Paddy Upton in his book talks about the small interaction that opens his eyes to Mahendra Singh Dhoni long before Barrefeat coach India became a mental conditioning coach. After a long meeting, when the mentors seemed to be in the habit of addressing the boys, Dhoni put his arm around his shoulder and said: “Upton, I never seem to want you to say anything.” This is a subtle message, the South Africa coach writes to keep things simple. From that moment until his last day in office, when India won the 2011 World Cup, Upton had a good idea of his word limit and India skipper.
Jaspreet Bumra’s favorite Dhoni story is about his debut in India in Australia. Ever since he was replaced late in Sydney, Bumrah has been anxious about what to expect from each other with the captain. Will the talk be about team ethics, dressing room decoration, game plan or plain pep talk? Does it happen on match eve, inside the dressing room, during warm-up or after toss? On Dhoni’s clock, meetings are a daily chore. It was only when Bumra entered the field, that the big man approached him. “Do whatever you know. If you want any field, we’ll give it to you.” Again nothing complicated; simple words, simple advice. India won the game and the rookie pacer was the best bowler.
Upton stepped forward and Bumra climbed up, but India’s favorite strong and quiet cricketer continued to diligently practice what he taught in his subtle way. An avid practitioner of strategic conservatism, Dhoni has mastered the format of being loyal to the good-old basic tenets of cricket, eagerly exploring opportunities, glorifying radicalism, celebrating all unethical innovations and taking a late interest in taking ideas from other sports. Despite his mother trying to flee tough T20 cricket from the sport, Dhoni continued to pull it back home.
In Dubai on Friday, he lifted the IPL trophy for the fourth time. CSK’s consistency in an unprecedentedly unpredictable format that even the smallest slip-up is unforgivable is a tribute to a leader who has excelled in the simplicity of his cricket engagement. Dhoni follows a routine, with banks on his regulars, coached by longtime coach Stephen Fleming and being the worst on the T20 playlist.
For his opponents, the match-eve brain-stroking sessions are not about imagining the surprise Dhoni throws at them, they are mostly thinking of ways to stop CSK from implementing their well-known win plan.
Case in point is the text-book bowling sequence that Dhoni has been following for many years. It has a very predictable pattern. Take this season. In the first six overs, Aussie fast bowler Josh Hazelwood with slower pacers than him. Left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja received the ball after the first power play. Around the half-way mark, the team’s full-fledged, brilliant treasurer Dwayne Bravo falls into the mix. He had spinners for the company in the middle overs and pacers when he died. Pacers-spinners-pacers, this wheel was invented for Tests and later set for ODIs. Dhoni will not take a break to reinvent it for T20 cricket.
Most CSK regulars are old school cricketers. Now the iconic Canary Yellow jersey rarely appears among those globrooting T20 specialists — mystery spinners who consider six-hitting muscle mercenaries or the cricket ball to be a carom striker. Those who delivered for him in the final – Faf du Plessis, Hazelwood, Jadeja and Moin Test proved to be hereditary. Raina, Rayudu, Uthappa, Thakur and Chahar have a long and lofty presence in first-class cricket.
Ruturaj Gaikwad, who has scored the most runs this season and in the IPL, has scored 4 first-class centuries at the age of 24. He is not a shiny slogger but an opener with a refined all-format technique. Like many IPL upstarts recently drafted in the Test squad, Gaikwad, it is expected, will not look ridiculous among Indian whites. And leading a group of traditional cricketers is the brilliant-old Oracle, Chankya and Chandragupta of cricket have become one-Dhoni.
Captains with Dhoni-like traits, and CVs have historically sunk; They get their way and the team they want. But not in the IPL, a high-stock tournament with a brand valuation of around Rs 48,000 crore. Cricket corporatization changed power equations. As a nation IPL owners have the arrogance, scissors arms and long noses to sniff at areas where they are unskilled.
CSK, the only IPL franchise with a great cricketing legacy, has thankfully not changed over time. Original owner and BCCI influential office bearer N Srinivasan has led multiple teams in Chennai’s local leagues, watched intense club competition, dealing with big-ticket transfers and players from every field. He did not whistle into cricket yesterday. Srinivasan knows that a philanthropic mentality is needed to support cricket; It is not an investment that pays regular annual dividends.
Not to be seen as a virtue, but the players and owners at CSK were glued to each other by thick and thin. At the height of the spot-fixing controversy, when Srinivasan faced betting allegations from his son-in-law Dagout, CSK announced closed ranks, Omerta. No whistle blower, no rebellion, no exodus. Even when his absolute reputation was in danger, Dhoni remained loyal to his franchise. There is no doubt that Chepauk will be his home after the CSK enforces his two-year ban. Franchise, responded.
Last year CSK veteran Suresh Raina, when he returned home, one night before the start of the Bubble IPL; The team lost an important cog. CSK lost balance and crashed. It proved to be their worst season. Dhoni looked up the hill and the team froze. Any other franchise has responded. There were finger-pointing, gas-lighting, planted stories about a captain who lost the trust of the team and owners.
On the contrary, there is no evil in Chennai, no witch hunting, no postmortem. What a season between old colleagues who have been guarding each other for over a decade.
Like the old family management company, there were no panicked decisions. Instead, the core is immobile. In CSK, they know the drill. Unlike other teams, CSK’s traveling party has a handful of Srinivasan loyalists, the old hands of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association at a time when cricket administration was not five stars. It’s not like an IPL team, it’s like a Ranji Trophy. Dad is the figure manager and everyone who looks after the logistics has another best friend. MBA-types CSK has not yet penetrated into top management because top men know their cricket. They understood that it was a funny game that required patience.
Dhoni brings the same reason to the ground. He was ready to change but would not bother to wipe out the knowledge he had gained over the years. By sticking to the old way of success, the 40-year-old may seem outdated at times but he is never wannabe. To celebrate In-Vogue as an out-of-the-box decision maker, Dhoni will not skip the right choice that has been tried and tested.
He is not a prototype aggressive leader whose natural nerve-busting expression can sell India-Pak gadge games. Dhoni communication is low. He’s not spinning inspirational dressing room speeches – they work well in the last quarter of sports movies. His captaincy approach is functional and realistic. He guides young people to discuss forked ways and most importantly makes them aware of the imperatives of the game.
Unlike Virat Kohli, Dhoni is not chasing his win. He knows about the uncontrolled turn in the story and the subsequent unfavorable outcome. This balance will enable him to deal with the loss, bounce back after being grouped back and become the most successful IPL captain.
The secret to his success came from his simplicity and clarity, from the self-realization that he could not get all the answers. Dhoni knows in cricket, as in life, you can’t cover all the bases.