MS Dhoni: The magician who pulls out magnanimous Houdini acts at will

MS Dhoni (second from right) guided India to a one-wicket win over Sri Lanka in the final of the tri-series in West Indies which included barrage of stupendous hits in the final over © AFP

On July 11, 2013 MS Dhoni pulled off yet another miraculous win in the most nonchalant of manners. Abhishek Mukherjee ponders on whether the maddeningly unperturbed body-language of the Limited-Overs Legend.

I had written this article some time back — roughly around when MS Dhoni had reached 7,000 runs in ODIs. Whatever means I had tried seem to confirm that he is, without any doubt, statistically the greatest ODI batsman there has been.

I had found it hard to explain the fact many people. Some mentioned that Dhoni’s batting looks ugly. I could not fathom how that was important to judge the quality of a batsman. Anyway, given that Dhoni scores runs, and scores them fast, and performs under pressure I guess those aesthetic bits can be pushed to the background, and so can the accusations about blasphemy that a Dhoni can never be in the same league of a Viv Richards, a Sachin Tendulkar, a Brian Lara, or a Ricky Ponting.

The other aspect raised has a sense, though: the psychological aspect: our generation has grown up on Richards’ swagger and gum-chewing body-language. As Sunil Gavaskar had mentioned in Runs ‘n’ Ruins, Viv always sent out the message “what am I doing among children, I should be among men”.
But what about Dhoni’s body-language? Let us be honest — have we ever seen anything like this? I agree that he doesn’t intimidate you with his arrogance; but what about the spine-chilling unfazed serenity with which he approaches the most impossible of situations?

Let us recall what happened on Thursday — or rather, in the wee hours of Friday morning Indian Standard Time (IST). India required fifty from 13 overs with five wickets in hand: they were cruising towards yet another (yawn) ODI victory over Sri Lanka — when — Rangana Herath struck twice in his final over. Both Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin played from the crease and were trapped leg-before; Herath bowled a maiden and finished with dream figures of 10-2-20-4. Sri Lanka were back in the match.

Dhoni did not look bothered in the least. He walked up to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and (probably) asked him to hang in. The Uttar Pradesh kid, certainly not a rank tail-ender, knew how to hang in there and support his skipper. Bhuvneshwar is no mug with the bat. Ask North Zone about his batting and they will immediately tell you about his innings of 128 played for the Central Zone — where he added 127 for the final wicket with No 11 Rituraj Singh.  

At the international level, Bhuvneshwar is still young. At the other end he had Dhoni — probably the best finisher in the history of ODI cricket. On Thursday, Dhoni went after Sri Lanka bowling, slashing Suranga Lakmal over the slips and flicking Lasith Malinga past mid-wicket for fours.

Sri Lanka, however, kept reducing the margin between runs and balls, and Malinga eventually trapped Bhuvneshwar with a brilliantly disguised slow yorker. The Indian fans breathed a sigh of relief when they realised that Vinay Kumar had been playing instead of Umesh Yadav, who was essentially a non-batsman.
Dhoni, playing with a pulled hamstring (let us not forget that he had kept wickets, taking a catch and effecting three stumpings), was now limping — which meant that he was still running at the speed of the average batsman from the 1990s and early 2000s.

Then Vinay Kumar played the most incredible of strokes. He was probably under the impression that he was the match-winner of the two, and intended to finish things off with a flurry of sixes. A batting average of seven and a strike rate in the 40s had certainly given him the right. The resultant hoick off Angelo Mathews, however, covered more distance vertically than horizontally and came down to Sachithra Senanayake at short third-man.

So it was left to Dhoni. He had fortunately crossed over: India had to score 20 off 22, and Ishant Sharma, of the Mohali-Test-of-2010 fame with the bat, walked out to the centre.

Dhoni’s expressions were intriguing and unfathomable. He was bearing the expectations of an entire country that is ready to rip him apart at the slightest lapse; he knew that he would be criticised severely if he failed here after Virat Kohli had led India to successive victories; he knew his reputation as a finisher would be at stake (albeit unfairly) if could not pull off those 22 runs; he knew Malinga still had another over.

And yet, not a single muscle twitched anywhere on his face. He calmly pushed Mathews to cover to retain the strike but was unfortunately prevented by Malinga from doing the same from his over (Ishant had just about managed to escape a run out off the last ball after Dhoni said a clear, loud ‘no’). The target, meanwhile, was 17 from 12 balls.

Continuing his hara-kiri mode Ishant pushed the next ball from Mathews to cover, was turned down by Dhoni again, and barely made it. The tail seemed to be trying its level best to lose the match for India. He somehow hit the fourth ball over point for a brace, and India required 15 from the final over.

Dhoni, however, looked like he was taking a stroll in the park. His face looked so impassive that it hardly looked human. It looked so robotically pokerfaced that you almost wanted to go up, shake him, and yell at him: “For heaven’s sake, you require fifteen off the last over, do something for once! Panic for once! Please!”
Dhoni — the important man, however, made a gesture towards the dressing-room; the substitutes ran in with an array of bats; the bats were tested for the ‘feel’ and weighed; and then, the wizard chose his wand.
Shaminda Eranga ran in. The first ball was outside the off-stump, there was a heave but no contact. The camera closed in on the face: tranquil, as usual. It seemed he knew what he was doing, even with 15 runs left from five balls. Never for a moment did we see a trace of panic on the face.

He might as well be taking a walk in the park; or out fishing; or watching a saas-bahu soap with visible boredom; you could never tell that he was focused. Neither could Eranga. The ball flew on the roof of the stadium, or maybe beyond. The stadium went ballistic, as did the Indian dressing-room and the countless spectators in front of their television or computer sets. Everyone reacted.

One man didn’t. It seemed like a (insert name of choice from the cat family) had woken up from slumber: the slice vanished over point to the fence for a boundary. Five from three.

Mahela Jayawardene, warrior and general of many a battle, looked tense (was it really Mathews who was in charge?); Dhoni didn’t. He never did. He knew exactly what he was doing, exactly where he was headed for, and had executed exactly that. Ishant tried to walk up (he had a valid point, of course; five from three meant that singles would come into play), and was dismissed.

It seemed that everyone knew what was to follow. The body-language had already conveyed everything. Everyone was prepared for the inevitable — the Indians, the Lankans, the spectators; most of all, the man himself. The verdict was out. What was left was the execution.

The calmness of the man was exasperating. It did not scare you into submission. It killed you psychologically. You were not up against a pack of wolves in the open or a shark in the ocean. That was still manageable and even if you lost on most occasions you at least had a chance to die like a hero. Most importantly, you had a chance to win, however small. That’s what a Richards, a Tendulkar, a Ponting, or a Lara did to you.

This was more like lying on the banks of a river with both legs amputated and watching the high tide build up to suck your hapless body in. You could not fight back. You simply accepted. The water would simply come up and drowned you with its slow, claustrophobic rise.

There is no point in mentioning that the next ball went for a six, is there?

Brief scores:

Sri Lanka 201 in 48.5 overs (Kumar Sangakkara 71, Lahiru Thirimanne 46; Ravindra Jadeja 4 for 23) lost to India 203 for 9 in 49.4 overs (Rohit Sharma 58, MS Dhoni 45*; Rangana Herath 4 for 20) by 1 wicket with 2 balls to spare.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshakeand on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42.)