"He has been an outstanding captain, his record is terrific and he has done wonders for Indian cricket," gushes Sourav Ganguly about MS Dhoni. Hitherto the man with the most successful record as Indian captain and one who changed the image of the Indian captain, Ganguly enjoys an exalted status in Indian cricket. But even he willingly acknowledges the wonderful things that Dhoni has worked out the game in this country and for the Indian team in particular.
Such is Dhoni’s awesome achievements that sometimes I feel that even the gushing praise from all quarters is not enough. The latest converts are the British press and as we all know Fleet Street hasn’t always been so spontaneously magnanimous in their praise of Indian cricketers. But the bottom line is results and on this record it is easy to see why Dhoni currently enjoys the status of greatest-ever Indian captain.
Indeed India have had their share of successful captains in the last 30 years dating back to June 25 1983 when under Kapil Dev India surprised the cricketing world by winning the World Cup in England. Over the last two decades in particular, the Indians have been fairly successful in both Tests and ODIs and besides the presence of some leading superstars of international cricket it has also been because of outstanding leadership.
Mohd Azharuddin was the first to lead India to victory in more than nine Tests (the record till then held by MAK Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar). He finished with 14 victories in 47 Tests but he was lucky in that 13 of these wins came about at home and the remaining one too was notched up in the subcontinent against Sri Lanka. Azharuddin in fact had a run of nine successive Test victories over Sri Lanka, England, Zimbabwe and West Indies during 1990 – 1994.
Azharuddin by no means was an astute captain but he had the figures to back him even if the successes were notched up at home. There has traditionally been a big difference between the Indian record at home and away and that is why victories abroad have been considered truly great. It wasn’t until Ganguly took over the captaincy in 2000 that the Indians started winning away matches on a regular basis.
Over the next decade Indian teams won Tests in England, Australia, Pakistan, West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and South Africa. Test rubbers were won in Pakistan (for the first time in almost 50 years), in New Zealand (after 41 years), in West Indies (after 35 years), in England (after 21 years) and contests have been shared in Australia and South Africa.
Under Ganguly and then briefly Rahul Dravid, Indian teams registered one notable victory after another and this was also in the limited overs format with the triumph in the NatWest Trophy in England in 2002 and the runners-up spot in the World Cup in South Africa the following year being particularly significant.
But it is under Dhoni that Indian teams have really struck gold. It all started with the triumph in the inaugural T-20 World Cup in South Africa. He had to bide his time before taking over as Test captain since the selectors appointed Anil Kumble. In the meantime the Indian team under his captaincy notched up one more notable triumph by winning the CB Series in Australia for the first time in 2008.
He started his Test captaincy with a win and it has become almost a habit ever since. For an extended period Dhoni could do no wrong. He could seemingly walk on water or climb Mount Everest without oxygen as the Indian team under this charismatic captain went from strength to strength – winning a series in New Zealand after 41 years, climbing to No 1 status in the ICC Test rankings for the first time, winning the 2011 Fifty50 World Cup besides numerous other comparatively smaller triumphs at home and abroad.
Two years ago then everything Dhoni touched turned into gold. He was the Teflon captain so much so that any criticism against him was rather muted. However no path can be full of roses and the cynics warned that the Indian captain was bound to come up against the thorns sometime in the future.
That time came about in England and Australia during 2011 – 2012 a dark period in Indian cricket that has been well chronicled. But even during this adverse period one hardly saw Dhoni getting flustered or frustrated. Given his naturally sunny, positive disposition, he took even such unfavourable situations in his stride and indeed emerged the stronger for it.
Soon the wheels turned and fortune started smiling on Dhoni again. He proved that he could take Rudyard Kipling’s twin imposters of triumph and disaster in his stride. This equanimity has been rewarded with the latest triumph - the Champions Trophy.
The uplifting, invigorating effect of just one player in the side! He does not have to be of outstanding ability or personality. He simply needs to be a little different from the others, to possess an aura about him and he can work wonders. That’s what Dhoni has done. On dynamism and entertainment value he was the best thing to happen to Indian cricket in eons. And now, on results under his leadership, he is again the best thing to happen to Indian cricket in eons.
Dhoni has clearly debunked the age old cliche that a captain is only as good as his team. He believes that a captain can transform a team and make things happen. He believes that good, successful captaincy is all about getting a cricketer to play above his level. After all, what is a captain if not a motivator? Dhoni has instilled in his team a sense of self confidence something that he possesses in abundance.
There is little doubt that under his leadership there has been a lot of confidence, commitment and desire shown by the players. They have dared to be aggressive, backed their instincts and achieved results. Dhoni's hands-on captaincy has made him an inspiring leader who considers himself first among equals.
Apparently with Dhoni what you see is what you get. He is clearly the most intuitive captain since Kapil Dev. He himself has said that he goes more by instinct when it comes to making a decision on the field or in picking a particular player.
The Indian captaincy need not be a crown of thorns as Dravid made it seem when he resigned in 2007. It all depends on the captain’s attitude and Dhoni’s has been refreshingly different. He seems to be actually enjoying the job even while taking difficult situations and adverse conditions in his stride. His perennial sunny smile symbolizes his optimism, his upbeat mood.
Dhoni’s captaincy has been marked by innovative touches by way of shrewd bowling changes, placing fieldsmen in attacking positions and the willingness to try something different. Like his batting, his captaincy too is adventurous and full of surprises. Behind that perennial smile lurks a wise cricketing brain and his calm demeanour and Captain Cool image are qualities that will continue to stand him – and Indian cricket - in very good stead.