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Method in the mayhem

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HIS OWN MAN: Stung, perhaps, by reversals in the team's fortunes over the past two seasons and criticism over his leadership, MS Dhoni played an epoch-making innings in the opening Test against Australia

Ever the calm and composed plunderer, MS Dhoni's unique philosophy of attacking batsmanship decimated the Aussies at Chepauk and silenced critics who had been calling for his head. Possessed with awesome power but limited technique, the Indian skipper's greatest asset has always been a commendable clarity of thought and a fierce belief in his abilities.

There was more to the mist of Kolkata in the January of 1993. Ayodhya was the burning issue of the day, tension was running high in every sphere of life, and there was no refuge in cricket either. India were getting thrashed black-and-blue in South Africa and as the team got selected for the home series against England, there were cries for skipper Mohammad Azharuddin's head.

With Kapil Dev breathing down his neck, it was do-ordie for Azhar in that first Test at Eden Gardens. And in the desperation to hold on to his throne, the Hyderabad genius played an innings on the first day of the first Test that turned his career around. Azhar's 182 went down in the annals of Indian cricket as one of the best innings ever played by an Indian captain.

When MS Dhoni was meting out similar treatment to the Australians in the heat and dust of Chepauk, one couldn't help but go back 20 years in time.

"Yes, there were shades of Azhar in the way Dhoni approached this innings in the first Test against Australia. Both were under immense pressure and it was mandatory for them to come good at such a critical juncture, " says Ajit Wadekar, the then Indian coach.

Dhoni, much like Azhar, was fighting against all those critics who were after his life for the past year and a half. Back-to-back whitewashes against England and Australia away from home, a disappointing T20 World Cup, a loss to England at home - the world was really coming to an end for the man from Jharkhand. Even his 99 against England in Nagpur, a show of patience and character, almost got overlooked in the season of surrender.

But despite the similarities, according to Wadekar, there was a fundamental difference in the approach of the two cricketers. While Azhar showcased an untypically volatile character that day, almost taking his anger out during that magical innings at Eden, Dhoni was a methodical murderer. "Azhar was more insecure, " remembers Wadekar, "There were talks about Kapil and even Manoj Prabhakar taking over and he always kept asking me 'What should I do now, sir?'"

"Dhoni, on the other hand, knows that he has some serious backers in the board and he is much more calculative and in control of his emotions, " Wadekar adds.

Dhoni's 224 at Chepauk was a blast, and every step that he took on that Day Three afternoon spoke of a method in the madness. He was tiring in the humidity of Chepauk and could so easily have thrown it away after completing his century, more so with eight wickets down.

But that's where Dhoni's mind took over his body. He kept refusing singles to Bhuvneshwar Kumar, waited for the loose balls and launched into an assault just as the field looked to come in. When he ran, he ran the singles like a man possessed. It became quite clear there was too much at stake. "I am sure there won't be too many questions asked about Dhoni's captaincy for a while now, which in a way will be good for Indian cricket. Even after that innings from Azhar, people stopped talking about his captaincy and India ran into a purple patch in the mid-90 s, at least at home, " says Wadekar.

Wadekar talked about how Azhar used to get influenced by the rumours floating around him. Dhoni, on the other hand, insists he doesn't get influenced by criticism. "When I was growing up as a cricketer, I never thought I would play for India. It's all a bonus for me, " the Indian skipper said after the win in Chennai.

The other influencing factor is definitely the media and Dhoni said that he doesn't read the "third inside page from the back" when it comes to Indian newspapers. "I take that page out, keep it aside and read the other stuff, so that helps. At the end of the day, it's about staying focused on the job and I have tried to do that. "

The second new ball was brought out by the Australians at a very crucial juncture of the innings on the third day, with India trailing by more than a 100 runs. James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc were bowling at full pace but the counter-attack by Dhoni tilted the balance in India's favour. Instead of going into a shell, the captain saw anything pitched in his zone as an opportunity to hit and the runs flowed. "I have seen him smack a yorkerlength delivery from James Anderson for a six. It requires special talent. His success on a crumbling Chennai track stems from his ability to strike the ball hard on pitches where the ball tends to keep low. Had he scored just 124, the match would have still been in the balance. The manner in which he attacked a tiring Australian attack and shielded the tailenders truly makes him a match-winner, " Greg Chappell, India's former coach who always believed in Dhoni's abilities, says.

The ability to keep his mind uncluttered - despite all the criticism - comes from the way Dhoni leads his life. He loves his bikes, for one. Even during the Chennai Test match, after a day's play, the captain put on the helmet and drove down the streets of Chennai, just to free his mind of the rigours of the day. "Dhoni's ability to switch on and off is a real quality which he carries to the batting crease as well. There are times when he gets beaten and looks awful with his feet movement, but he doesn't allow all that to affect him. Dhoni is a free spirit and that reflects in his game. We were lucky to see a manifestation of his personality at Chepauk, " says Wadekar.

If Dhoni's mind is his greatest asset, his technique is easily his greatest liability. The world knows that his feet don't move and against the new moving ball, Dhoni can look really susceptible. But during the course of the Chepauk innings, he almost announced to the word that all that can be taken care of if you have a plan in place.

Chappell had predicted in 2005-06 that Dhoni had the mind and the ability to become India's man for the future, and it has panned out on those lines. The Indian captain, despite all his recent failures, still has the belief in his abil ities which allows him to promote himself to No. 5 in a World Cup final or a regular No. 6 in Test cricket. The No. 6 spot was owned by VVS Laxman for many years, so those are huge shoes to fill, but Dhoni, just to shield Ravindra Jadeja, doesn't mind facing fire with fire. "Jadeja lends balance to the team, but on the batting front he is still finding his feet. So as long as he is playing, I will bat at No. 6, " Dhoni said, offering a peek into his thought process.

It's this clarity of thought that has helped Dhoni tide over the most difficult phase of his cricketing career. The 224 at Chepauk was a clear indication that the 'cool dude' of Indian cricket has got his bearings back and is all set for second innings as captain of cricket's most-hyped team.

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