The intermittent bulging of the eyes accompanied by the frequent fastening & unfastening of the gloves, a weird tilt of head behind the stumps, the look up to the heavens, and finally the thumb reaching out to the periphery of the eye- Mahendra Singh Dhoni displays all the idiosyncrasies of a nervous wreck just before taking his stance on the crease.
Then you look at his face - focused, enigmatic, and composed like a sage. The body language of a tensed debutant combined with a visage ready for war- Indian cricket has been fortunate enough to be blessed with this strange dichotomy of a man called MS Dhoni.
As the legend celebrates his 39th birthday, in a quaint unassuming corner of his illustrious farmhouse in Ranchi, let us take a look back on his outstanding journey in international cricket.
World T20 2007 Final
Pakistan needs 13 runs to win the all-important final of the inaugural World T20 from the last over with 1 wicket in hand.
19.1- Joginder Sharma bowls a wide delivery outside off stump- 12 off 6 now. The young captain just walks up to the bowler. He has a couple of calm soothing words for the medium pacer.
19.2- Outside off stump but this time just inside the wide line - 12 off 5 now.
19.3- An attempted yorker goes wrong and Misbah-ul-Haq demolishes it straight over the sightscreen. - 6 off 4 now.
Here let's all take a pause. Before going to that epoch-making Misbah scoop to Sreesanth at fine leg, let's just focus on the young captain behind the stumps. He knows its a big break for him.
Nobody gave India a chance coming into the World T20. If he can lead his team to the championship, the opportunity to captain the national side will arrive sooner or later. So, there ought to be immense pressure on the young wicket-keeper, as a lot was at stake for him.
But here was a man behind the stumps with long locks of hair arranged by his ear, who seemed unaffected by the match situation. The look on MSD's face, after that big hit from Misbah, simply told the viewers that he believed that there was a life outside the cricket field.- there was life outside the Indo-Pak rivalry.
Of course, he wanted to win the World T20, like everyone back in India, but he knew, had India lost the final, that would not have been the end of the world.
Those were initial indications that the cricketing world was getting introduced to someone special, someone who belonged to a different dimension altogether, perhaps the Most Special Dimension (MSD).
MS Dhoni era - The beginnings
That scoop of Misbah to Sreesanth at short fine leg marked the official beginning of the MS Dhoni era in Indian cricket since 2007. There were signs before the landmark incident as well. For the first time in a while, India were successfully chasing down targets at greater than run-a-ball in the last 10-15 overs, courtesy this young wicket-keeper batsman from Jharkhand.
That was a welcome change for a nation that was used to seeing its cricket team collapse in pressure situations in the last few overs, be it against Pakistan in Chennai in 1999 or against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2001.
The first signs of this new India was visible in the 2005-06 ODI series against Pakistan, where India chased down targets above 250 more than once comfortably, courtesy an in-form Yuvraj Singh and this young hard-hitting batsman from Jharkhand. MS Dhoni scored 219 runs from those 5 matches at a gargantuan strike rate of 136.9 and an unreal average of 219.00, thus quietly making a name for himself as the 'finisher' for the Indian cricket team.
MS Dhoni era - The peak
Critics of MS Dhoni said that he was lucky to get a lot of legends in his team at their prime- Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, and of course the evergreen Sachin Tendulkar.
What they do not say, is that MS Dhoni was a captain who had this uncanny ability to make the best out of the limited resources he had in his team. Both the 2011 WC and 2013 Champions Trophy were ideal examples of MS Dhoni's shrewd leadership skills that tactically hid the chinks in the armor of the Indian cricket team.
In 2011, Dhoni knew that he lacked the services of a gun death bowler in his team. Zaheer was aging, Sreesanth & Munaf were wayward in the death and Nehra was unpredictable with his variations in the slog overs.
Dhoni developed an interesting strategy to hide this flaw. After a short opening spell of 3-4 overs, he replaced Zaheer with one of the other 2 seamers in the team. He brought the experienced campaigner back into the bowling attack around the 30th over, to extract reverse swing from the old ball and fox the batsman with his off cutters and slower deliveries.
The strategy was highly successful as Zaheer removed prominent batsmen with his reverse swing in the tournament that included the likes of Michael Hussey, Ian Bell, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Devon Smith, Misbah-ul-Haq and Cameron White. Dismissal of batsmen just before the slog overs ensured that the opposition never got into the slog overs with set batsmen at the crease, thus preventing them the opportunity to capitalize on India's weak death bowling.
MS Dhoni era- The fall
The biggest issue that MS Dhoni faced as he began to age, was the fact that he started getting compared to his past achievements. Indian cricket fans, who had their heart in their mouths if the required run rate touched 6 in the pre-Dhoni era, were so used to Dhoni making child's play of required rates of over 8 and 9, that they simply could not accept the fall of the great man from his prime.
The decline of MS Dhoni started by the beginning of 2016. In 2016, he scored 278 runs from his 13 innings at a paltry average of 27.80. He redeemed himself in 2017 with 788 runs from 29 innings, but the strike rate which kept hovering around the early 80s became an issue for the team management.
The stats were indicating that MS Dhoni needs to come up in the batting order as his pace of batting, was no more suitable for the slog overs.
But, the sheer lack of proper finishers at the lower middle order for Team India, meant that MS Dhoni had to keep batting at 5 for the sake of the team. As a result, his performance suffered again in 2018, as his average dropped to 25 once again.
And then came 2019 and that heartbreak against New Zealand in the World Cup semifinal. The same MS Dhoni who outran Mustafizur Rahman in the World T20 2016 at the Chinnaswamy stadium was caught short of the crease by Martin Guptill's fine throw from short fine leg.
Ironically, the same fielding position, that marked the beginning of the MS Dhoni era in Indian cricket courtesy Sreesanth's iconic catch, also marked the official conclusion of MS Dhoni - The Master in ICC events, courtesy a direct hit from Guptill at the ICC WC 2019.
MS Dhoni-The man
To be honest, no one outside his immediate circle knows a lot about MS Dhoni- The individual. He is predictably unpredictable in his decision-making, both on and off the cricket field. But over the years, there has been one thing that has stood out when it came to MS Dhoni.
He has never been afraid of failure, even with a lot at stake. Be it the World T20 2007 or, the World Cup 2011 or, Champions Trophy 2013, he was never intimidated by failure. That is exactly why he could take risky decisions in big finals, that turned the match in favor of his team.
Here is wishing a very happy birthday to the monk of Indian cricket- an ascetic, who can stay at the center of attention and yet isolate himself from all the glamour and glitz surrounding Indian cricket - a sage-like figure, who can renounce his position of prestige and limelight in the fraction of a second and most importantly a father, who can quietly sip on his daughter's soft drink to celebrate his team's triumph in the IPL, which happens to be the richest T20 league in the World.