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MS Dhoni represents today’s India where talented people from small towns can aspire for the pinnacle of success. Dhoni is the confident Indian, comfortable in his own skin as well as his provincial roots. And while that worked beautifully for a time — notwithstanding the convolutions backstage — perhaps it’s time for some outside-the-clique thinking.
Indian jugaad may have become so fascinating that it is being studied in management schools, but Dhoni was the one who brought it to the playing field, to good effect. Strategy and tactics drawn in the dressing room were remade behind the wickets on the fly. Gut instinct, doing the best with the second best, and springing surprises on the opponent were the ingredients of his secret sauce. A rather ordinary bowler such as Raina would emerge as the team’s trump card under Dhoni. A fielder placed just behind the umpire would distract the batsman. Ruses from gully cricket would be used to befuddle the opposing team’s best batsmen.
But another very Indian quality about his leadership was the building of a coterie-based operation. Those who didn’t have the ‘fitment’ wouldn’t figure in the scheme of things at all. So, while some talents flourished, many floundered.
Without a doubt, Dhoni has been among the most impactful captains India has had in recent times. While Saurav Ganguly before him overturned the perception abroad that Indians were nice guys lacking in killer aggression, Dravid, the good-hearted team player, groomed many of the stars to come including Dhoni.
Gut instinct, doing the best with the second best, and springing surprises on the opponent were the ingredients of his secret sauce
Mahi, as he was called by seniors, was spotted early for his leadership qualities and given the baton when he was just over 25 years old. And he came with a vision, not just to win but to set up a process with the future in mind. He picked those he thought would travel with him, share his vision, and sync with his personal style.
In many ways, Dhoni — also known as MSD and MS — was the typical Indian manager who worked through a coterie of minions. As long as he was successful, this approach of his seemed appropriate. And at the times he didn’t triumph, all the talented cricketers who fell by the wayside were remembered.
For Captain Cool, wins didn’t seem to be the end-all and that was a big burden off the shoulders of his teammates. He seemed more interested in the process and in the long term. He was famous for his back-slapping encouragement of his disciples: “Bindaas khelo yaar (Play with freedom)”. That trust reposed by a boss often does wonders to those who are trusted. It lifts their performance and makes them achieve things beyond their usual reach. Those who are not trusted lose out, unfortunately.
The backing that MSD got initially was an inadvertent one. Greg Chappell was the self-unleashed wrecking ball on the seniors. And MSD benefited from this in 2005-07. When Rahul Dravid replaced Ganguly, the selfless team man that he was, he put Mahi at one down in batting, sacrificing his own place to boost a junior.
Not too long ago, handling seniors and integrating them into the team was considered a unique skillset required for an Indian captain. But with Dhoni, it was his way or the highway.
As Ganguly was forced into the wilderness and with Dravid facing the ignominy of a shattering defeat in the Windies, MS was catapulted into captaincy. Dilip Vengsarkar, former India player who became a selector, may have had a little to do with Dravid being sidelined as well. MSD’s processing mind had decided to build a team for the 2011 World Cup with his own people. Dravid and Ganguly were dubbed slow fielders and dropped. Dhoni’s CSK backer N Srinivasan became BCCI chief and supported him in building on his vision.
Not too long ago, handling seniors and integrating them into the team was considered a unique skill set required for an Indian captain. Notably, how Azharuddin carried along the seniors of the team still stands as a lesson. Kumble, some seven years senior, was seamlessly integrated into the Ganguly team. Sachin, who was from the previous era, gelled well with Dravid and Ganguly to become the fearsome threesome. But with Dhoni, it was his way or the highway.
So, after 2011, Gambhir and Sehwag were made to understand that they would not be part of the 2015 World Cup — and this demoralized them. In what would have appeared humiliating to seniors, MSD set up a rotation system for Sehwag, Sachin and Gambhir so that not all three would be in the playing XI. Sachin retired in 2013.
Yuvaraj and Zaheer Khan could not be a part of Dhoni’s clique either, the former being an equal and a past rival. There may have also been a class dimension. Sehwag, Sachin, Gambhir and Yuvaraj were from the traditional elites, unlike Mahi.
But it was different for the younger crop. Raina, Murali Vijay, Ashwin, Jadeja, and Badrinath were in CSK and their crossover to team India was relatively easy. In comparison, other notable players such as Kolkata’s Manoj Tiwari, Bangalore’s Manish Pandey and Kerala’s Sanju Samson, however, did not get the same backing as the CSK crop. As Ashwin came into prominence, Harbhajan was slowly sidelined. But the 2015 World Cup campaign stopped with the semi-final, and so did the following T20 outing.
Later, India lost to Pakistan in the 2017 Champions trophy. It was the first major outing for Captain Kohli and perhaps the right time for Captain Cool to fade away. But he didn’t. There were too many endorsements and too much brand value attached to Dhoni’s continued presence at the top.
In CSK, ‘Mahi’s boys’ did well, while many others including Tamil Nadu talents were either not considered for auction or not bid for a high enough price in recent times. Some were brought in only for the bench.
Meanwhile, as Dhoni dragged his retirement from the India team, he clung on when even his minions had by then become seniors in the CSK. Suddenly, the champion of young raw talent had turned an apologist of the old.
Instead of someone who leads a cabal, CSK needs a more objective captain to build a healthier and more nurturing environment professionally, especially for youngsters from Tamil Nadu.
That being where things stand, the CSK management may have thought about the who-after Dhoni question. And it would perhaps be best for them to pick a non-Indian captain next — someone who can bring in fresh thinking to break through ‘Indian’ coteries and remake a team for the future.
For instance, it took a Kane Williamson and a David Warner in SRH to back Natarajan, who was discovered by Sehwag for Delhi, and an Eoin Morgan to back Varun Chakravarthy. Instead of someone who leads a cabal, a more objective captain would help CSK. This person should carry along contrarians and listen to counter-opinion to build a healthier and more nurturing environment professionally, especially for youngsters from Tamil Nadu.
(S Dinesh is a cricket analyst)
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