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Captain Zen

karthikkrishnaswamy, Shamik Chakrabarty

Posted: Apr 04, 2011 at 1135 hrs IST

: Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems like a man who can do no wrong. Win or lose, bad form or purple patch, he is India’s Captain Cool. But it was Greg Chappell, a man whose time as coach of the Indian cricket team now stands largely discredited, who first marked Dhoni out as a potential captain.

“Just a few months into the job in 2005, Chappell had sent a note to the Board and the selectors that Dhoni should be groomed as captain. Dhoni has always been a good student of the game and his composure and self-confidence had prompted the coach to see him as a future leader. He had also mentioned Suresh Raina and Sreesanth in that report, stating that they had the potential to play for the country for 10 years,” says Pranab Roy, who was part of the national selection panel that first picked Dhoni for the ODI series in Bangladesh in 2004.

A comparison of Indian cricket at the start of Dhoni’s term as captain—months after India’s disastrous World Cup outing in 2007—to how it looks now, makes it apparent that the changes that he has overseen in terms of the team’s outlook and self-belief have occurred without any drastic changes in personnel. Anyone who expected a sweeping revolution was left disappointed.

Dhoni, 29, has led undemonstratively—whatever emotions may swirl beneath his cap, behind his sunglasses and in the confines of the dressing room—and given everyone the feeling that he is always in control. His captaincy, many thought, would mirror his batting. In an almost ironic way, it does—both his batting, formerly free-spirited and aggressive, and his captaincy are now pragmatic, calculated and largely risk-free.

“He didn’t speak much but always spoke substance,” says Anil Kumble, under whom Dhoni served his Test captaincy apprenticeship. “He understands the game and has the flexibility to change his plans according to the situation. His biggest attribute is that he doesn’t wilt under pressure, which rubs off on his teammates. In fact, this is one of the biggest reasons why the team has done so well under him.”

India doesn’t possess a bowling attack that will blow sides away. Dhoni’s tactics, therefore, have always looked to maximise its strengths—conventional swing in helpful conditions, reverse swing with the old ball in the subcontinent and relying on Harbhajan Singh’s ability to trigger collapses when the wicket and the opposition’s psychological state favour him.

In Test matches, he has chosen to wait for these moments and play on the batting side’s patience. A classic example of this came on Day 3 of the Test against Australia at Nagpur in 2008, only his third Test as skipper. Dhoni placed eight fielders on the off side and asked his seamers to bowl wide of the stump. Having resumed on 189 for two in response to India’s 441, Australia, despite batting the entire day, were bowled out for 355.

Sometimes, Dhoni’s tactics seem overtly cautious—as they did when India batted on after lunch despite being more than 350 ahead on the final day against England at Mohali in 2008, or when he spread the field at Cape Town this January and relieved the pressure on Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher when South Africa were only 128 runs ahead in the third innings with four wickets in hand. But these tactics have ensured that India is extremely hard to beat—the proof lies in the record that India have lost only three of the 24 Tests they have played under Dhoni’s captaincy.

But what elevates his captaincy to the level where he can be bracketed with men like Mike Brearley and Mark Taylor is his man-management skills. “He allows everyone to express themselves,” says Venkatesh Prasad, former India bowling coach. “He listens to everybody but takes his own decisions. At the same time, he is open to any kind of suggestion and doesn’t hesitate to change his plans if he likes others’ ideas. It has happened several times that he has changed the bowler at the last moment after someone suggested a different option. Even a greenhorn can go to him and offer a suggestion.”

This approach has allowed other players to play significant leadership roles. Zaheer Khan, for instance, is almost a second captain when India’s young seamers—Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma or Munaf Patel—are bowling.

It’s very rare for Dhoni to express his anger at players, says Prasad. “I have never seen him berating any player even after dropping a sitter or bowling a bad spell,” he says. “In fact, he barely raises the issue in team meetings. With his methods, Dhoni has taken the pressure off everybody.”

Given this kind of support, the players tend to accept the rare instances of criticism that come their way—for instance, Dhoni’s uncharacteristic public rant about “batsmen playing to the gallery rather than for the country” after the group match loss to South Africa.

It also helps that Dhoni sets his teammates an example with the effort he puts in. In the ODI series that immediately followed India’s Test struggles against Sri Lanka’s spin star Ajantha Mendis in 2008, Dhoni, who missed the Tests, came back and tackled Mendis’s mystery spin gamely, finding a way to score runs even if he never quite got on top. Dhoni finished as top run-getter in that low-scoring series and India won 3-2. Robin Uthappa, who was part of India’s T20 World Championship triumph, says Dhoni has even played through excruciating pain. Uthappa recounts an incident from India’s Commonwealth Bank tri-series victory in Australia in the early months of Dhoni’s captaincy: “In that series, I fielded a lot in the slips. During the second final, Mahi had a really bad back spasm. He could hardly squat or move around, and was at times struggling to even collect the ball.” “Repeatedly, I offered to keep, but he waved it off. It was amazing to see him not just keep through the pain but also captain the side. That was a fabulous win for us, but he could barely celebrate when wickets fell.” For once, the unflappable expression was really a mask.

The journey

August 2007: Is named captain for the 2007 T20 World Cup, after Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly all opt out. Leads the side to triumph in the tournament in September. In the final against Pakistan, gives the crucial final over to Joginder Sharma. Pays off when Sharma takes the last wicket.

September 2007: Is named captain of ODI side after Rahul Dravid resigns.

March 2008: India win their first Tri-series in Australia—the CB series.

Criticised for non selection of Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Backs youngsters like Piyush Chawla, Praveen Kumar and Robin Uthappa who deliver. “Even if we had lost this tournament, we should have stuck with the young boys. This will be the team’s core.”

March 2008: While supporting his players, makes his authority clear. Sreesanth is dropped in one game for Munaf Patel. Dhoni said that he gave Munaf a chance because, unlike Sreesanth, he would bowl to his field.

April 2008: Is named captain for the third Test of the India-South Africa series after Anil Kumble is declared unfit. Goes for toss wearing Kumble’s blazer. Ganguly scores 87 as India win by 8 wickets on a Kanpur minefield.

November 2008: Named captain after Kumble’s retirement. India beat Australia by 172 runs in Nagpur to reclaim the Border-Gavaskar trophy 2-0. Had his bowlers bowl outside the off stump with an 8-1 field on day three. If Australia had to score they had to chase the deliveries. With one wicket left, Dhoni reverts the captaincy to Sourav Ganguly in his final Test.

December 2008: Leads India in a Test series for the first time. Playing in the aftermath of 26/11, Tendulkar scores a century as India beat England by six wickets.

March 2009: India win their first Test in 33 years in New Zealand, Harbhajan Singh takes six wickets as NZ lose by ten wickets in Hamilton.

june 2009 Wins the four-nation Asia Cup. Terms the win preparation for the World Cup. “Once we get closer we want to play with a fixed side and give them more exposure, get them more used to the conditions.”

July 2009: India win their fifth consecutive ODI series by beating West Indies 2-1 in the West Indies.

December 2009: India move to the top spot of the World Test rankings by beating Sri Lanka 2-0 at home.

October 2010: Leads Indian side missing several key players to a 2-0 win over Australia in Tests, and 3-0 in ODIs. “Not only in Tests, we have been playing series without our key players. Consistently we have not played our strongest side.”

December 2010: “The greener the better,” is what Dhoni had to say when told the pitch for the decisive 3rd Test at Cape Town would be a green track. He went on to lead India to a historic series draw in 2010 in SA.


Mirpur, India vs Bangladesh

Despite Bangladesh being known for its slow wickets, Dhoni goes in with three pacers and a lone spinner in Harbhajan Singh. While the attempt to give Sreesanth an opportunity flopped, a vital discovery was made in Yuvraj Singh as a fifth bowler. With Sreesanth struggling—conceding 53 runs in five overs, Dhoni used Yuvraj and Yusuf Pathan in tandem and completed 15 overs that could otherwise have been problematic.

Bangalore, India vs England

Dhoni takes a gamble by going in with two spinners, Piyush Chawla and Harbhajan Singh, and two seamers, Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel. On a pitch that saw more than 600 runs scored, the absence of a specialist fifth bowler was felt. Gives Piyush Chawla the penultimate over that cost 15 runs.

In hindsight, Chawla was not confident at that point, having already given away 56 in nine overs.

Bangalore, India vs Ireland

Despite Zaheer taking two early wickets, Dhoni introduces spin in the fourth over. Uses Harbhajan and Pathan to get through the powerplay overs quickly.

New Delhi, India vs Netherlands

Dhoni rests Munaf, and instead plays Nehra. Despite Piyush Chawla not making an impression in two matches, Dhoni picks him over R Ashwin, reckoning that he needed more match practice and Ashwin’s ‘mental strength’ meant he could come in anytime. Yusuf Pathan, promoted to number three, falls cheaply.

Nagpur, India vs South Africa

Shuffles the batting order after Tendulkar and Sehwag provide a strong start, but India flounder in the batting powerplay, ultimately losing last nine wickets for 29. Dhoni drops Chawla and brings back Munaf Patel to strengthen his pace attack. Showed confidence in Nehra and gave him the last over when the Proteas needed 13 to win despite an over remaining from Harbhajan, who had picked up three wickets. The left-armer concedes 16 in just four balls.

Chennai, India vs West Indies

Finally gives R Ashwin a game, and straightaway hands him the new ball. Ashwin responds by bowling economically and delivers the first wicket. Takes Zaheer Khan off the attack after bowling only two overs. The track is dry and once the ball is sufficiently old, Dhoni brings him back. Zaheer, gaining appreciable reverse swing, takes the wicket of Devon Smith in the first over of his second spell to trigger a collapse.

Ahmedabad, India vs Australia

Ashwin once again opens the bowling, and picks up Shane Watson early. Noticing that the pitch was taking spin, Dhoni introduces Harbhajan in the ninth over. Dhoni doesn’t allow the batsmen to settle into any sort of rhythm. Munaf, who is hit for 13 in his first over, is immediately replaced by Yuvraj Singh, and only bowls 7 overs in the match. In order to break the momentum even further, he uses Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar, who combine to concede only 14 in three overs.

Mohali, India vs Pakistan

Banking on the Mohali track to assist the seamers, Dhoni rests Ashwin and brings back Nehra. Although Dhoni admits he had read the track incorrectly, Nehra justifies his selection by keeping a tight leash on the batsmen and taking two wickets.

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