP Singh. South Africa are reduced to rubble and to add salt to their wounds, they miscalculate the runs they need to get to the next round.
Against England, there will always be one abiding memory – that of Yuvraj Singh taking Stuart Broad to the cleaners with his six sixes that immortalised him. In T20 cricket, we learned that everything was speeded up – even becoming legendary. After Andrew Flintoff made the effort to walk up to him before the start of the over and give him an earful, Yuvraj looked like he wanted to get into a fist fight. Umpire Billy Doctrove made an attempt to dissuade him. All the while, captain Dhoni watched, possibly with a smile on his face.
But the match wasn’t one sided. England lost by 18 runs but gave India a run for their money.
The format ran on adrenaline. How it is possible to give adrenaline an adrenaline boost? Well, that’s exactly what Yuvraj Singh did with that one over. Cheerleaders. Commentators jumping up from their seats because they too were journeying with the rest of us.
Everything seemed, well, so surreal.
Against Australia, India again post a commanding total, riding on Yuvraj’s Jesus walking on water form and valuable contributions by Robin Uthappa and Dhoni. Australia don’t cower down. In fact, Andrew Symmonds and Matthew Hayden look they are going to run away with the match until Sreesanth strikes to get Hayden out. Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan Singh get into the act, removing Michael Clarke and Andrew Symmonds.
India book a place with Pakistan in the final.
Can things get even more surreal?
The final dawns upon us. Gambhir plays a valuable knock, Yuvraj runs out of his superhuman prowess and no one knows whether 157 will be enough. Pakistan go on a blitzkreig and it looks like a lopsided finish. But this is Pakistan, not the most clinical nor blessed with too much common sense. This is India Pakistan, nothing goes according to script (unless you consider the shady matches played in the late 90s at Sharjah).
Pakistan are 77/6. It should be over. People realise that someone called Misbah ul Haq exists. Misbah, who at the age of 33, is coming out of retirement. Misbah, who smashes a wayward Harbhajan for a couple of sixes and is actually turning the tide.
It all boils down to the last over. 13 runs. Joginder Sharma has the ball in his hand.
Wide. Then a six. Effectively 7 runs of one delivery. Which meant they only needed 6 runs off 4 deliveries. Misbah can’t risk rotating strike. He then plays a shot that will forever haunt him and one which Indian fans will be forever in his debt. He scoops the ball and out of nowhere, Sreesanth runs towards it and latches on to the catch.
Geoff Lawson, the then Pakistan coach can’t believe what has happened.
The BCCI, which saw the tournament as some short-lived experiment hadn’t even bothered to hire a full time coach. Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh toured with the team as bowling as fielding coaches.
This is what surreal looks like – a side goes into a tournament without its most recognised players. The side is led by a newly appointed captain. There is no full time coach. And they’re playing a format they aren’t even acquainted with.
Then they win the tournament.
Dhoni has led the side in 5 more T20 World Cups since. In 2014, the side lost to a determined Sri Lanka in the final. In 2016, they were expected to win it at home and were swept off by the West Indies who were an unstoppable juggernaut.
Now, by the looks of it, Dhoni won’t feature in any more T20 matches for India. The next T20 World Cup is in 2020 and his successors are being readied. When he retired from tests at the end of 2014, he did so without much of a fuss. It seemed like he wanted to rid himself of that unwanted weight, in a format that seemed to restrict him. But when it came to limited overs cricket, he seems to feel he has something more to offer.
Nostalgia is a lovely emotion but not a very useful one. It doesn’t alter a balance sheet or statistics or numbers. Players are always trying to regain form but as they grow older, they are always trying to do more than that – regain their youth. And Dhoni, like million other athletes before him is coming to that realization. In this year’s IPL, where he was reunited with his beloved Chennai Super Kings after a two year hiatus, we saw glimpses of the Dhoni of old. While his IPL career is by no means over, his career as an international T20 player might as well be.
Dhoni, who shepherded a team through a new format, turned a game on its head and won countless hearts is now being asked to walk away from what he helped build.
One of my most abiding memories from the T20 World Cup final in 2007 comes after the victory.
As Dhoni is walking towards the dressing room, a kid stops him. He calmly removes his shirt, gives it to kid, helps him wear it and walks away.
It all seemed, well, so surreal.