There is a tendency, particularly among sports writers and fans, to elevate a human of ordinary proportions to gianthood right after his retirement. They are fond of using phrases like "great of the game" and "arguably the greatest captain the side has seen", along with adjectives and adverbs such as "inspired", "intuitive", "innovative", "unconventional", "daring" to put a positive spin on "impulsive".
The fact is, Mahendra Singh Dhoni led the Indian side to victory more often and won more silverware than many of his predecessors. He also filled two huge gaps in the side – that of a reliable wicket-keeper and that of a lower-order batsman.
Through the 90s, India had been searching for a bowling, wicket-keeping or fielding all-rounder – someone who could come in at five or six wickets down and smash the ball around the park.
In the early 2000s, they found some of their solutions, with M S Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh.
So desperate was the team for a wicketkeeper-batsman that the management had tried to convert their most reliable middle-order batsman Rahul Dravid into a wicket-keeper. It didn’t work.
As the four men who had saved the Indian team from many a dire game situation over the past decade – Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, and V V S Laxman – began to age, the management saw the need to groom a group to take over from them.
Dhoni was something the Indian team had not seen in a very long time – a brilliant wicket-keeper and a big hitter, sometimes comparable to Adam Gilchrist. He eventually became a commanding captain, sans the sulkiness of Sourav Ganguly or the aggression of Virat Kohli. His behaviour on the field was gentlemanly, and his press conferences were often laced with humour even when he was on the losing side.
But the video with which he bade goodbye to cricket does nod to a lot of his errors, explicit and implicit. Yes, his final one-day innings in his final World Cup match was not one he would want to recall, and neither is the run-out.
What must surely be the greatest moment in his career – winning the World Cup at home in 2011 – was shared with a teammate whose relationship with Dhoni soured over the years, Yuvraj Singh.
Also featured prominently in the video are the four top-order batsmen for whose heirs the Indian team management had been scouting. Of them, Dhoni's devotion to Sachin Tendulkar ensured the latter could retire at will, while the other three were edged to the periphery and eventually forced into retirement. In the last three years or so of Tendulkar's career, it became evident he was holding on to set his records – fairly understandable, given that he had borne the brunt of the team's burden through the 90s, even returning early from his father's funeral to save the team from an early exit in the 1999 World Cup. The other three men were not shown the same grace.
Sportsmen rarely know when to retire, and Dhoni's decision to push out those who were past their prime would have been entirely correct if he had filled their places with talent instead of a coterie. But Dhoni was not immune to flattery, and this prolonged the careers of the likes of Suresh Raina. We will never know at whose cost this was.
Once he had won his silverware, his friend and manager Arun Pandey sought to immortalise the legend of M S Dhoni with a biopic, and thus was born M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), a film which took certain liberties with reality for drama and had Dhoni himself on board as a consultant. It wasn't his career which inspired a biopic, but his manager who commissioned one. Naturally, it was more hagiography than biography. It was less "untold story" than "oft-repeated story".
Dhoni's greatest strength has always been his own pragmatism, perhaps illustrated by the sound track that accompanied his farewell video – Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon. He has always known how to tap the pulse of the team, and of his audience. His retirements have not been without drama – not many Test captains hang up their boots in the middle of an away series. The announcement of his retirement from international cricket comes about a month before the start of the IPL, and several months after the team management had said they intended to groom Rishabh Pant as the team’s main wicketkeeper-batsman, and Dhoni – who was still sharp behind the stumps, but no longer as effective as a lower-order batsman – would not be the first choice for the T20 World Cup.
Perhaps, the best tribute to Dhoni would be to treat his retirement with the same pragmatism. Talent is not defined by the trophies one wins – or Brian Lara and A B de Villiers would not be the legends they are – but the trophies do count, and Dhoni led his team to big wins in all three formats of the game. His easygoing manner and his amused smile on the field will be missed, but his skills will not go down in history. As for retirement, he has made the right decision – one he should have made some time ago.
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com