VVS Laxman (left) and MS Dhoni © AFP
VVS Laxman (left) and MS Dhoni © AFP

At the very outset, I would like to congratulate MS Dhoni for a wonderful run as the captain of the Indian team. His sudden resignation as the skipper of the limited-overs teams, without any warning, was typical MS — without fanfare or fuss. While I cannot speak for him, I have a fair idea of how his mind functions, and once he had decided that the time was ripe for him to hand over the reins of the ODI and T20I teams, then it was a decision as good as cast in stone.

People have questioned the timing of the resignation, and some have suggested that he could have led the team one last time in the ODI and T20I series against England. But from personal experience, I can confidently assert that once your mind is made up, it is made up. I was under huge pressure to play one final Test in Hyderabad after I had announced my retirement from Test cricket, but in my heart of hearts, I was finished with Test cricket, so I did not yield to that pressure. In MS’s mind, his days as India captain were behind him, and I must commend him for a bold decision that has been made with the team’s interests in mind. As most decisions and actions of MS have been.

When MS was first made the India captain for the inaugural World T20, it surprised many. There were far more senior and established players in the squad, among them Virender Sehwag who had already led India in the occasional Test match, and Yuvraj Singh. But MS quickly showed that he had the tactical nous and the man-management skills as well as inherent street-smartness to pull off the job with aplomb, something that is backed up both by numbers and the silverware India collected under him.

MS brought a certain fearlessness and calmness which was a very potent, deadly combination. He was not afraid to be unconventional or unorthodox in the early days, seldom falling into a pattern that was predictable. Few would have, for instance, bargained for Joginder Sharma bowling the last over in the final of the World T20. MS went with the rookie when he had experienced options at his disposal, and as it turned out, that proved to be a masterstroke. That was when the legend of MS Dhoni the captain took shape, a legend that was to grow with time and which was bolstered by the highest of high points, the 2011 World Cup triumph at home.

I was very impressed with how MS gelled with the senior members, of whom there were many when he took charge first of the limited-overs teams in 2007, and of the Test team in 2008 when Anil Kumble announced his retirement. He was comfortable in his own space, his communication skills were spot on, and he was respectful without being overawed.

It helped that he had the trust and the respect of the seniors, too. With the newcomers, he was in his element, welcoming them with open arms and immediately making them comfortable and part of the team. There was clarity in his thinking and transparency in the way he went about things which, coupled with his dynamism in front of the stumps and his excellence behind it, made sure that he commanded respect.

His decision to promote himself to No. 5 in Mumbai in 2011 was the perfect example of a man who put the team first. Yuvraj had been the in-form player of the World Cup and had occupied the No. 5 slot almost right through the tournament, but MS felt he was better equipped at handling Muttiah Muralitharan, so he strode out when the third wicket fell. It showed how much confidence he had in himself and his abilities. Had he not delivered — and it is worth remembering that he had not scored that many runs in the tournament till then — the knives would have been out and he would have been pilloried for shaking things up.

But I do not think MS ever thought along those lines. He was impervious to what others thought so long as he did things for the right reasons and so long as the team bought into his line of thought. His innings tilted the scales decisively in India’s direction. It was an unconventional tactic, like with Joginder in 2007, but MS did not do things for a lark. There was a method to what might have been perceived to be madness; even in risk-taking, there was logic and rationale involved, and that was what made MS the fearless leader and the fearsome ball-striker.

It would, of course, be impossible to remain on top all the time, and I thought the Dhoni charisma began to wane post the Champions Trophy triumph in England in 2013, and particularly after the 2015 World Cup when India lost in the semi-final. For one thing, all the bowlers on whom he had once relied heavily were no longer involved — Zaheer and Harbhajan primary among them — while Ashwin did not have the same success in one-day cricket as he did in Test matches.

For another, Yuvraj was not around on a consistent basis, while Suresh Raina’s form was on the downswing. It meant MS did not have other finishers to fall back on, and had to provide both consistency and finishing skills down the order. But the passage of time had dimmed his big-hitting skills to a certain degree, and he was not, understandably, closing out games with the regularity with which he was doing earlier.

Specifically in the last two years, teams have worked out MS’s moves as captain, and figured out how to make the most of his waning big-hitting abilities. Consequently, while India have lorded over the Test arena, and more so since Virat Kohli took over from MS at the beginning of 2015, they have not been as consistent or as formidable in the limited-overs formats. MS is too intelligent not to figure that out, or to understand that there must be constancy to the team culture. Given that a majority of the Test squad plays in limited-overs internationals as well, it was important that the character of the team remained unchanged. It is inevitable when there are two different captains but most of the personnel are the same that there will be a difference in approach. That is something MS must have also been mindful of when he decided that it was time for Virat to take charge of the national side across formats.

When MS was convinced that Virat was ready to lead the Test side, he did not think twice before retiring from the longer format in the middle of an away series. Now that he is certain that Virat is ready to be the captain of the Indian team in all versions, he has taken the right call with the Champions Trophy later this year and with the World Cup in 2019 at the forefront of his thinking. It is a selfless act and MS deserves the highest commendation for it.

I also strongly believe that as a player, MS still has plenty to offer the one-day and T20 sides. He is arguably both the fittest Indian cricketer and the best wicketkeeper in the country, and now that he will bat at no. 4 on a sustained basis, he can control the middle-order. Freed up from the cares of the captaincy, he will be a more dangerous player in the last few years of his career, and Virat can expect assistance in every form, at every instant, should he so desire.

MS has never been too emotionally invested in things, which is why he was able to walk away from Test cricket without a backward glance. On Wednesday, not long after his resignation became public, he was playing PlayStation with his Jharkhand teammates, something that again shows that he did not mope over his call or wonder whether he had done the right thing.

That equanimity will ensure that he can easily slip back into the role of just a wicketkeeper-batsman and not worry about having the captaincy role that he has occupied for nearly a decade now.

Had MS believed that his days as a cricketer were over, he would have called it a day immediately because he is not the kind of guy to overstay his welcome. The fact that he has spent so much time with the Jharkhand team this season in a mentoring role, and that he was with them throughout the duration of their semi-final loss in the Ranji Trophy to Gujarat, is the ultimate indicator that cricket is still his no. 1 priority, and from an Indian cricket point of view, that is wonderful news.

When MS had taken charge of the Indian team across formats in 2008, he had the seniors in his corner, and Sachin had taken up the mentoring role. I feel that till such time that MS continues to play international cricket, he will be to Virat what Sachin was to him in his early days as captain.