Maker of remarkable decisions decides to stand down
“The history of the world,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, “is but the biography of great men.” Carlyle held that history is determined by the actions of a handful of heroes. And if his ideas have been discredited since, in sport, at least, they’ve still some truth to them. As Matthew Engel wrote of Shane Warne’s performance in that Ashes match at Adelaide in 2006, for four days the Test looked set to “dribble away to an inevitable draw. Then came the Great Man.” That same week in December 2006, 6,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean, another Great Man of the game was in action. Though no one would have guessed his future from his fortune. MS Dhoni made 44 off 49 balls against South Africa at Centurion, a match India lost by nine wickets.
Soon afterwards, Dhoni copped a lot of the blame for India’s dismal performance at the 50-over World Cup in the West Indies, where they were defeated by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Dhoni was out for a duck in both matches. After the Bangladesh match a mob of angry fans tore down the walls of his new house, which was under construction in his home town of Ranchi. “It seems Dhoni is banking more on modelling than wicketkeeping and batting,” said one of the protestors. But within a year, Dhoni would be captain of both India’s ODI and T20 sides. , after a decade’s service.
Dhoni was chosen to captain India only because three senior players – Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly – all decided that they didn’t want to play at the first World T20 in 2007. “We thought it is better if the younger guys played that tournament,” said Dravid. “Twenty20 is a game for youngsters.” It’s easily forgotten, a decade on, but back then the Indians weren’t even so hot as lukewarm on the new form of the sport. At the International Cricket Council board meeting to discuss plans for the inaugural world tournament, the Board of Control for in India’s honorary secretary, Niranjan Shah, asked: “T20? Why not Ten10 or Five5 or One1?” and insisted: “India will never play T20.”
India agreed to the 2007 tournament only with the caveat that they wouldn’t have to participate in it, and were only persuaded to take part when the ICC’s president, Ehsan Mani, threatened to nix their bid for the 2011 ODI World Cup. So in the end they sent Dhoni and a second XI.
India had only ever played a single T20 international. But Dhoni seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the format. He scored 154 runs in his six innings, from 120 balls. But it was the little details of his leadership that stood out.
India’s group match against Pakistan ended in a tie so went into a bowl-out. Each team had to pick five bowlers to try to hit the stumps. Pakistan naturally plumped for the five men who had bowled in the India innings. But Dhoni picked Virender Sehwag and Robin Uthappa, though neither had bowled in the actual match, instead of Sreesanth and Ajit Agarkar. Sehwag and Uthappa both hit the stumps. Yasir Arafat and Umar Gul missed. India won. Already, then, Dhoni seemed to have a sixth sense for captaining in limited-overs cricket. And over the course of that fortnight, his team won India over to T20. Nothing, after all, succeeds like success.
The provincial T20 tournament organised by the BCCI earlier in 2007 had not even been televised. But the World T20 final between India and Pakistan was seen by around 40 million people worldwide and was one of the 10 most-watched sports events of 2007.
It came down to the last over. Pakistan needed 13 off it, had one wicket left, and Misbah-ul-Haq was on strike, 37 not out off 35 balls. Dhoni could have orchestrated his attack so that Harbhajan Singh delivered that last over, or Yusuf or Irfan Pathan. Instead he left it to Joginder Sharma, a man who had bowled all of 39 overs in his international career, and who would never play another game for India.
There was a lovely anecdote which has Dhoni telling Sharma: “You have bowled so many overs in domestic cricket with so much dedication, when no one is watching. Don’t worry, cricket won’t let you down now.” It didn’t. . Among the many fans celebrating in the ground was Lalit Modi, the man behind the incipient Indian Premier League. In the next three months Modi would oversee a slew of deals. The IPL TV rights went for $1bn, the franchises for a combined $700m, and, in February 2008, Dhoni himself signed for $1.5m at the first players’ auction.
During the rest of his 10 years as captain, Dhoni led India to victory in the 2011 World Cup and the 2013 Champions Trophy. There were many more remarkable decisions along the way. Dhoni is the man who brought himself on to bowl for four overs in the Champions Trophy semi‑final against Sri Lanka, the man who took off his gloves so that he could better engineer a run-out off the last ball to beat Bangladesh in the World T20 last year, the man who, of course, promoted himself up to No5 in the order during the World Cup final in Mumbai, though he had barely made a run all tournament long. Never mind man-of-the-match awards, Dhoni is the only cricketer who has been picked as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people on the planet.
Just as a team of computer scientists at the University of Alberta solved the game of draughts, Dhoni seemed, for a time, to have solved limited-overs cricket. India won 151 limited-overs internationals under his captaincy. In a quarter of them, he was batting, unbeaten, at the end of the match. But Dhoni did not only influence innings, games and series, but the course of the sport. The main counter-argument to Carlyle’s Great Man theory is that those same men are only the products of their environment, that, as Herbert Spencer put it, “before he can remake his society, his society must make him”. But the explosion of T20, the growth of the IPL, are indivisible from Dhoni’s own achievements in this last decade. His captaincy shaped the entire landscape of the modern game.
• This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. .