MS Dhoni retires: Will we ever be able to understand the method to his madness?

Shashwat Kumar
·9-min read

MS Dhoni announced his international retirement on 15th August, 2020 (Credits: Business Standard)
MS Dhoni announced his international retirement on 15th August, 2020 (Credits: Business Standard)

23rd December, 2004, Chattogram. India are somewhat struggling against a fiercely competitive Bangladesh side that refuses to lift its feet off its illustrious rival’s throat.

At that stage, with the scoreboard reading 180/5, a suave, confident and debonair personality walks out to the middle, hoping to carve a niche for himself on his ODI debut.

A ball later, that individual, named MS Dhoni, sluggishly and in utter disappointment, makes the journey back to the pavilion. For all the hue and cry that had been made before his international bow, MS Dhoni and his run out for a golden duck seemed an enormous dampener.

Fast forward nearly 16 years, on 10th July, 2019, and MS Dhoni is cast into the eye of another storm. This time though, he just happens to carry the hopes of a billion people and perhaps the burden of leading India to their 4th ICC Cricket World Cup final.

Yet, just like it happened at Chattogram, MS Dhoni, especially when it seemed that he would pull off another one of those Houdini acts, fell agonizingly short of his ground at Old Trafford against New Zealand. That too in the World Cup semi-final and under the gaze of a billion eyeballs.

MS Dhoni was run out in his final international appearance
MS Dhoni was run out in his final international appearance

Till yesterday, there remained speculation that that encounter against New Zealand would remain his final game in national colours. And, on 15th August, 2020, those murmurs turned into reality.

For any other cricketer, his career could well have been defined by a run out on his first and final international appearance. Yet, MS Dhoni, through sheer will and tons of skill, ensured that he would be remembered for everything that happened in between.

Often looked upon skeptically due to the unconventionality of his batting and keeping technique, MS Dhoni, much like countless cricketers, found it tough to establish a foothold at the outset of his career.

A string of low scores kept piling up and then that innings against Pakistan at Vishakhapatnam happened. And, suddenly, the rustic jab, the punchy slashes over the off side, the powerful mows over cow corner and of course, those laser hits down the ground became the envy of the country.

Across the next few years, his stock kept increasing and akin to several sportspersons, MS Dhoni had to change his game to meet the demands placed upon him.

The fearless, belligerent and aggressive cricketer gave way to someone who regularly approached cricket like a game of poker – someone who kept his cards close to his chest before unfurling them decisively.

MS Dhoni mixed caution with aggression as the years progressed
MS Dhoni mixed caution with aggression as the years progressed

Even then, plenty asked if there was any need to do so. And, unsurprisingly, for a player who kept his tactics right up his sleeve, his methods started getting questioned, especially when he encountered troughs.

In fact, his thinking, more than just being queried, had an aura of the unknown, with a tinge of the enigmatic sprinkled all over it.

And, that just made people fall in love with MS Dhoni even more and probably criticize him a tad extra too. After all, there always seemed an unpredictability about him, something that came as second nature to him.

However, more importantly, among all that, he had somehow enabled the cricket-crazy Indian fans to retain hope, even when the great MS Dhoni kept shuffling between tactics undecipherable to the average onlooker.

But, then again, that brought us to a rather peculiar question, a query that perhaps ended up symbolizing what MS Dhoni stood for – will we ever be able to understand MS Dhoni?

Against Australia in 2012 at Adelaide, MS Dhoni soaked all the pressure and left himself with an almighty mountain to climb. And, then, all of a sudden, MS Dhoni popped Clint McKay for a 112-metre six down the ground.

Prior to that, the commentators had gotten their swords out trying to dissect how the wicket-keeper had perhaps left it a little too late. But, like many a time before, MS Dhoni proved people wrong. More tellingly, he proved that he was the best exponent of a philosophy that none (arguably) have been able to master.

Another instance would have been the 2011 World Cup final a year ago, where despite the presence of off-spinners in Sri Lanka’s ranks, not many would’ve predicted MS Dhoni to bat above Yuvraj Singh. Well, he did and the rest is history.

MS Dhoni played a match-winning knock in the 2011 ICC World Cup Final
MS Dhoni played a match-winning knock in the 2011 ICC World Cup Final

MS Dhoni has divided opinion in recent years

A few years later, that approach started becoming the first seeds of discontent among the Indian cricketing faithful. The MS Dhoni, who seemed invincible in the final overs of an innings, had developed chinks in his armour – cracks that made the crux of his style pretty untenable.

Yet, in a manner similar to how he backed his players, he stuck to his guns, even if they dwindled his effectiveness as a finisher.

He was crucified when he botched a T20I chase in England, failed against Kagiso Rabada at Kanpur, and departed trying to get 2 runs off the final delivery against Dwayne Bravo in the USA.

During all that though, never did MS Dhoni even contemplate amending his ways, let alone throw that modus operandi out of the window.

Unfortunately for him, that trend perhaps reached a crescendo against New Zealand during the 2019 World Cup semi-final, where his lackadaisical strike rate was jotted down as one of the primary reasons for India’s exit.

And, ironically, the memory, people would have of MS Dhoni would be that of him struggling to rotate strike, failing to clear boundaries and getting stuck against the spinners. Rather than the MS Dhoni who sent a shiver down the opposition’s spine every time he arrived at the crease or the heroical batsman who snatched numerous victories from the jaws of defeats.

However, among all that, what remained the same was MS Dhoni’s ability to isolate himself from whatever went on around him. He taught people to treat success and failure the same – an achievement made even more incredible considering he played for India, a country that mediates between glorifying players and throwing them to the wolves.

MS Dhoni maintained equanimity at all times
MS Dhoni maintained equanimity at all times

And, perhaps when the dust has settled on his career, one might be wiser to think that while MS Dhoni achieved a lot on the field, he probably accomplished a lot more, off it.

For millions of budding cricketers from small towns and traditional non-centres of cricket, he was the beacon – the inspiration that made people believe.

While the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli enjoy a deity-like status in India, considering the plethora of runs they have plundered, MS Dhoni was the ‘Normal One’, if you can call him that.

He was just like any other cricketer who wanted to live his dream of serving the country but also one that the entirety of the population could relate to.

After all, if an ex-Indian Railways ticket collector can become India’s greatest ever captain, there is simply no reason why any youngster might want to quash his/her aspirations.

Yet, most tellingly, MS Dhoni remained someone who liked to steer away from the attention that the Indian cricket fraternity showers on its players.

There was no fuss when he won the World Cup, the World T20 or the Champions Trophy. Nor, was there incredible media coverage and send-offs when he decided to bid adieu to the longest format of the game.

And, apart from the human tendency of shedding a few tears, MS Dhoni was still at his equanimous best after losing World Cup semi-finals at Manchester (2019) and Sydney (2015).

MS Dhoni shed tears after getting run out in the 2019 WC semi-final (Credits: MSN)
MS Dhoni shed tears after getting run out in the 2019 WC semi-final (Credits: MSN)

In fact, in a country where cricketers are often immortalized for whatever conquests they attain, MS Dhoni sought to be a mere mortal – someone who possessed his fair share of weaknesses but remained an individual who tried to squeeze every ounce of talent he boasted.

Even then, not many could understand MS Dhoni’s obsession with being someone in the background, especially considering he called the shots for arguably the most powerful international cricketing outfit.

That run out against New Zealand could well have been avoided had the former Indian skipper been a little more gung-ho earlier. Or, in fact, even Ravindra Jadeja wouldn’t have perished.

Well, on similar lines, was there any logic when he handed Joginder Sharma the final over with the dangerous Misbah-ul-Haq at the other end? Or for that matter, did anyone expect MS Dhoni to run up to the stumps and dislodge the bails even as Mustafizur Rahman scampered to make his ground?

Was MS Dhoni even meant to back Yuvraj Singh so much before the 2011 World Cup and unlock his potential as a match-winning all-rounder?

And, to top it all off, he just announced on 15th August, 2020 that he was to be considered ‘Retired’ from 1929 hrs. Strange, isn’t it?

Yet, that’s what the normal cricketing brain says – something that is pretty different to how MS Dhoni plays his cricket.

In a few weeks’ time, the wicket-keeper will be donning the yellow of the Chennai Super Kings, hoping to quench the franchise’s thirst for a fourth IPL crown. And, don’t have an iota of surprise if the master tactician pulls out several unexpected rabbits out of the hat.

At that juncture, we might again try to make sense of what went into that decision, only for it to be proved futile.

But, then again, will we ever be able to understand MS Dhoni?

Well, perhaps not. Perhaps, we were never even meant to.