In a recent article for The DailyTelegraph, Simon Hughes claimed that MS Dhoni is “early candidate as sportsman of the 21st century.” Arunabha Sengupta finds himself wondering whether the assertion was supposed to be serious.
Three years ago Simon Hughes, former Middlesex fast-medium bowler turned journalist, penned a curious book chronicling — as the subtitle suggested — ‘An Irreverent History of cricket’. The rather voluminous name ran: “And God created cricket: An Irreverent History of the English Game and How Other People (like Australians) Got Annoyingly Good at it”
One wonders whether the effects of writing the light-hearted book still linger on. Whether he continues to cross the borders of irreverence rather flagrantly while chronicling the modern events of the game. Although, one must admit that the latest views under focus do not deal with the English game but its rather crude Indian incarnation that runs under the banner of Indian Premier League (IPL).
The occasion was admittedly striking — no better word can describe IPL anyway.
The Chennai Super Kings needed 46 from four overs to win against the Sunrisers Hyderabad — two of these overs to be bowled by the formidable and fast Dale Steyn.
Yet, as Hughes states, there was a sense of inevitability. Facing the No 1 speedster of the world was an incredible man who seldom gets flustered by the odds and situation. MS Dhoni calmly clubbed the first two Steyn deliveries for sixes. Off the next over from the South African, he slammed a four and a six off consecutive balls. And as Ashish Reddy was handed the ball for the final over with 15 still to get, the Indian captain hit six, four and four to win the match with two balls to spare.
It was the dubious stage of IPL, but few would disagree that Dhoni once again underlined his indisputable status as the best finisher in the cricket world. Similarly, few would have problems in agreeing that given all formats of the game, his duties of batting, wicket-keeping and leading India, Dhoni’s achievements as player and captain establish him as a great in the annals of the game.
What most will disagree to, however, is the parallel drawn by Hughes for the pages of The Telegraph, UK. The headline ran: “Simon Hughes: if Michael Jordan was sportsman of the 20th century then MS Dhoni is an early candidate for 21st.”
Analysing the claim
Hughes has his headshot smiling from underneath the title, but there is no disclaimer that this is yet another irreverent take on sporting history. He seems alarmingly serious.
The start of the parallel is convincing enough. Hughes writes beautifully about the signature finishes essayed by the basketball megastar: “Almost every time I watched the Chicago Bulls in the finals, the score was level at something like 82-82 with about 30 seconds to go. One of his team-mates would give him the ball. Calmly he bounced it up and down in midcourt as the clock ticked down, 18….17…16…15. Then with about 10 seconds left he made his move … Ducking inside one defender, sidling past another, weaving his way under the basket…7…6….5, then leaping and arching his back and displaying that incredible ‘hangtime’ that seemed to defy gravity to plop the ball into the basket, followed, almost immediately, by the klaxon that signalled the end the of the match.”
According to Hughes, there were similarities in Jordan’s match-winning moves and Dhoni’s incredible explosive endings.
“Like Jordan, there is an inevitability in what he is going to do. All who oppose him know exactly what his intentions are. And yet they seem inert, and he is unstoppable, almost invincible, fuelled as he is by the power of positive thought. And remember he keeps wicket and captains too, in all formats of the game.” As has always been mentioned, very few people will have problems with this correlation.
It is with the last sentence of his otherwise well-written article that he leaves us wondering about his degrees of sincerity and flippancy. He ends with: “If you were looking for an early candidate as sportsman of the 21st century, look no further.” For all the enormous accomplishments of Dhoni, this seems way far-fetched.
As far as Jordan is concerned, Hughes does really not mention it in his article that he was indeed the sportsman of the last century. Actually he states solid, undeniable facts, “His Airness was voted the most valuable player in the NBA finals on six occasions and holds the NBA record for most points scored per match.” It is the eye-catching sensational headline which speaks about the rather diverse duo as the best of their respective centuries.
If we look at Jordan himself, the claim is by no means cast-iron. If analysis is conducted outside the realms of diehard American NBA fans, there is every possibility of ending up with more deserving candidates.
Pele and Don Bradman can very well be popular choices as the sportsperson of the 20th century. So can Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Jesse Owens, Emil Zatopek, Rod Laver, Mildred Didrikson, Martina Navratilova, Garry Sobers and many others. Even distinctly American lists can prefer Babe Ruth and Carl Lewis to the Chicago Bulls hoopster. Perhaps Jordan was seldom bettered as a clincher of cliff-hangers, but several in the above list led their field by miles, never requiring to excel in photo-finishes.
Shifting our focus to this century, we find the sporting fields already filled with giants of the stature of Michael Phelps, Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams and Sachin Tendulkar himself — 13 of whose his awesome and unfinished 24 years in international cricket have come after 2000.
Hughes does use the get-out-of-jail phrase ‘early candidate’, necessitated by 87% of the century that remains unknown. Yet, if we look at the names to have graced the various arenas so far in the 13 years, the assertion that Dhoni is the best among them seems to be courageous to the point of being barmy.
However, like Jordan, Dhoni may rank with the very best in any sport as someone who wins unbearably close games. And apart from the similarities of closeness, what binds Dhoni with Jordan is their value as the face of brands.
Michael Jordan flew through the air wearing his Nike pair and the famous swoosh slam-dunked its way over competitors — earning the basketball superstar $45 million endorsement deals. And now, Dhoni himself is at the peak of his branding potential, his face, bat and gloves selling every possible product to one of the biggest consumer bases in the world. As brand ambassadors they may very much end up as the leading sportsmen of their respective centuries.
However, there is little to suggest that Hughes had this in mind when he wrote his piece. The article itself may be a branding activity — with IPL being the final endorsed product. Or was it a calculated attempt to jump on to the IPL ‘brand-wagon’? The cricketing and its subsidiary worlds seem to be teeming with such gimmicks, continuously adding to the lucrative sound and fury around the hit-and-giggle circus.
And of course, one can never rule out the after-effects of writing ‘An Irreverent History of Cricket’ or of listening way too long to the bawling of Danny Morrison.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)