Mahendra Singh Dhoni: A saga of stupendous success

MS Dhoni… In a league of his own © Getty Images

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, born July 7, 1981, is the most successful captain of India on many, many counts, and a wicketkeeper-batsman of a pedigree the nation had never known before. On his 32nd birthday, Arunabha Sengupta takes a look at the many landmarks already traversed by this unique cricketer.

A summary of greatness in three sixes

Six #1

That electric evening at Wankhede.

Excitement spilling into the ground from the packed stadium in echoing waves of anticipation. The atmosphere sizzling with concentrated focus of the entire nation. Nuwan Kulasekara running in with five runs to win. The scene played over and over in the euphoric memories of the Indian cricket fan.

And then down came MS Dhoni’s willow, the uninhibited swing resonating with the momentous occasion, and the white ball streaked through the night sky, soaring over long on, into the ecstatic crowd. After a 28-year wait, India had won the World Cup.

MS Dhoni

MS Dhoni launches Nuwan Kulasekara into orbit to give India the 2011 World Cup © Getty Images

Dhoni had been having a less than ordinary tournament till then. Every move of his had been mercilessly criticised, severely hauled over calumnious flames of downright abuse. With the benefit of hindsight, a loss and a tie in the initial games had been piled up as the sins from which he could get absolution only through a win in the final. His lack of form with the bat had been placed under colossal microscopes for relentless censure. Every small stutter along the way, of every member of the outfit, had been crucified in the media — print, electronic, television and social.

In such circumstances, on the final day, the captain had promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh, had walked right into the epicentre of action, and had struck the match-winning 91 from 79 balls. As the ball was sent into the orbit, Dhoni’s celebratory display was a momentary smile after which the triumph reflected only off the stump in his hand and a twinkle in his eye. The innumerable poison darts of denigration had struck the placid, impregnable, ice-cool equanimity of the Indian captain and fallen away neutered and impotent. He had not made the one mistake that mattered, that of not winning the Cup.

The moment of triumph was a defining snapshot of MS Dhoni. He has hit 247 sixes in international cricket till now, 75 in Tests, 152 in One-Day Internationals (ODI) and 20 in Twenty 20 Internationals (T20I). But, this one stroke stamped the essence of the player and the man. And perhaps two more underline the story of this phenomenal cricketer.

Six #2  

The first was hit at Faisalabad in 2006. At that point of time, his experience was limited and his hair long. He had already made his presence reverberate across stadiums with his power-hitting in ODIs. His fifth appearance had fetched 148 at Vishakhapatnam, the second Indian wicketkeeper to hit a century in ODIs — and here we must add that the first was Rahul Dravid. Six months later, he had clobbered the Sri Lankan attack at Jaipur to chase down a target on the brink of 300, hitting 15 fours and 10 sixes in an unbeaten 183.

Yet, his flair had been only mildly visible in the four Test matches till then. Now he walked in at 258 for four, with the huge Pakistan total of 588 looming ahead, follow-on very much on the cards. Shoaib Akhtar was breathing fire with the second new ball, Mohammad Asif sending them down at scorching pace. An injury-plagued Sachin Tendulkar was struggling to negotiate the furious attack. The Pakistan bowlers had tasted blood and were moving in for the kill.

Sohaib charged in and bounced the newcomer. Dhoni rocked back and pulled. The ball came off the middle of the bat like a crack of thunder, and sailed over square-leg for six. If Pakistan had doubts about Dhoni’s pedigree, they were laid to rest with this one stroke. Tendulkar departed soon enough, but Dhoni continued to flay the bowling, driving and lofting off the front foot when they pitched up, and merrily unfurling the hooks and pulls when targeted with the short balls. Dhoni hit 148 that day, and India ended up with a slim first innings lead. The realisation did briefly dawn on the nation that here was a wicketkeeper batsman the like of whom India had never known before. It would be a while before the public would quickly transition into their favourite pastime of looking a gift horse in the mouth,

By the end of the tour, Dhoni had struck 68, 72 not out and 77 not out in the ODIs that followed, to win India the series emphatically and earn sumptuous praise for his batting and hair style from Pervez Musharraf.

Six #3

There was a third special six. It came about at Chennai against Australia earlier this year. It was the first Test of the series and a titanic tussle had ensued for the upper hand. Australia had scored 380 and India were in a spot of bother at 196 for four when Dhoni walked in. Not only was it a crucial phase for the Test and series, it was also a moment of reckoning for Dhoni himself.

After the World Cup win, India had lost eight away Tests, four in England and four in Australia. Seven of them had come under his leadership. In the interim period, home series against West Indies and New Zealand had been won, but they had been largely taken for granted by the press and public. India had struggled abroad with poor bowling and ageing senior cricketers. And once a new-look line up had been fielded, they had been defeated 2-1 at home by a superbly equipped England side. The calls for Dhoni’s head had risen to a deafening chorus. It was primarily the lack of alternatives that had saved his job at the helm. Now Dhoni proceeded to script his destiny with his bat.

After a period of sensible consolidation, Moises Henriques was brought on for a fresh spell. Off his first ball, Dhoni planted his left-foot down the wicket and launched him over mid-off for a spectacular six. The stroke will continue to send shivers down the spine of the hapless bowler for a number of years to come. It will also go down as an audacious triumph of strategy. The Indian captain picked the bowlers to hit and the spots to hit them with aplomb. And when the ball was new and hard, he shrewdly capitalised on it to plunder a flurry of boundaries, snatching the initiative briskly and surely out of the grasp of Australia. Dhoni went on to hit an epic 224 and Australia never recovered, not in the match, not on the tour. India won the series 4-0, like so many of Dhoni’s achievements a first for the country. In the course of the demolition, Dhoni became the most successful captain of India. He also silenced the rather ridiculous line of reasoning, driven by specific agendas or glaring errors of perception, that he did not possess the technique to bat in Test matches.

Dhoni’s saga of successes is plentiful, but these three sixes provide a snapshot of path through which his brilliant star has risen across the skies of Indian cricket.

Nothing more to prove, in spite of critics

Even after the emphatic win against Australia, Dhoni was subjected to infinite rants when he refused to answer questions regarding match-fixing and bookies, in the aftermath of the scandals surrounding Indian Premier League (IPL). His employment by India Cement was brought under scrutiny. His supposed part ownership of Rhiti Sports was scrutinised under malicious microscopes. Dhoni listened to all the probing queries and allegations and had kept his mouth shut, concentrating his energy and efforts on the job at hand. The result was India winning the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy — the second most prestigious ODI cricket tournament in the world — without losing a single match. The last time India managed this in a tournament of this stature was way back in 1985, during the Benson and Hedges Mini World Cup in Australia.

Dhoni lifted the Indian team from the quagmire of match-fixing and betting scandal and hauled it to the top of the cricketing world. It was a team he himself has indeed groomed from scratch.

For a while the doubters have gone into hibernation, but it does not take long for public memory to work its magic. The facts and figures have been speaking eloquently about Dhoni’s claims to greatness there for long, but many, many eyes have steadfastly refused to acknowledge them.

During his six years at the helm, Dhoni has lifted the T20I World Cup in 2007, the 50-over World Cup in 2011, the ICC Champions Trophy, has taken India to the pinnacle of Test and ODI rankings, has won more Tests for the country than any other captain, and has a better win-loss ratio than any other Indian captain in both Tests and ODIs.

One is definitely prone to look askance at the IPL being considered in the same category as conventional cricket. But, no one can deny that as a financial extravaganza and stakes involved, this is a tournament that is without parallel in the game, even though it may not adhere to the strict definitions of cricket. Even here Dhoni has won two editions and has topped it by winning the Champions League T20 as well.

Besides, his feats with the bat and gloves across formats of the game are unmatched in Indian cricket and seldom encountered in the entire history of the game across the world.

As Cricket Country’s Chief Editor H Natarajan wrote a couple of years earlier, “Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a phenomenal mix of some of the greatest cricketers the nation — and, indeed, the world — has produced is something not widely realised. The man is just 30 (32 today), but already he has given indication of statesman-like stature with his impeccable conduct, which is an anachronism in an era where end justifies the means.”

Dhoni is perhaps the only cricketer who can challenge Tendulkar as a brand. He was ranked 16th on Forbes in the list of highest paid athletes. Recently, Simon Hughes even predicted that he could become the athlete of the 21st century.

Yet, he himself continues to be understated, low-key, shunning the limelight. Even when the glittering trophy is presented to him, he passes it to his teammates and prefers to stand in the background, quietly enjoying the fruits of his labour. He underplays his role, is unwilling to dwell on his success and is more prone to celebrate by enjoying his own personal space and time away from the limelight. Dhoni is an enigma in a country where sound bite rules.

Perhaps that is why for all his stupendous achievements there are statements laced in clichés and perceptions which try to trivialise his immense feats.

His unorthodox technique with the bat raises plenty of eyebrows at all levels, from the crassest critics to important voices, even though his mountains of runs are conspicuous to all. His glove work refuses to satisfy the purist even though he seldom misses much and is often exceptional with his stumping. And his unconventional captaincy evokes plenty of questions, even though his success spills over beyond the peripheries of wilful non-acknowledgement.

There is hardly anything we need to add to justify his place among the pantheon of cricketing greats. We will just go over the phenomenal achievements of the man one more time to underline how extraordinary he has been in the cricket world.

A numerical survey of MS Dhoni’s achievements

ODI batsman

Dhoni is prolific, he scores a lot and he scores quickly. There is little doubt that Dhoni is among the best batsmen ever to play the One Day game. His record across 225 matches is sufficient evidence of greatness that stare at us from the table. Among all those who have played in the history of ODIs and have scored more than 3000 runs, Dhoni is one of the three players to do so at an average of over 50. Among those who have managed 3000 runs at a 45 plus average, only Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Viv Richards have a better strike rate.

ODI batsman with highest averages (minimum qualification 3000 runs)

Batsman M Runs Ave SR
HM Amla (SA) 73 3580 55.07 91.07
MG Bevan (Aus) 232 6912 53.58 74.16
MS Dhoni (Asia/India) 225 7313 51.13 88.18
AB de Villiers (Afr/SA) 143 5680 49.82 93.29
V Kohli (India) 106 4345 49.37 86.74
MEK Hussey (Aus) 185 5442 48.15 87.16
IVA Richards (WI) 187 6721 47.00 90.20
JH Kallis (Afr/ICC/SA) 321 11498 45.26 72.97
CG Greenidge (WI) 128 5134 45.03 64.92
SR Tendulkar (India) 463 18426 44.83 86.23
MJ Clarke (Aus) 227 7375 44.69 78.23
DM Jones (Aus) 164 6068 44.61 72.56

ODI captain

As a captain, MS Dhoni has by far the best win-loss ratio among Indians, and requires just nine more victories to go past Mohammad Azharuddin to become the most successful ever.

Indian ODI captains

Captain M W L W/L
MS Dhoni 141 82 48 1.70
R Dravid 79 42 33 1.27
M Azharuddin 174 90 76 1.18
N Kapil Dev 74 39 33 1.18
SC Ganguly 146 76 65 1.16
SM Gavaskar 37 14 21 0.66
SR Tendulkar 73 23 43 0.53

If we take the minnows away from the equation, Dhoni emerges as the leader in the group even in terms of win. He has the highest Win/Loss ratio as well, and along with Rahul Dravid is the only Indian captain to have more wins than losses against major teams.

Indian ODI captains against major sides

Captain M W L Win-Loss Ratio
MS Dhoni 125 73 47 1.55
R Dravid 71 35 32 1.09
M Azharuddin 150 70 73 0.95
Kapil Dev 57 25 31 0.80
SC Ganguly 110 45 60 0.75

Dhoni still has a way to go before catching up with Mohammad Azharuddin for the highest number of tournament wins. But if we consider the World Cup and the ICC Champions Trophy, he has had some major successes. Apart from Dhoni and Azhar, only Kapil Dev is the only other Indian captain to have won more than one ODI tournament.

ODI Tournament wins of India

Captains Number of Wins Tournament Year
M Azharuddin 9 Asia Cup 1991
Hero Cup 1993
Singer 1994
Wills World Series 1994
Asia Cup 1995
Independence Cup 1998
Coca-Cola Cup Sharjah 1998
Coca-Cola Triangular 1998
Champions Trophy 1998
MS Dhoni 5 CB Series 2008
Compaq Cup 2009
Asia Cup 2010
World Cup 2011
ICC Champions Trophy 2013
KapilDev 2 World Cup 1983
Rothman’s Cup 1985
SM Gavaskar 1 Benson Hedges 1985
RJ Shastri 1 Sharjah Cup 1988
DB Vengsarkar 1 Asia Cup 1988
SR Tendulkar 1 Titan Cup 1996
SC Ganguly 1 NatWestTrophy 2002

Test cricket

We often tend to take Dhoni’s batting abilities while being a wicketkeeper and captain for granted. However, a brief look at the following tables will demonstrate the unprecedented value he brings to the team. Traditionally Indian wicket-keepers, even those known to possess excellent batting skills, have boasted averages in the range of late twenties or early thirties. MS Dhoni’s near 40 average makes him a batsman of rare calibre among the ones who have also donned the big gloves.

Wicketkeeper batsmen of India

Wicketkeeper T Runs Ave 100s 50s
MS Dhoni 77 4209 39.70 6 28
SMH Kirmani 88 2759 27.04 2 12
FM Engineer 46 2611 31.08 2 16
NR Mongia 44 1442 24.03 1 6
KS More 49 1285 25.70 0 7
BK Kunderan 15 831 33.24 2 3

Being a wicket-keeper batsman and boasting an excellent batting record is not really an easy job. As we can see from the next table, only seven stumpers in the history of the game have posted 4000 runs in the Tests played as wicketkeeper. And among them, Mark Boucher, Alec Stewart, Alan Knott and Ian Healy did so at averages less than 35. Adam Gilchrist and Andy Flower are the only men to have scored more runs than Dhoni at a better average.

Exactly how difficult is it to keep and bat and do a good job with both? Kumar Sangakkara’s overall batting average hovers around 55, but when he perches behind the wicket it comes down to 40.48. Dhoni, with 39.70 trails him by less than a run per innings.

Wicketkeeper batsmen in Tests

Keeper-batsman T Runs Ave 100s 50s
AC Gilchrist (Aus) 96 5570 47.60 17 26
MV Boucher (ICC/SA) 147 5515 30.30 5 35
AJ Stewart (Eng) 82 4540 34.92 6 23
A Flower (Zim) 55 4404 53.70 12 23
APE Knott (Eng) 95 4389 32.75 5 30
IA Healy (Aus) 119 4356 27.39 4 22
MS Dhoni (India) 77 4209 39.70 6 28
MJ Prior (Eng) 67 3680 44.33 7 26
RW Marsh (Aus) 96 3633 26.51 3 16
PJL Dujon (WI) 79 3146 31.46 5 16
KC Sangakkara (SL) 48 3117 40.48 7 11
BB McCullum (NZ) 52 2803 34.18 5 15

Now that we have seen that batting and keeping wickets simultaneously can get a bit complicated, let us add a third hat that Dhoni has worn for 47 Tests — that of the skipper. Not too many men are up to the three-way strain. Andy Flower comes closest to Dhoni and he led in just 16 Tests. In the entire history of Test cricket, Dhoni is unique in this respect.

Test wicketkeeper batsmen as captain

Keeper captains T Runs Ave 100s 50s
MS Dhoni (India) 47 2787 44.23 5 19
A Flower (Zim) 16 1232 49.28 3 7
Mushfiqur Rahim (Ban) 10 798 44.33 1 5
AJ Stewart (Eng) 12 781 37.19 1 3
T Taibu (Zim) 10 674 37.44 1 5

And while wearing the hats of captain and wicketkeeper, Dhoni also pulls his weight as a batsman. In fact, in the Tests he has led, his batting record is next to only Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid among all the captains of India. As captain, Dhoni boasts a batting average better than Mohammad Azharuddin and way higher than Sourav Ganguly and MAK Pataudi.

Best Indian batsmen as captain in Tests

Captain T Runs Ave
SR Tendulkar 25 2054 51.35
SM Gavaskar 47 3449 50.72
R Dravid 25 1736 44.51
MS Dhoni 47 2787 44.23
M Azharuddin 47 2856 43.93
SC Ganguly 49 2561 37.66
MAK Pataudi 40 2424 34.14

As mentioned earlier, there have been plenty of voices raised against Dhoni’s batting technique with rather quixotic claims that he did not deserve a place in the team. Mohinder Amarnath was one of the men who had questioned his credentials, especially after being removed as selector. Sourav Ganguly had also gone public with his caustic criticism during a phase when he forwarded the names of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Harbhajan Singh as potential captains of India.

However, as indicated in this and other articles, much of these sentiments are driven by errors of perception or prejudice. The figures given indicate his competence as a batsman.

It is widely believed that Dhoni has a poor technique against the swinging ball. So, let me point out that Dhoni scores at 39 runs per innings in England, and has two fifties in the three innings he has batted in New Zealand — the two countries where the ball swings the most.

The efficiency behind the stumps

While performing with the bat and as a skipper, Dhoni’s quietly efficient glove work often goes unnoticed. That, in fact, is the best attribute of a wicketkeeper. He is already the holder of the record for highest dismissals among Indian wicketkeepers. .He is 50 dismissals clear of Syed Kirmani, although he has played 11 less Tests than the former Karnataka ’keeper. And among all the stumpers who have played a substantial number of matches, he leads by quite some distance in terms of dismissals per innings as well.

Wicketkeeper T I Total Ct St Highest Dis/Inn
MS Dhoni 77 143 248 212 36 6 (6ct 0st) 1.734
SMH Kirmani 88 151 198 160 38 6 (5ct 1st) 1.311
KS More 49 90 130 110 20 5 (0ct 5st) 1.444
NR Mongia 44 77 107 99 8 5 (5ct 0st) 1.389
FM Engineer 46 83 82 66 16 3 (3ct 0st) 0.987
NS Tamhane 21 35 51 35 16 4 (4ct 0st) 1.457
KD Karthik 16 30 50 45 5 4 (4ct 0st) 1.666

The Test captain

As a Test captain, Dhoni is well clear of the other Indian skippers both in terms of the number of wins and the win-loss ratio. However, his success turns out to be far more spectacular as we delve a bit deeper into the numbers.

Most successful Indian Test captains

Captain T W L D W/L
MS Dhoni 47 24 12 11 2.00
SC Ganguly 49 21 13 15 1.61
R Dravid 25 8 6 11 1.33
SM Gavaskar 47 9 8 30 1.12
M Azharuddin 47 14 14 19 1.00
NJ Contractor 12 2 2 8 1.00
AL Wadekar 16 4 4 8 1.00

The ranking undergoes a lot of change when Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are taken out of the equation, but the top spot remains the same. Dhoni again emerges on top both in terms of number of wins and the win-loss ratio. The gap between him and the rest of the field is huge.

Most Successful Test Captains (without minnows)

Captain T W L D W/L
MS Dhoni 46 23 12 11
R Dravid 23 7 6 10 1.16
SM Gavaskar 47 9 8 30 1.12
M Azharuddin 44 13 13 18 1.00
NJ Contractor 12 2 2 8 1.00
SC Ganguly 38 12 12 14 1.00
AL Wadekar 16 4 4 8 1.00

It emerges that only one of the 47 Tests Dhoni has led has been against Bangladesh. One needs to pause and contrast this to Sourav Ganguly’s 11 Tests against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh during his 49 match tenure. In this light, it is almost laughable to attribute MS Dhoni’s success to luck as many still clamour. Anyway, claims of the hand of fortune writing MS Dhoni’s story of success were countered scientifically in this article. Luck cannot hold the reins of destiny for 47 Tests and six years. Billa number 786 works in Bollywood, not in real life.

Overseas triumphs by Indian captains

While much of Dhoni’s record was tarnished by the poor showing in England and Australia, before that he did etch out series wins in New Zealand and West Indies. He also squared the series in the hostile land of South Africa where all other Indian sides have been beaten, battered and bruised. Along with Rahul Dravid and Ajit Wadekar, Dhoni remains the only Indian captain to have won more than one series abroad against major sides.

India’s overseas series wins (other than in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh)

Captain Year Opponent
MAK Pataudi 1967-68 New Zealand
Ajit Wadekar 1970-71 West Indies
Ajit Wadekar 1971 England
Kapil Dev 1986 England
M Azharuddin 1993 Sri Lanka
Rahul Dravid (2 Tests)  +
Sourav Ganguly (1 Test)
2003-04 Pakistan
Rahul Dravid 2006 West Indies
Rahul Dravid 2007 England
MS Dhoni 2008-09 New Zealand
MS Dhoni 2011 West Indies

As far as Australia is concerned, in spite of losing three Tests to them during the last tour (the final Test was led by Virender Sehwag) Dhoni still has a fantastic record against them. Among the modern captains, Dhoni is the most successful against the Aussies and that too by a large margin.

Best Test captaincy records against Australia since 1989 Ashes

Captain T W L D W/L Ratio
MS Dhoni 11 8 3 0 2.66
AJ Strauss 10 5 2 3 2.50
IVA Richards 5 2 1 2 2.00
MP Vaughan 5 2 1 2 2.00
KC Wessels 5 2 1 2 2.00
MD Crowe 4 1 1 2 1.00
R Dravid 2 1 1 0 1.00
SC Ganguly 9 3 3 3 1.00
JH Kallis 2 1 1 0 1.00
RB Richardson 9 3 3 3 1.00

There are perpetual peeves of several armchair analysts about Dhoni’s field setting, his supposed defensive mindset. The very adherents who claim to enjoy innovative strategy suddenly find a sweeper cover in the opening overs of a Test match too unconventional for their canonical clichéd cricketing concepts to endure.

However, Dhoni has always gone ahead in his archetypal way, his tranquillity immune to the sound and fury beyond the boundary. And his tactics have often borne excellent fruit. Whether it be setting an 8-1 field and choking Australia into self-implosion at Mohali, or standing outside the leg stump while keeping to Matthew Hayden and frustrating him to his demise at Nagpur, Dhoni has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. If the results are anything to go by, they are generally successful even if they sometimes go against the textbook tenet of allowing easy boundaries at the start.

His batting, likewise, may make purists squirm. The bottom-hand is pronounced, the footwork unorthodox, the bat often reaches out way too far to meet the balls. At the same time, the bat-speed associated with some signature strokes is unreal. The incredible ‘helicopter’ shot can send yorkers out of the ground with a whip of the wrist. It did not take the cricket world too long to realise that MS Dhoni was a batsman who could be termed unusual, but with assets that could not be ignored in any format of the game.

His captaincy, much like his batting, is touched by the freshness of the unconventional, the ingenious craft of the untutored, more loaded in favour of street-smart stratagems than canned, off-the-shelf sophistication. But for the period of transition between mid-2011 to end-2012, it has worked wonders for India. Dhoni has carried India past that difficult bend with his characteristic cool in the midst of adversities. He has emerged on what looks like a long home stretch with unpretentious but undeniable aplomb.

Now, as the youthful side matures with time, one expects more and more feathers in his already cluttered cap.

In pictures: MS Dhoni’s cricketing career

(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