Over the last few weeks, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has done things which have made little sense to India’s supporters. Questions were asked. Why Chawla? Why not Ashwin? Why Sreesanth? Why not Sreesanth? Why isn’t Harbhajan taking wickets? Some questioning was justified. Some wasn’t.
Some of Dhoni’s answers were strange.
“Chawla needs to be given confidence.”
“Ashwin is mentally tough.”
“Harbhajan is a big match player.”
“I cannot control Sreesanth.”
You couldn’t get through to Dhoni. He must have smiled inwardly and thought, “Fools. What do they know?” He carried on, living in the bubble that couldn’t be pricked. Like he had a master plan only he understood. Like everything would fall into place at the right moment. In the end, it did.
But as Dhoni revealed after the final, the pressure on him was immense. It was best displayed in the dying moments of India’s chase when he nearly ran himself out. For the first time, horror occupied his creaseless visage. Not tension. Not anger. But pure horror. Dhoni screamed at Yuvraj Singh for the near mishap and hit his pad with his bat in disgust. But this incident didn’t deter him.
Good Old Grit
When Dhoni promoted himself over Yuvraj and Suresh Raina, it wasn’t just the World Cup at stake. Dhoni had been off-colour. But he wanted to shield the two left-handers from Sri Lankan off-spin. Had his brave intentions not yielded runs, questions about Dhoni’s place in the side would have been asked. It was that risky.
Coming out to bat in that situation must be the gutsiest thing a captain has done in a World Cup final since a half-fit, out-of-form Imran Khan went in at three in 1992. Imran made 72 to steer the innings to respectability, then returned to take the final English wicket to seal the win.
As individuals who look within for answers often do, Dhoni said he had a point to prove only to himself.
"I took a quite few decisions tonight and if we hadn't had won I would have been asked quite a few questions," he said after the game. "The pressure had got to me in the previous games. In this match I wanted to bat up the order and Gary Kirsten backed me as did the senior players. I had a point to prove to myself."
A New World Order
It’s hard to fathom how a captain with a penchant for safety-first methods is so successful. Dhoni isn’t like the Australian or South African captains of the past, who would, in their single-minded pursuit of winning, create chances for the opposition.
Dhoni attacks only when absolutely necessary. From the intuitive leader he was at the start, he is now a calculative, risk-free strategist. He has spread himself thin: he also has to keep wickets and bat in the middle-order. Then he has to deal with the beast called the fans’ expectations.
Yet, in the last four years he has won nearly everything worth winning: World Twenty20, the Test No. 1 rank, briefly the No. 1 ODI rank, IPL, Champions League, and now the World Cup. In between, he also nailed other elusive wins: Asia Cup, CB Series, multiple Test wins over Australia, multiple ODI series wins in Sri Lanka, a Test series in New Zealand, to name a few.
The risk-free approach reflects in his batting too. From the go-getter batsman six years ago, he’s become someone who doesn’t want to be caught playing the rash shot. He wants to build. He wants to be patient. While this has worked for Dhoni the captain, it hasn’t for Dhoni the batsman in recent times.
His magnificent 91 in the final was all heart, all guts, something you would associate with the Dhoni of the old. Playing a big hand in the final would make winning it doubly special for Dhoni.
So if there’s a wishlist for the newly crowned world champions, it is this: if they tighten up the bowling, attack a little more, and replace the non-performing ‘big-match players’, India will be truly hard to topple from their top spot.
And skipper, please play those backfoot punches more often.