Dhoni & the legacy of seeding Test dreams in India’s hinterland

So what will we remember Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the lad from Ranchi who wore the number 251 on his white India shirt? His unconventional yet engaging batting, the frustration of his standing too far back to the pacers much of the time being balanced by smart stumpings, his chatter with the team-mates, in encouragement or when chiding them, and, the cheeky smile are all wonderful freeze frames that come to mind.

However, even if India has had players come from its hinterland before, few managed to make such an impact as Mahendra SinghDhoni. He infused a belief in small-town lads that they could rise to the very top if they backed their talent. And that would remain the biggest of his contributions to India’s Test cricket team over the past decade.

When he surfaced in Test cricket, few would have imagined him lasting 90 Tests and scoring 4876 runs at just over 38 runs an innings. His technique, both in front and behind the wickets, seemed unrefined. The feeling was that his batting would be sorted out sooner than later by the opposition. He confounded them for a good part of a decade.

He worked hard to improve his wicket-keeping skills, especially when standing up to spin bowlers and brining off smart stumpings with a unique style that saw him take the ball early, not draw the gloves back a wee bit in what is called the ‘give’ but whip the bails off a fraction of a second sooner than most.

Having started his Test career when Greg Chappell was coach of the Indian team, he bought into the Australian’s philosophy of getting the processes right and not worrying too much about the results. And, till his last day in Test cricket, he has advocated that the players in his team get the processes right, unmindful of the fact that India lost six overseas series in-a-row.

Truth to tell, if he were not leading the team in the rebuilding phase, the selectors may have nudged him gently and gone on to remove him from the Test side for failing to evolve as a more reliable lower-order batsman, especially in overseas conditions where his only century came at Faisalabad back in January 2006 in the first of his 83 innings.

He may regret being unable to complete formal education but as he enlightened himself on one of the finest – and inarguably toughest – platforms there can be, you can be sure that B-school students across the country would benefit from Mahendra Singh Dhoni‘s experiences of leading, cajoling, motivating diverse personalities in that entity called Team India.

The fact that he could extend his unconventional methods from batting to captaincy came up occasionally during his 60-match stint as India’s Test captain. Quite early, in just his third Test as skipper, he showed at the VCA Stadium in Jamtha that he could stifle the flow of runs by having eight fielders on the off-side to the Australian batsmen.

He employed Virender Sehwag’s off-spin inside the 10th over of Sri Lanka’s second innings in Colombo to pick up the wickets of the openers Tharanga Paranavitana and Tillakaratne Dilshan in successive overs and spur India to victory; Not to forget his forcing Ishant Sharma to use bouncers to earn India’s maiden Test victory at the hallowed Lord’s ground this year.

Yet, while his decision to quit Test cricket in the middle before the completion of the series in Australia can be challenged, more so with India due to play their next Test only in the second half of 2015, it is interesting that he chose to leave the stage 10 Tests away from a landmark 100th Test.

Perhaps, it was a troublesome back that made him want to focus on India’s defence at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. Whatever the reason, his cheeky smile, his chatter with team-mates, in encouragement or when chiding them, his Curate’s Egg wicket-keeping skills and his unconventional yet engaging batting in white gear will all become part of YouTube playlists.

But somewhere out there in India’s hinterland, there are lads aspiring to take a leaf out of his uncomplicated book and pursue their aspirations of becoming one of the nation’s most sought after people. And seeding such dreams where getting the processes right will be most important is the man from Ranchi with the greying beard, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s lasting legacy.

(This piece was written back in December 2014 when MS Dhoni retired from Test cricket)