With a little help, MS Dhoni 2.0 vital to India’s World Cup
MS Dhoni has helped India win several ODIs this year. © AFP

“Stories have to be written with a dry eye. You should not have heartstrings to tug. Sentimentality is like wearing galoshes when you should be wearing ballet slippers. It’s manipulation.”

American novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, whose TV credits include Martin Scorcese’s celebrated The Color of Money, the Al Pacino thriller Sea of Love, episodes of the critically acclaimed series The Wire and, most recently, the HBO hit The Night of, could well have been writing about cricket. In particular Indian cricket, with its affinity for demi-gods, poster cut-out heroes and mood-lifters. (READ: India’s World Cup jigsaw almost complete, barring two pieces)

While pride of place is left for Sachin Tendulkar, the man who has captured the Indian mind like no other is MS Dhoni. And today, at the age of 37 and apparently on his last lap as an international cricketer, Dhoni continues to be widely viewed from the prism of sentimentality when a dry eye is what is needed.

But it’s not easy to separate the Dhoni of old with Dhoni 2.0 – isn’t it?

Since the time the long-haired version of Dhoni appeared on the wide-scale television circuit in 2005 with that blazing hundred against Pakistan in an ODI, the man has endeared himself to the Indian cricket-watching public. His legend was built in 2007 when he led a motley crew of cricketers to the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa, increased season by season of the IPL with behemoths Chennai Super Kings and cemented with the 2011 World Cup title.

Along the way, India became the No 1 team in Test cricket too, but from 2011 to 2014 lost a string of matches overseas and with each passing defeat, criticism of Dhoni the Test captain grew. What once seemed one of Dhoni’s greatest strengths – the ability to not let defeats phase him – appeared to be unravelling. Then he quit Test cricket at the end of a match in Australia, and the focus became squarely on limited-overs cricket.

MS Dhoni has overcome his struggles to average 150.50 in 2019
MS Dhoni has overcome his struggles to average 150.50 in 2019. © Getty

As his batting statistics dipped, Dhoni gave up the ODI and T20I captaincy in early 2017, fully aware of Virat Kohli’s reputation and of what lay ahead. Primarily, the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 T20 World Cup. His batting, from the start of 2017 to the end of 2018, was chalky. India lost several matches in which Dhoni struggled. In one infamous loss, he even turned down the strike when batting with a middle-order specialist.

But in 2019, as India won series in Australia and New Zealand and now lead Australia 1-0 at home, Dhoni 2.0 has emerged as a dominant factor.

With a calculated unbeaten 59 off 72 balls in a stand of 141 with Kedar Jadhav, Dhoni on Saturday made it four successive ODI fifties against Australia this year, and a hat-trick of them in not outs in successful chases. In Australia, Dhoni scored 51, 55* and 87* to be named Man of the Series. Those last two innings took India over the line to seal a 2-1 series win, and in Hyderabad over the weekend, with India chasing 237, Dhoni took his ODI batting average in 2019 to 150.50.

With that, his batting average in successful ODI chases to 104.25, with 47 unbeaten innings. As the cliche goes, there’s still gas in the tank.

During the must-win second ODI in Australia as Dhoni struggled to rotate the strike, facing five dot balls from Glenn Maxwell, Kohli got back on strike and immediately switched modes to crack Jason Behrendroff past point for four and then slam him over long-on for six. With India’s asking rate nearing 7.5 an over, Kohli knew he had to take matters into his own hands. That brief flurry helped push Australia back, took Kohli to a hundred and in the end, it was Dhoni who walked back unbeaten on 55 from 54 balls in an Indian win.

That won’t happen every day, but India are aware that their middle order must bat around Dhoni in England.

Dhoni got to his 71st ODI fifty and hit the winning runs remaining unbeaten on 59 off 72 balls (AFP Image)
Kedar Jadhav and MS Dhoni’s 141-run stand augurs well for India in England. © AFP

After victory in Hyderabad, the Man-of-the-Match Jadhav had this to say about Dhoni: “Every time I bat with him, I spend time with him, I learn a lot. I can’t put it into words. But you can see the way I’m batting … I feel very confident. That’s the sort of person he is. You just see him and feel like you’ll deliver today.”

And that right there is what Dhoni’s biggest contribution to India on the way to the World Cup, and during it, could truly be. He is a wicketkeeper unparalleled against spinners, and a superb tactician from whom Kohli and the bowlers still have much to glean. But with such an influence on cricketers like Jadhav, and no doubt the others who bat with him, Dhoni has a big role to play. (READ: Dhoni becomes India’s most successful six-hittter)

Yes, those utterly inconsequential pests known as trolls tweet their venom whenever Dhoni comes up short of match-winning performances – which is rare, in 2019, refreshingly – and there are several examples over the past few years when his slow starts in ODIs have hurt Dhoni. Dhoni cannot hit sixes as he once did, for clear reasons, and needs more help in finishing innings. He needs time to get going in ODIs, but as his form this year proves, he is a pivotal member of India’s batting lineup. If he keeps producing match-winning innings like has been doing against Australia this year, India will be better equipped in the World Cup.

Is Dhoni manipulating our emotions with his batting this year? Perhaps. Those who swear by him have plenty of reason to believe he can play on after the World Cup. Those who have doubted his abilities will still do so, but with lesser harshness.

It would be better to view Dhoni with each passing innings with a dry eye, given the importance of this summer. But if sentimentality creeps in, let it. Just a bit.