Captain supreme

March 7, 2008

There's a casual air about Mahendra Singh Dhoni which is deceptive. He rarely seems to get ruffled by bad on-field performances, he smiles a lot and he never seems to be under the cosh. If he sees defeat approaching, there is an air of equanimity about him, one that can never be confused with having given up.

Yet beneath that casual exterior, there apparently lurks the mind of a schemer, a plotter, a master tactician. India has never had a captain like him, not in my lifetime, a man who takes outrageous risks and yet sees nearly every one of them succeed, a man who has quiet confidence in his teammates and a sense of serenity which is infectious. He can never be accused of arrogance or braggadocio, yet the whole bunch of youngsters who are under his command never takes a backward step.

The irony of the situation is that few people notice his extraordinary abilities - but then this is a world where people are obsessed with trivialities. We rarely stop to smell the roses, to appreciate the finer points of anything.

Dhoni was playing for Jharkhand, an underdeveloped part of the country which was granted the status of a state hardly eight years ago, when he was selected to wear the national colours. He was born in Ranchi, the capital of Bihar, a state known more for its lawlessness than anything else. He hasn't been long in the Indian team, having made his debuts against Bangladesh in 2004-05 (ODIs) and against Sri Lanka in 2005-06 (Tests).The man will be 27 in July, yet the maturity he shows is that of someone at least 10 years older.

Today he is the toast of the country, having channelled the energies of a bunch of hitherto unknown youngsters and taken them to victory in two tournaments - a Twenty20 world championship in South Africa and a tri-nations series in Australia. The former counts for little in my lexicon; the latter assumes much more importance from a cricketing point of view, given that he was up against the strongest and most arrogant team in world cricket.

To appreciate Dhoni's skills, one has to only look at a few examples both on and off the field. Take the last over of the second one-day series final, when Australia required 13 runs to win and take the series to a third final. Dhoni picked out Irfan Pathan to bowl this over. Apparently, he gently ribbed Pathan a bit, saying words to the effect that "even you cannot lose this for us."

Pathan had been the worst bowler in the first final and also in the second, mainly due to an injury. But then in the Indian context, when one is the target of such ribbing, it is always a message to perform better, to rise to the occasion. A sense of "I'll show him" always rises up within the individual who is addressed in this manner.

For that same over, Dhoni positioned the teenager Piyush Chawla, a kid who had played his first match on Australian soil the previous Sunday, at the vital mid-on position. Neither Pathan nor Chawla disappointed; Pathan took two wickets via the cherubim-faced Chawla who held two catches. There was no confusion, no panic, just a steely sense of resolve on Pathan's face as he bowled. In the West, I guess one would say he was "focused." In India we would merely say that he was trying to prove his captain wrong - the old "I'll show him" response.

There were plenty of other instances when Dhoni showed excellent people management skills. When his chief bowling weapon, Ishant Sharma, was injured and could not play in the second final, the skipper could well have opted to bring back Munaf Patel, who, despite being a slouch in the field, had bowled impressively when he played in the round-robin games of the tournament.

But there was a different approach - Dhoni opted to bring back Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, a maverick who can be a match-winner one day and give away 100 runs in 10 overs the next. This was despite the fact that Sreesanth, in his previous outing, had bowled a disastrous spell.

Yet the confidence that Dhoni showed paid off. Sreesanth bowled an excellent spell in support of Praveen Kumar who broke the back of the Australian batting. Kumar is yet another of Dhoni's successes - the captain showed great confidence in a bowler whom few had heard about. Kumar, who shows little emotion when he takes a wicket, sent back Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke in his opening spell.

To put Dhoni's performance in perspective, look at what Ricky Ponting's captaincy has achieved this summer. He has more or less destroyed the career of Shaun Tait, a fast bowler from South Australia. He has shown a distinct lack of confidence in Stuart Clark, who is arguably the best seamer in the country. How this will affect Clark is to be seen. And he has overbowled Mitchell Johnson, who is more of a one-day wonder than anything else.

Ponting shows anger on the field when players do not perform. Dhoni has a mild chiding word for the offender instead. Guess who's got the better results?

Some years ago, a study into the tiffin-wallahs of Bombay - the people who deliver home-cooked meals to office workers in India's financial capital - by the American business magazine Forbes concluded that this system was worthy of a 6 Sigma performance - meaning that the probability of one's lunch being delivered to the wrong person was one in six million. Yet, like many other activities in India, this is a largely unheralded activity. There are no business buzzwords, no "synergy", no fuss and bother. It is simply efficient and it works, Bloody well, too.

I cite this study because it says a lot about India as a country. Dhoni is not a sophisticated person. He is not the ideal subject for a TV interview because he tends to answer questions in their entirety. In a world of superficial sound-grabs, he is an oddity. But he is remarkably efficient on the field. And off it as well, when it comes to dealing with team problems and finding solutions. The man's system works. Bloody well, too.

Let's hope the Indian selectors give him his head and leave him out of the byzantine politics that dominates Indian cricket. To mess with this man would be doing Indian cricket a singular injustice.