That Man From Jharkhand

By Sanjay Jha

I was in New Delhi addressing a sizeable group of India’s young entrepreneurs on the importance of team-building to give their fledgling start-ups a cohesive and enduring management team. Most of us business school graduates have the natural propensity to delve into corporate case-studies and sure enough there are several outstanding instances of germane value. But as I looked deep within and up on the LCD screen where Virender Sehwag was once again looking inexorable, the answers tumbled down with remarkable ease. It helped that India beat Sri Lanka in the fi rst ODI at Rajkot by 3 runs in an unforgettable game. I did not need to do any further research on personalized leadership and creating a high-performance team. Someone hailing from the essentially tribal-inhabited state of Jharkhand rang a sound bell.

I looked at the list of Indian players representing our country in the Mumbai Test match against Sri Lanka and found a staggering fact; we had Men in White from eight different states in the final eleven. In any given match, including a T20 or ODI, the composition changes just about marginally. India’s diversity, it’s much debated multi-cultural hue and ethnicity is suitably manifested in the Indian cricket team and perhaps best explains it’s mesmerizing hold in the public imagination. Telangana can wait. We are all exhausted with the cliché; cricket is a religion in India, but in my opinion, the game actually manifests India’s real secular credentials; the famous Pathan brothers hail from Narendra Modi’s Gujarat

Literally the cherry-topping of this colorful confluence is the team’s captain, MS Dhoni (I confess to being his unabashed admirer). Dhoni comes from a state which has been carved out of the notorious Bihar.

Dhoni’s initial flirtations at the international level were far from auspicious with several half-baked contributions of an inconspicuous nature. But it seemed destined to change massively some day. Against Pakistan in 2005 it did. As Dhoni lambasted 148 off 123 balls it was obvious that this modest-looking happy soul had an irreverent streak as well. The fact that it was not just a fluke of a hurricane knock but would become a tormenting proposition for various opposition was confirmed when MSD hammered a brilliant 183 in 145 balls against Sri Lanka. Unorthodox maybe, and even terribly ‘ugly’ at times, but Dhoni showed that he had evolved his own distinctive technique with scant respect for the text-book purists. I always have wondered how Rahul Dravid, a paragon of perfection must have secretly anguished in gargantuan pain watching MSDs bizarre shots at times fetching him handsome returns. It was a comical mental simulation.

Even as his batting prowess prospered there were several who doubted his calisthenics behind the stumps. In fact, there were many who thought he was floundering in his principal role as a wicketkeeper even if his heroics with the willow was beyond dispute.

Dhoni effectively silenced all his opponents. But his big moment came under the most unexpected circumstances. Dravid, under perceptible persistent fire from selector Dilip Vengsarkar, quite jaundiced to be honest, quit after a successful England tour. With Sachin Tendulkar doggedly refusing to take on the onus of leadership, Dhoni became a front-line contender. With the senior players collectively backing out of the T20 World Cup in South Africa, the mantle of leadership for all three formats fell on the young shoulders of a new captain. Within three years of international baptism, MSD was in charge of the cricket team of the most powerful and cash rich administrative body in the business.

24th September 2007 is a day Dhoni is unlikely to ever forget. As Sreesanth caught a mistimed leg-side flick off Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq, against all odds including perhaps the expectations of the players themselves, India had become the champions of the inaugural T20 World Cup. While comparisons with Kapil Dev’s 1983 World Cup were obviously far-fetched a tumultuous crowd greeted the Indians in an open bus-ride. After all, a country that had now become the near monopoly-market for cricket had seen a dry spell at all competing world championships since the 1983 upset victory. Desperate for a world-champion tag, the Indian elephant danced like a tiger doing the salsa. Dhoni was overnight a household name, a branded property, the new youth role model. Earlier that year his house had been stoned by peeved rapscallions letting out their frustrations after India’s dismal World Cup campaign in the West Indies. Dhoni had with that South African safari swung the pendulum from the doldrums of complete despair to the beating drums of euphoric celebrations. Dhoni’s triumph would change the entire dynamics of global cricket, inspiring the so-far recalcitrant BCCI into suddenly seeing a gold mountain in T20, leading to the birth of the IPL.

Although I initially criticized his decision to skip the Sri Lanka Test series, in retrospect, Dhoni had the last laugh. His ability to follow his gut instincts, and rely on his team’s best efforts to bankroll India especially in difficult circumstances has been one of his most breakthrough contributions to Indian cricket. For a team that had over years got labeled in that terrible cliché ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ Dhoni’s India has begun to win more of the close finishes, defying India’s intrinsic fragility under pressure. India’s ability to pull of miraculous wins especially following an uphill recovery in Tests, ODIs and even T20 has made it currently one of the hardest teams to beat, a reputation that for long had only Australia’s infallibility recorded.

Under Dhoni’s refreshing leadership one began to see immediate results. The first-time VB series win in 2007-08 against Australia was mighty convincing and humbled the world champions on their home turf. I thought the effortless transition to the Test series cricket victory against Australia on Indian soil was a marvelous achievement, the brief captaincy stint given to Sourav Ganguly in his final Test appearance at Nagpur a fine tribute, unprecedented and in dignified respect to a departing hero. The Final Frontier, briefly lost in 2004 was rightfully recaptured by Dhoni’s men. The overseas wins in New Zealand and Sri Lanka further fortified India’s almost vertical ascendancy in the game. Even in the first edition of IPL, the most affluent player of the tournament, the captain of the Chennai franchise almost pulled off a stunning victory in the finals.

Dhoni has effectively destroyed that lurking bogey of the Greg Chappell era, the senior versus young rift that had threatened to rupture dressing room camaraderie. Young players like Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, and Ravinder Jadeja happily coexist with master veterans such as Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan.

The onus of captaincy, especially the constant in the news Indian skipper, can take a heavy toll. For a man whose Test debut century was a breathtaking one scored against Pakistan in 93 balls when India faced the prospect of an imminent follow-on, Dhoni’s earlier penchant for slam-bangwhack-thwack gave way to a different sedate, structured, and almost sensible approach to batting, contrasting hugely with his natural ingrained aptitude. But against the Sri Lankans in the winter of 2009 the old destroyer returned, rejuvenated to his archetypal self.

In a span of less than a few weeks, with almost effortless ease, India has gone on to create records till recently considered beyond grasp. In Mumbai we scored a gargantuan 726 runs, our highest Test score. And after emerging winners at CCI, for the first time since it’s institution attained the No.1 ICC ranking in Tests. Historic stuff made to appear so easy by MSD & Co. A few days later India chased the biggest T20 score of 207, and against all odds, surprised every cynical doubter at the fence in a completely contrasting format; the stellar adaptation was palpable. But that was still to be further made ornamental by the sizzling 414 runs at Rajkot and after a brilliant Sri Lankan retaliation, eking a thriller victory. Even in ODIs a runner-up rank makes a telling statement. When was the last time one saw such consistent domination and sustained self-belief in a game so wildly unpredictable?

Dhoni has almost imperceptibly made winning a bad habit just when several critics were beginning to prepare for his annihilation after two multi-tournament failures in the Champions Trophy and the T20 World Cup in England. As he has proven since then, he will win some and lose some but the latter is unlikely to diminish his will-power, his inner resolve to get going. His team seems to have been affected by his contagious self-confidence. Almost all of them.

All this while, the BCCI which administers this mind-numbing crazy game in India is involved in it’s typical Machiavellian maneuvers plotting the downfall of each other, playing dirty to win organizational elections and salvaging it’s dwindling reputation somewhat by doing damage-control in resurrecting a Test series against South Africa. This makes Team India’s success even more singular.

I did my MBA from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand which is in reasonable proximity to Ranchi. But watching Dhoni lead his team with his characteristic unflappable demeanor, steadfast imperturbability in all circumstances and an indomitable attitude, it seems incongruous to believe that the man I mentioned as my classic case example of teamwork was probably just 5 years old when we read our management text.

We call him by several titles, Captain Cool, MSD, Mahi and other personalized favorites. But the unassuming man from Jharkhand moves on with detached ease, a determined countenance and a calm head being his most visible sign-posts. Unfazed, unaffected, unhurried, Mahendra Singh Dhoni takes guard. And at that moment you feel it, you know that India’s cricketing future is in tough hands, a responsible head and a mighty heart. Over to you, Dhoni.

[December 2009]

Extract from the book  “11 : Triumphs, Trials and Turbulence (Indian Cricket 2003 – 10)” – By Sanjay Jha

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