Keeper of hits: Dhoni

Mohinder Amarnath and Anil Kumble, cricketing giants in their own right, have had the privilege of leading the Indian team in but one one-day international each. And the evidence is there for all to see that it’s a job that does no good to your hairline. Yet there must be a million and more lads out there who will readily admit to dreaming of the glory of captaining Team India some day. “To be honest, it is every cricketer’s dream to lead India,” says Indian opener Gautam Gambhir.

Anointed captain of the Indian ODI squad for 12 matches after Rahul Dravid’s unexpected resignation, Mahendra Singh Dhoni amazes everyone with his confession that he did not cherish great hopes of landing the top job in Indian sport.

Not even after he started playing for India just under three years ago. “I never expected to play for India. So I didn’t expect captaincy either,” he says. “It was not an issue for me at all. I just wanted to play cricket and enjoy it.” Do not, even for a moment, let this have you believe
that the reins of India’s ODI squad have changed hands from one reluctant customer to another.

At the ICC World Twenty20 tournament in South Africa—a format that places huge, almost killing demands on captains—Dhoni has shown his aptitude for the job and has proven to be a quick learner. With a bit of luck—and support from three men who have led India in nearly 300 matches—he may yet take after the earthy resourcefulness of one his predecessors, a certain Kapil Dev. In any case, he becomes only the second Indian ODI captain to reside in a non-metro city.

The selectors did not have too many options. They did not wish to go back to Sachin Tendulkar or Sourav Ganguly—that would have been considered a retrograde step. And the likes of Virender Sehwag, who has led India in five ODIs, and Yuvraj Singh were ruled out—the first because he has not been in the ODI side since returning from Bangladesh, and the latter because he appears to be serving some kind of parole with the selectors.

Dhoni realises that leading Team India is going to be one of the most challenging jobs in world cricket. “Yes, I think it is. It seriously is, I am telling you,” he says. To be sure, along with startling reflexes and wrists of supple steel that defies coaching-book proprieties, the 26-year-old brings a native sense of humour that will help him in the teeth of the storms and the stresses that go with the job. “Hopefully I will have the smile (in the future as well). I don’t know how I will react to it, though. If the team does well, nobody bothers you. So, the motto should be to do well in every match.”

“It feels quite good,” he continues. “I have been captain of the T20 side and now am captain of the ODI team for 12 matches. The seven-match series against Australia and the five-match series against Pakistan are critical for the team. We have been on a long tour of Ireland, England and South Africa and it will be nice to play in home conditions again. I realise it is vital for us to perform well in those matches.”

Some of his joy will be tempered by having to lead a side that is defined as being talented but inconsistent, and by the presence of three big guns in the side—Sachin, Sourav and Dravid. “I haven’t had the time to reflect on captaincy since I have been busy and focused on the T20 games against England and South Africa. That is crucial for us,” he says. “There is a gap of three or four days after the T20 tournament and that is when I will think about it.” The credo is simple: one thing at a time and do that well.

Dhoni is a people’s person and can be won over by logic and reason. His maiden interaction with the media in Durban after he was named captain of the ODI squad on Tuesday almost did not take place because he wanted others in his T20 team be in the spotlight. “I don’t want to expose myself to the media so much,” he said, trying to explain his reluctance to talk to the press. After some journalists convinced him that it was incumbent on him to share his emotions with fans back home through the media, he took a few questions.

That is not the only trait that makes chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar wax eloquent about Dhoni having all the qualities of a good captain. “This is the right time to groom him,” Vengsarkar, himself an ex-India skipper, said when announcing the elevation of the vice-captain. He also indicated that the panel could be looking elsewhere for a Test captain. “It (Test captaincy) is a tougher proposition, so we will have to think of other options also.”

One of the things that can go against Dhoni being named captain of the Test team is the fact that he is a wicket-keeper-batsman. “It’s too difficult to be wicketkeeper and captain. A wicketkeeper on his own cannot be a good captain. It cannot work, it’s just too difficult,” says Ali Bacher, acknowledged as one of South Africa’s finest skippers. “I did keep wickets in the early part of my career but gave it up when I became captain. It was too much. As a wicketkeeper you have to concentrate on every ball. Looking after 10 others on the field and strategising makes it tougher.”

Perhaps it is such intense demands that made Dravid realise his shelf-life as captain of the Indian team had run out. Dravid, who has always believed in doing things right, did not want a press conference—he must have had enough of those over two years—since he believed in dealing just with board president Sharad Pawar. In what must have been one of Indian cricket’s best kept secrets in a long time, Dravid’s decision to relinquish the captaincy did not find its way to the public domain before it was officially announced.

In any case, in the time that remains till he hangs up his boots, Dravid can go back to being a commoner in the team—or rather, an elder statesman along with Tendulkar and Ganguly. And he will be hoping that his own batsmanship flowers into a final, late flourish like Ganguly’s in the past year. Meanwhile, as a young man from Indian cricket’s hinterland takes over the captaincy from a metro-based veteran, some contrasts are too patent. One has said he’d had enough of the captaincy, while the other says he hadn’t expected it. He may not have dreamt about India captaincy until he was handed the job, but Dhoni may well end up nurturing the dream of millions of cricket lovers—presiding over an Indian team that performs consistently.