One of the most abiding images that plays out in the mind when one thinks of MS Dhoni is from 2007 after India won the first ever WorldT20 in South Africa. Dhoni, who led the Indian side for the first time ever, had navigated his team through many ups and downs with admirable calm, and after India’s final triumph, that too against Pakistan, was not overtly excited.
Instead of jumping around in a frenzied, melodramatic manner, a trademark celebratory expression of most modern players, he moved away from the centre of attention, leaving his players to hog the limelight in the middle. He walked around the ground and in one touching gesture, took off his shirt and draped it around a young boy, clamouring for his attention.
It was that moment, more than the win itself or his captaincy, that defined the man. In his moment of glory, the young man, who was given the captaincy of India’s T20 team after a depressing World Cup failure in the 50-over format, decided to step back a bit rather than get overwhelmed by the occasion. This victory was unexpected as India was persuaded to participate in the event much against its wishes. Whether this change of mind was necessitated because of the threat a rebel T20 event had posed to the Indian establishment at home or purely for commercial considerations is a matter of debate, suffice to say that this win convinced India that the future of the game lies in this shortest format.
It is fitting perhaps, that Dhoni should now be T20’s most successful player in the Indian Premier League, that was introduced in the aftermath of India’s World Cup win. The IPL is now the most popular cricket tournament across the world, its viewership vying with even the 50-over World Cup. The legend of Dhoni, ever since that day at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, has only grown, and today he is, without doubt, one of the most revered sportsmen India has ever had.
He may have not won this IPL, losing by a hair’s breadth, but that does not matter. The boy from Jharkhand is a great draw anywhere in the world, more so in his adopted city of Chennai, where he is their own, a god who can win you a match with just one stroke of his genius.
Dhoni, by any reasonable assumption, should now be on his very last legs of international cricket. Unless he defies age and logic, the World Cup to be played in England later this month, should be his swansong. At 37, it is not easy to keep oneself fit and motivated, as even if the mind is willing, the body may not be. He has had an injury scare in the IPL this year, having had to miss a few games, because of a recurring back problem. He has been pragmatic enough to shun the longer format a long time back, giving up on Test cricket in 2014 itself to preserve himself for the shorter formats. In a different age and time, him giving up Tests for the slam-bang version would have drawn howls of protest and even outright condemnation. Dhoni is more a product of the speed age we live in, which has limited attention time and no one cares why and when he stopped playing in Tests. All they care is that it has helped him stay focussed, motivated and fit to prolong his short-term career goals.
He is now going to be put to his final, ultimate test. Does he still have it in him to finish the games, as he has often done in the past for India, like he did in the 2011 final? The answer to that may well decide India’s fate in the World Cup.