Monday, January 10, 2011

MSD: Master of his dreams

(Written for Sahara Time last week)

If you are meeting Mahendra Singh Dhoni after a gap of two years or so, you’ll see why they say that being the captain of the Indian team is the second toughest job in the country (after the venerable Dr Manmohan Singh’s, of course). The grey streaks around his ears as well as on his chin are clear indicators of the stress. Not that you’d think that of the man you see on the pitch—even when the pressure’s massive, even when everything and everyone around him is going crazy. But that’s the only giveaway.

You know, Dhoni is quite the man Rudyard Kipling had in mind when he composed the iconic ‘If’. Frankly, it’s tough to believe these lines aren’t about modern-day cricket: “If you can keep your head when all about you/are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/but make allowance for their doubting too…” On to, “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master/If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim/If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/and treat those two impostors just the same…”

Or even, “If you can make one heap of all your winnings/and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss/And lose, and start again at your beginnings/and never breathe a word about your loss…”

At the end of it, I suppose, it just comes down to being street-smart. How else do you explain Dhoni? A compromise candidate for captain prior to the 2007 T20 World Cup, mainly because he was the most ‘regular’ member of the team. What did Dhoni do? He went and won India the World Cup. Superb performances from a number of players, but some magical, and key, decisions from the captain too. More importantly, at the end of it, you had a World Cup-winning captain who only displayed a proud smile, exchanged a couple of high-fives, and not much else.

Since then, Dhoni has led India in two disastrous T20 World Cup campaigns. Nothing has changed. The slight smile is still there. Naturally, the high-fives aren’t. But the demeanour hasn’t changed. Triumph and Disaster. Dhoni treats the two impostors just the same.

Unless you do, you don’t become the fourth-most successful Test captain of all time. Dhoni’s success percentage in Test matches is 60.86, behind only Steve Waugh, Don Bradman and Ricky Ponting, among captains who have led in more than 20 Tests. Imagine, the most successful non-Aussie Test match captain. Ever! Achieved with 14 wins from 24 Tests, with only 3 losses (stats prior to the end of the Cape Town Test).

Lucky? Sure, you have to be. If Laxman wasn’t a great player with tailenders… If Harbhajan hadn’t scored those centuries against New Zealand… If Zaheer Khan hadn’t rediscovered his enthusiasm… If Tendulkar hadn’t hit his greatest patch ever… Sehwag, Dravid… Sure. But that’s always true of all teams. In cricket, there’s no truism greater than ‘a captain is only as good as his team’. But I doubt you can have a great team under a bad captain. And so Dhoni has made his luck by a combination of smart player selection, commonsense, presence of mind, street-smartness and, again, an ability to ‘keep his head when all about him are losing theirs’.

And, just in case you are not a fan of stats and treat them as pesky insects (therefore ignoring them), Dhoni averages over 50 in both Tests and ODIs. In Tests, he averages 51.8 as captain over his career average of 40.6. In ODIs, he averages 56.1 as captain over a career batting average of 50.3. You might have missed this, because unlike the players who come in high up the order and add to their century column, Dhoni has been scoring the crucial 30s and 40s and 70s regularly. In his typical tennis ball batting style.

They call him Captain Cool, or Captain Marvel. But often, like we end up doing so often, the epithets are based only on his success record. Not because of a serious insight into what makes Dhoni tick. He is cool because he knows being cool, and calm, is the only way to achieve success in a pressure cooker career. He is a marvel because he backs himself to take marvellous decisions. Decisions that work.

Much like Sourav Ganguly did. At his most useful, Ganguly was a petulant kid. He was the sort of boy who would walk home with his bat if he got out. He took that gully cricket mentality to the world stage. And it worked! Ganguly was a bully. And he knew how to be a bully. Dhoni is not too different. True, his cards are different: ‘risk it all’ and ‘grin and bear it’. Two sides of the same coin. In a fashion.

Now, you might say that no Indian captain since Ganguly deserved to win the World Cup more. Look at the miracles he performed. Look from where he picked up a team ravaged by match-fixing and corruption and where he took it. But then again, it’s luck. Ganguly led India to World Cups when the Australians were almost invincible. The World Cups were played outside the subcontinent. Dhoni has luck on his side. Australia is on a dip. South Africa has proven again and again that they are incapable of winning the really big tournaments. Pakistan is too mercurial. And Sri Lanka looks just a shade below the top rung. It’s India on pole. And the World Cup is at home.

Luck, right? Sure. But that’s what people who master their dreams end up having on their side. Like Dhoni. That’s why he might be the man standing tall on April 2, 2011.