In a piece originally published in The Nightwatchman, after the Test retirement of MS Dhoni, Tunku Varadarajan draws an unflattering portrait of India’s former skipper.
There is no straightforward way to look at Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the man who had captained India in 60 Tests by the time he retired. That is 11 Tests more than the next Indian, Sourav Ganguly, who could never be accused of being ice-cool under pressure, supremely athletic or unorthodox.
Those are Dhoni’s trademarks. The man isn’t just ice-cool, he’s Arctic. His face is inscrutable, seemingly carved from stone, his expression impassive even as his teammates erupt around him in response to sledging Aussies or Englishmen. Unusually for an Indian cricketer, his fitness is world-class; only Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev and, perhaps, Mohammad Azharuddin were on a par.
As for orthodoxy, Dhoni has nary a trace of it. He is a cricketing autodidact who says no thank you to the textbook. His helicopter shot is, quite possibly, the most violent thrash one could hope to see. It brings together his iconoclasm and immense strength in a thrilling, high-speed whirl of body, arms and bat. Bludgeoning shots such as this have brought him more runs in Tests than any Indian wicket-keeper; among keeper/batsmen, only Adam Gilchrist and Mark Boucher have scored more. (Gilchrist is streets ahead; Boucher’s 5,515 runs came in 147 Tests, compared with Dhoni’s 4,876 in 90.) And Dhoni isn’t just a marauder or swashbuckler. He can, when required, be a most improbable barnacle. Remember the Lord’s Test in 2007, when he batted nearly three and a half hours for 76 not out and staved off certain defeat?
Dhoni’s wicket-keeping numbers are impressive, too. Only Boucher, Gilchrist, Ian Healy and Rod Marsh have more dismissals, and they all kept to attacks bristling with fast bowlers who steamed in to edgy batsmen. The only bowlers thudding the ball into Dhoni’s gloves in excess of 90mph have been Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron – and neither can be described as consistently threatening. Spin has always been India’s forte, so it is no surprise that Dhoni has 38 stumpings. Only Godfrey Evans and Bert Oldfield had more.
Dhoni captained India to more Test victories – 27 in 60 – than anyone. (Ganguly was next with 21 from 49.) In the long history of the game, only six captains have won more Tests for their country, and three of them (Steve Waugh, Clive Lloyd and Allan Border) were legends. Under Dhoni’s stewardship, India became the No.1 Test side for the first time, and remained there for 21 months. It started with a drubbing of Sri Lanka in Mumbai, in December 2009, and ended with a drubbing by England at Edgbaston, in August 2011. To the game’s cognoscenti, that time at the top of the Test ladder represents the zenith of Indian cricket – not the World Cup wins.
When one adds to Dhoni’s Test record his marvellous achievements as a member and captain of India’s limited-overs teams – where he counts among the game’s finest finishers – one has not a feather of doubt that he is among the five most significant players to have represented India: the others are Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil and Tendulkar. Then there’s his background: born to working-class parents and raised in the boondocks, Dhoni had to overcome enormous cultural and infrastructural obstacles. A man who once punched tickets for the Indian Railways – his was not a sportsman’s sinecure – is today the richest cricketer in the world. Forbes ranks him 22nd in its list of highest-paid athletes, above such goldmines as Peyton Manning, Maria Sharapova, Derek Jeter, Rory McIlroy and Wayne Rooney. A patriot to the core, he claims his proudest moment was when the Indian Army made him an honorary lieutenant colonel.
Impressed? Bowled over? Blown away? You should be. And yet … and yet … there is another way of looking at Dhoni.
Let’s get away from numbers for a minute and talk about custodial morality. Dhoni announced his retirement from Test cricket on 30 December 2014, shortly after India had drawn the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne. His retirement was unusual for an Indian cricket star for two reasons. First, it was unexpected, and executed with no fuss or fanfare; contrast this with the prolonged gaudiness of Tendulkar’s departure. The second was less laudable: Dhoni quit in the middle of a tough series for which he’d been appointed captain. The job had been intended to run until the end; and, irrespective of whether one believes he should have been captain in the first place, it was bad form – a dereliction of duty, in fact – to quit before seeing it out.
Any discussion on the ethics of being in charge must include questions about Dhoni’s flagrant conflicts of interest. It didn’t faze him to be a shareholder for a while in a sports management company that handled cricketers – including Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Pragyan Ojha – who played under him and whose commercial worth was directly affected by the frequency with which they were selected (selections in which shareholder-captain Dhoni had, naturally, an important say). The company, Rhiti Sports, also represented Chennai Super Kings, Dhoni’s IPL team: CSK are owned by India Cements, whose managing director, N. Srinivasan, was president of the BCCI for much of Dhoni’s tenure as captain. Dhoni, remarkably, is vice-president of India Cements. The captain of the Indian cricket team is the business partner of the game’s most powerful administrator. This doesn’t just look unethical: it is unethical.
Why did Dhoni quit? We know he had lost his zest for Test cricket. The longest form of the game had never been his favourite, and for the last three years a certain distaste had been apparent in his demeanour. It’s possible he fell out of love with Tests on that disastrous tour of England in 2011, when India strutted out for Test cricket having scarcely bothered to acclimatise and were handed a 4-0 hiding by one of the most combative England teams of the modern era. Dhoni’s sentimental rupture with Tests was confirmed soon after in Australia, when India – having first feasted at home on a prone West Indian carcass – lost 4-0 again. His captaincy in Australia was worse than uninspired, with India using only 13 members of their 17-man squad, despite being pounded in Test after Test. (Wriddhiman Saha, the 13th to be picked, played in the fourth Test only because Dhoni was injured.) Dhoni refused to blood Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma, both young and talented batsmen. He showed an extraordinary unwillingness to experiment. What could have been lost in throwing Rahane and Sharma in at the deep end, at least for the final Test? Dhoni should have quit after that Australian evisceration, but he would not, and India trundled on for three more years with a Test captain who disdained Test cricket.
Let us return to numbers. Yes, Dhoni won more Tests than any Indian captain, but only six of those wins came outside India – and only four came outside Asia: one each in New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies and England. By tactics, inclination and, no doubt, a technical inability to thrive in foreign conditions, Dhoni undid the proud and hard-won legacy of Ganguly and Rahul Dravid (and, to an extent, Anil Kumble): that of an Indian side which could compete consistently in Tests abroad. Compared with Dhoni’s overseas win/loss ratio of 0.4, the ratios of Ganguly (11 wins and 10 losses in 28 Tests) and Dravid (five wins and four losses in 17) were 1.1 and 1.25 respectively. (They are the only two Indian captains to boast more wins abroad than losses.) Indeed, India’s ascent to the No.1 spot rested on some fine away series wins pre-Dhoni – in England and the West Indies, and memorable, scrapping Test victories in Australia and South Africa. In the 21 months India were on top under Dhoni, they played seven series, of which three were in India and two were soft overseas outings in Bangladesh and the West Indies. When they encountered a truly searching Test match examination – in England in 2011 – they were flattened.
All of this takes us back to basics. How does Dhoni cope with crises? Many great players who have become captain – especially Indian ones – have succumbed to the inexorable pressures that come with the job. When Tendulkar led the side, “pressures of captaincy” was the phrase on the tip of every cricket correspondent’s pen. He buckled under the weight of helmsmanship, as to an extent did Dravid. The pugnacious Ganguly did not, but he was always in a frothing, turbulent state. Dhoni is the first captain of India who has seemed impervious. One cannot say for certain that he doesn’t feel pressure, but he has never shown any signs of being publicly eroded by it. An argument often made is that he had the unquestioning confidence of N. Srinivasan, so he could afford to be unperturbed; Ganguly, though, had the backing of Jagmohan Dalmiya, Srinivasan’s predecessor, and that didn’t rid him of his paranoias. But Ganguly and Dalmiya did not share business interests like Srinivasan and Dhoni, which makes it well worth asking whether it was the intimate (some would say brazen) pecuniary embrace that protected Dhoni from being sacked after the 4-0 defeat in Australia in 2011–12 – and again when they lost at home to England for the first time in 28 years in 2012–13.
However murky the commercial sub-plots, Dhoni has always been Captain Cool. Being able to stay serene in the face of provocation is a huge asset: the opposition feeds off the pressure a captain faces – think Tendulkar, Nasser Hussain, Ricky Ponting or Graeme Smith, vulnerable temperaments all – but one has never heard opponents suggest they’re going to target Dhoni.
This calm, however, has a mulish, even toxic flipside, whereby Dhoni, having taken a position, refuses to budge. The spat between Ravindra Jadeja and James Anderson during last year’s Test at Trent Bridge could have been resolved amicably if Dhoni hadn’t been adamant about prosecuting Anderson for alleged assault. Dhoni came across as an imperturbable bully. Although India drew that Test and went on to win the next, at Lord’s, poison from the spat – and from Dhoni’s inability to forget it – infected the Indian team to the detriment of their performances.
Equally significant, in this writer’s view, was another failure of statesmanship on that tour. During the T20 international at Edgbaston, local (presumably British-born) supporters of the Indian team hurled virulent abuse at Moeen Ali, the Anglo-Pakistani allrounder. Yet Dhoni refused to take a stand against this behaviour. How hard would it have been for him to say that such bile against a brother-player was unacceptable, that he condemned the booing? Not only would he have won the respect of the British public, he would, in truth, have made a salutary contribution to British society in setting straight those errant, Tebbit-tested India fans.
Yet, for all his flaws in the longer game, Dhoni has been a notably successful captain in cricket’s shorter formats, winning two World Cups and a Champions Trophy. How does one explain the disparity? In limited-overs cricket, Dhoni seems in consummate control. He revels in a format where he can execute his plans within a finite timeline – where, if Plan A doesn’t work, he has just enough space to try Plan B – but not too much space for that to fail as well and for him to run out of resources. Test cricket is a much harder taskmistress: there is infinitely more subtlety in the game, calling for a sophisticated grasp of extended rhythms. When Dhoni hits a wall in a Test, he often resorts to limited-overs tactics: slowing things down or packing one side of the field. Test batsmen have the patience of snipers; slowing things down is not a useful tactic, let alone a strategy.
For a man with such an aura of aggression, his captaincy in the long form is incongruously, infuriatingly defensive. Having got Ishant Sharma to bounce India, memorably, to a lead at Lord’s, Dhoni went into the next Test at Southampton with only four bowlers, one of whom, Pankaj Singh, was a big, lumbering debutant. In the absence through injury of Sharma, Dhoni packed the batting and played for a draw. India came a cropper. If this were an anomalous selection, one would be inclined to let the matter drop. But Dhoni repeatedly looks to bat opponents out of games. This may work in India, where conditions favour run-scoring, and it has worked in one-day cricket. But it will rarely work in Tests abroad – Dhoni’s record proves that.
It must be said, in his defence, that he has never possessed a potent bowling arsenal. But his handling of his resources has been consistently unimpressive. There have been occasions – such as at Lord’s last year, in England’s second innings – when everything seems to have come together exultantly, but more often than not he is reactive, waiting for a horse to bolt. He can also be sterile: after Ishant’s successful bombardment, Dhoni became obsessed with the short ball – sometimes to the point of insanity. How else to explain his orders that David Warner receive (mostly) short-pitched bowling from around the wicket – even as Ryan Harris, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Johnson showed India that the best method in Australia was to pitch it up?
In truth, Dhoni is not a strategist; he is merely a tactician. Tactical nous gets you far in artificially circumscribed contests, such as speed-chess or limited-overs cricket. These are games of many skirmishes, and you try to win more than you lose. Test cricket is more strategic than tactical: in fact, it is the apogee of strategy.
Commentators talk of “winning sessions” as the key; TV channels have now started scoring sessions, which transmits a misleading narrative to viewers. But Test cricket isn’t that one-dimensional. When batting on the first afternoon, a team needs to be aware of the possibilities – the weather, the pitch, their bowling resources, the abilities of the opposition – that will come into play on the third morning. To that end, the batting team’s play is geared toward the big picture, not some notional win in a session. If a captain anticipates rain on the second evening, he wants to be in a position to have the opposition bat under pressure at that precise time. Or if he anticipates an easing-out of the wicket, he wants his team to be the one enjoying the conditions. In Test cricket, something a team does on day one can have a tectonic impact on day four or five.
Dhoni appears not to have the ability – or, more damningly, the interest – to think that way. His undisguised preference for the shorter game has had a corrosive impact on Indian Test cricket. Indian players rarely play first-class cricket these days. When not playing for the country, they play in the IPL, of which Dhoni is the iconic representative. Skills, patience and stamina have atrophied. Batsmen no longer know how to build an innings; bowlers wilt under workloads that exceed four or ten overs.
Indian Test cricket will benefit from Dhoni’s retirement. He had become a detriment, pulling his side with him into a downward spiral. India are now ranked seventh in Test cricket, a far cry from No.1. Dhoni was all too blasé in defeat – which Ganguly, India’s greatest Test captain, never was – and his reactions to loss after overseas loss came to be anodyne, a collection of ever-so-slightly verbose platitudes. He had lost the ability to instill fight in his team.
England scored 569-7 and 205-4 at the Rose Bowl last year, and he had this to say about the bowling: “I think Bhuvi seemed a bit tired. He came back nicely after that first spell, but I thought he was on the shorter side…. Apart from that, I am quite happy with the effort put in by the fast bowlers. It was a different kind of wicket, where you have to hit the surface hard to get some purchase. That’s where I found Pankaj very impressive. He is a tall guy and got a fair amount of bounce and was unlucky not to get a few wickets. Overall I am happy with him.” Pankaj Singh’s figures? 37-8-146-0 and 10-4-33-0.
India’s last overseas series win against one of three stronger sides was in 2007, against England. India won 1-0, under Dravid, and there are two telling observations: one, Dravid instilled in the side a will to win; two, he resigned immediately after. The contrast with Dhoni is striking.
Great captains create more than a win-loss “P&L statement”. They create systems and legacies. Take Lloyd, Ian Chappell, Pataudi, Arjuna Ranatunga – yes, even Ganguly. Dhoni leaves no legacy besides statistics. Great captains leave mindsets that others can emulate and take strength from. Dhoni the captain created nothing of the kind. In retiring, he bequeaths little more to Indian Test cricket than a hole in the late middle-order.