MS Dhoni has retired from Test cricket. There are reasons to be surprised. It was a call he took mid-series. He didn’t say a word about his decision in the post-match presser. There was no lap of honour, no speech, no teary goodbyes. Just a matter-of-fact press release. One can debate the timing and the reasons. Was his body unwilling? Or had the mind had enough? Either way, we will never know. Dhoni doesn’t do detailed explanations. He has never seen the need.
A few thoughts:
- Dhoni’s Test career lasted nine years. This sounds a bit strange when you compare it with Dravid and Laxman, who both managed a decade and a half, and Kumble, who lasted 18 years. Ganguly’s Test career went for 12 years. (Tendulkar, of course, began insanely early and can be treated as an exception.) Yet, none of the above endured as hectic a schedule as Dhoni did. Tests, ODIs, T20s, IPLs, and Champions Leagues – the treadmill rarely stopped. And Dhoni rarely buckled. Forget the wins and runs and averages; his ability to endure such a relentless schedule is a feat in itself.
- Dhoni’s Test career – as remarkable as it was – was often played out in the shadow of a once-in-a-lifetime ODI and T20 career. He finished as India’s winning-est Test captain but it’s his breathtaking innings in ODIs and T20s that have laid the foundation for his superstardom. As Rahul Dravid has suggested, Dhoni’s retirement from Tests could allow him to extend his ODI and T20 career, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest short-form players of all time.
- Retirements have a strange effect. You might have been cursing Dhoni for the way he batted in the first innings in Melbourne – “why is he torturing himself like this?” one friend asked via email – and, in a span of a few minutes, you might have got mushy when he announced he was walking away. Maybe it’s in retirement that we look beyond the here and now and consider his whole career arc – what he meant, how good he was, the moments he inspired, the times he took the team to No.1, those pre-Dominica days when he could do no wrong, the match-winning knocks against Australia in Mohali, stifling Ponting and Co. in Nagpur with the 8-1 field, promoting Pujara to No.3 in Bangalore, backing Sreesanth in Durban, the stunner in Cape Town, conquering New Zealand and so much more.
- Dhoni’s success (and failings) as a Test captain must be put in context: he had never captained any team before he captained India. He has said he never dreamt of leading India. Added to that, he was a wicketkeeper and – given that history isn’t too favourable to keeper-captains – he was never going to have it easy. Plus, Dhoni was in charge during one of the most difficult transitions in Indian cricket. Once Kumble retired, Zaheer slid and Harbhajan plateaued, he was left with a bunch of bowlers who struggled with their consistency and fitness when away from home.
- Dhoni’s Test batting too needs context: he needed to adjust his homespun technique to meet the demands of Test cricket (especially on seaming, bouncy pitches). When he was coming up the ranks, coaches were constantly telling him to change his approach. In his third season in domestic cricket, in 2001-02, he had one score of over 25 in first-class games and 45 runs in four one-day games. He was bombarded with advice like “don’t be so aggressive”, “change your technique”, “don’t loft spinners”. Many people told him that he would never be a long-form player if he continued in this way. But Dhoni stood firm. In 2004, on his Duleep Trophy debut against England A in Amritsar, his first big first-class game on the national stage, Dhoni was asked to open the innings in a two-paced surface. He was facing competition within the zone and a poor game would have harmed his chances. In the first innings, 48 of his 52 runs came in fours. In the second innings he made 24 off 29. A few days later, he Dhoni opened the batting in the final. His first four scoring shots were fours. He made 21 off 26 balls before edging off. In the second innings he walked in with East needing 409 to win. He fire-started the chase with a 47-ball 60. One veteran reporter watching the game said that had this been the 1970s or 1980s, batting coaches would have asked Dhoni to pack his kitbag and try his hand at another sport. Other observers weren’t as sympathetic. They were convinced that this manic style wouldn’t work at the highest level. MS Dhoni made 4,876 Test runs. There were six centuries and 33 fifties. His 224 is the third-best score by a wicketkeeper.
- My favourite Dhoni Test innings was in 2006, when he took on Shoaib Akhtar in Faisalabad. That was his first real experience of extreme pace. Shoaib was screaming in at 146 to 152 kph and though the pitch was flat, the pressure was intense. India had quite a way to go to avoid the follow on and the variable bounce was making it hard to duck against the short deliveries. Dhoni edged a four off his second ball and then watched the next over of sizzling pace from the non-striker’s end. “There were only two options,” he would later say. “I could either hang in there and defend or back myself and play my strokes. I was better at playing my strokes than defending. So it was a simple choice.” The first ball of the next over was short, fast and headed straight for Dhoni’s temple. But the bat was ready, as if he was waiting for the short one, and let loose a withering slap – Viv Richards style – and sent it flying over square leg. It was the shot that would change the course of the Test. Shoaib tried to bowl faster, and shorter, and lost control. Dhoni grew in confidence, scattered the bowlers, and took India to safety.
- Then there’s the keeping. In 2003-04, more than one national selector was concerned that Dhoni had shifted from being a goalkeeper to a wicketkeeper. He’s a stopper, one said, and was worried that he didn’t have the chops to glide behind the stumps like many natural wicketkeepers. In 2005 Dhoni played a tri-series in Sri Lanka and struggled with his glovework. Most observers agreed that Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel were better options. You can get away with poor keeping at the first-class level, some said, but they asserted that at the Test level Dhoni will be found out. When he finished, Dhoni had taken 256 catches and managed 38 stumpings.
- But leave all that. Assume Dhoni had the perfect batting technique. Assume he had proved his captaincy at various age-group levels. Assume he was a perfectly agile wicketkeeper. What were the chances that a player from a cricketing backwater like Bihar or Jharkhand would play 90 Tests for India? What were the odds? Ask Saba Karim. Ask Hari Gidwani. Ask Mihir Diwakar. Each of them will tell you stories of talent unnoticed, of players being dropped after one poor innings, of chances denied. Dhoni made his first-class debut in the 1999-2000 season. He didn’t make a mark in the Deodhar Trophy until 2004. And he didn’t play in the Duleep Trophy until 2005. For close to six years, he was among the thousands of cricketers who plough away day after day, just names on scorecards, riding trains across the country, training, diving, sweating, batting, keeping, hoping that some selector somewhere will take notice. He never considered moving out of his state, never considered changing his team. “I knew if I’m good enough I’ll get a chance,” he would later say, inspiring a whole generation of small-town cricketers to believe the same. And therein lies a mighty legacy.