The defining cricketing image of 2011 has to be the moment Mahendra Singh Dhoni stepped out of his crease and finished the World Cup with the crispest, cleanest straight drive imaginable. It was the stroke of a man utterly confident in his own judgement, as he had been, or at least given the appearance of being, throughout a tournament in which his team and his own leadership had been scrutinised down by the expectations of a billion people.
The entire innings- from the promotion up the order to its thrilling end- summed up Dhoni perfectly. There was an element of risk-taking in the beginning (he had been short of runs during the tournament), a sense of style in the denouement, but most of all a ruthlessness to finish the job. It was Andrew Strauss, before the Ashes tour, who defined himself as a ‘winner’, but as yet England’s captain must bend his knee to his opposite number who arrived on these shores two days ago.
Dhoni’s record as captain of India, and as captain of the Chennai Super Kings (CSK), is remarkable and it marks him out as leader of surprising and substantial gifts. He has led India to the top of the world Test rankings, to the World Cup and inaugural World Twenty20, as well as leading CSK to two Indian Premier League titles, and a Champions League title. In four years, India have been beaten only three times in Test cricket; there have been fifteen wins in that time, making Dhoni’s win-loss ratio as a Test captain up there with the best.
If these statistics are surprising, it is because when England first set eyes on him during Andrew Flintoff’s tour in 2006, they could have been forgiven for thinking that he was little more than a playboy one-day cricketer with a sharp eye on the bottom line. With his bottom-handed, biffing technique and penchant for stealing the limelight by, for example, riding a motorcycle around the outfield at the conclusion of the Mumbai Test, he looked every inch a Ranchi flash in an Indian pan.
No current cricketer does pay more attention or have a less discerning attitude to the bottom line (his website lists 17 global brands that are linked to him), and it was impossible during the World Cup to spend a day without being confronted by an image of Dhoni promoting some brand or other, but it hard to argue that he does not back up promotions with performance. Sachin Tendulkar, supplanted now by Dhoni as the most sought after endorsement, described him as the best captain he had played under.
One of those who knows him best and who now is in a position to talk more freely than before is Gary Kirsten, the coach with whom Dhoni built such an impressive relationship. Recently at a business forum in Mumbai, Kirsten had this to say about Dhoni: ‘one word that comes to my mind about Dhoni is “presence”. Great leaders give credit to others when things are going well and take responsibility when things are going badly. Dhoni is that guy to a ‘T’.’
‘He gives the impression that winning and losing doesn’t mean a whole lot to him in one sense, he just gets on with it. He has this uncanny presence about him without saying too much. People just want to follow him; people want to go with him.’ Dhoni’s seriousness of purpose was underlined by his team’s recent victory in West Indies. Shorn of a phalanx of senior players, India did what might be called a professional job in the Caribbean, wrapping up the series 1-0 and refusing a run-chase at the end to increase that advantage. It was a decision that was not greeted enthusiastically by the army of pundits, experts and on-line warriors who follow the Indian cricket team’s every move. One writer was moved to say that India had even abdicated their responsibility, as financial leaders of cricket, to ‘present the game in its best light’ by spurning the chance of a win in Dominica. What it did show is that Dhoni is serious about winning, something that was not common to Indian captains before his arrival, Kapil Dev’s unexpected triumph in the World Cup of 1983 a rare interruption in an otherwise patchy record. Nor is Duncan Fletcher’s arrival as coach likely to dilute Dhoni’s pragmatism.
There are many mouth-watering battles to look forward to during a series which will hopefully spark into action what has been a humdrum summer so far, but England’s attempts to undermine Dhoni may just be about the most important of all. He has played three Tests matches in England, with some success although both his half-centuries on the 2007 tour came in benign conditions. England will demand carry from the surfaces, which ought to suit Chris Tremlett in particular and ought to test Dhoni’s bottom-handed, firm-gripped technique.
When a self-proclaimed ‘winner’ comes up against the greatest ‘winner’ in the current game, then something will have to give.