As the great MS Dhoni jogged for his 10000th run in ODI cricket in the ODI against England, the mind probably sensed it. It was 14 years before in the year 2004 that Mahendra Singh Dhoni had first donned the Indian colors in an ODI against Bangladesh. His hair was long at that time and he had come out with a typical swagger to the crease. Those were the years where he would just come out and do the only thing he knew-smash the bowlers all around the park and also make us wonder at the incredible bat speed of his.
He was the marauder at that time typically entering somewhere around the 40th over and carting the bowlers around and lending some firepower to the lower order. He didn’t need to have any sort of pressure in his mind in those early days. There were the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid who would bear the bulk of the pressure of the Indian fans and MSD was given the license to cut loose and play his natural game.
Fourteen years later, his hair is short, some of it has even greyed and Dhoni no longer can play with the sense of freedom that marked his early years. Tendulkar, Dravid and the others are gone now, and Dhoni is now more than 300 ODI’s old. He now has the responsibility, more often than not to stick around with the lower order.
So, the same Dhoni who would have smashed a six off the last ball of the over if it were a loosener was now taking a single off the last ball to shield his partner. The same Dhoni who would have played with a sense of freedom early on was now playing a little cautiously putting a prize on his wicket. Times have changed, and so has Dhoni.
The same crowd who came to see Dhoni just come out and hit those humungous sixes was now coming to see their hero anchor a chase and like he has done so incredibly in his illustrious career, take his side to a breathtaking win. The same Dhoni who was standing behind the stumps as a charismatic and talented wicketkeeper was now discussing with the captain Kohli, whether to have Long on straighter or not. The same people who had come to see Dhoni play with no pressure and a sense of freedom in his early days were flocking to the stadiums because their hero had become the cricketer who could absorb the pressure with ease and take his side to a win. This has been the remarkable metamorphosis of MSD.
The average Indian fan was no longer satisfied if Dhoni hit a quickfire 40 with 3 or 4 sixes and leave. Instead, he was more satisfied if his hero stayed till the end and anchored the chase and won the game for his country.
Fourteen years is really a long time, especially in sports where "Father Time" would start raising its ugly head when a sportsman reaches his mid 30’s. At 37, there is the oddball that is harrying Dhoni and the master finisher is also finding it a little difficult to hit those huge sixes at will. Beyond 35, especially in sport, things start to creak a bit.
There has been a lot of debate now, as to whether Dhoni should continue to play till the 2019 World Cup. As former cricketers and others are going back and forth about this, the author's mind goes back to 2007. It was the inaugural World Cup in South Africa and T20 World Cup came calling.T20 at that time was initially dismissed as something to just “have fun about”. Tendulkar, Dravid, and Ganguly had even skipped the tournament and India went into the tournament with a relatively inexperienced side.
Three weeks later, history was created as India, under a young and charismatic captain, lifted the World T20 title. What was more important though, was the emergence of a leader who would change the face of Indian cricket. MS Dhoni showed on that day, that he was destined for greater things.
2011 was the year the world cup came home. No team had won the world cup hosting it and India was in very good form going into the tournament. After India won the high voltage clash against Pakistan, the final was to be played at Mumbai, Sachin Tendulkar’s hometown. The great master was in tremendous form right throughout the tournament but in the final, after hitting an exquisite jaw dropping straight drive, he got out to Lasith Malinga. The score read 35/2 and there was pin-drop silence in the stadium. Later, when Virat Kohli got out the balance was shifting towards Sri Lanka and in walked MSD. Dhoni personally had not had a good tournament leading into the final, but on that day, what we saw was a totally different Dhoni. A Dhoni who shouldered the responsibility and played probably the most important innings of his career. That six which sealed the cup for India will always be etched in the minds of each and every Indian fan.
As one thinks of that wonderful night in 2011, one realizes that seven years have passed and India are in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup. Our hero MSD is still fighting it out for the country. He is still one of the fastest runners in the side, and his gloves still work magic behind the stumps. He comes up and murmurs something in the ears of the bowler and it works wonders for the team. In the last few overs, Virat Kohli, India’s current skipper often leaves it to Dhoni to set the field.
Dhoni is now indispensable to India’s fortunes. There is no better wicketkeeper than him in Indian cricket at the moment and if India requires even 20 off the last over and if MSD is still out there in the middle, the pressure is on the bowler. Dhoni is a gifted player and gifted players need to be taken care of.
There is still some fight left in our hero and one last gasp will probably be the 2019 world cup. With each failure, of course, the noise from the critics will get louder, but we shall have to understand that Dhoni is one player who will leave the moment he feels that he is a burden. He has carried the burden of our nation admiringly over the last decade sealing many a memorable victory for us. It is now our turn to carry our hero as he is in the twilight of his remarkable career. Dhoni knows the right time to go, let us leave it to him.