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This is not the MS Dhoni we knew
For the first time, in those steely eyes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, did we see a sense of contentment? When he had won India the T20 World Cup in 2007, he was only at the beginning of a journey. He knew he had a long way to go, but probably on April 2, 2011, when he hit that six to win India the ODI World Cup at Mumbai's Wankhede, Dhoni might have felt that he had completed the journey that he had earmarked for himself.
What next? The question kept cropping up over and over again. The ever-phlegmatic Dhoni kept on responding with, "The World Cup is history. We have to look forward". But the forward-looking skipper, who turned around Indian cricket's fortune in the short time since the time he took over, was probably not talking from his heart.
It reflected in India's performances over the next 10 months and even in the current edition of the IPL - a format that he has seemed to master - Dhoni looks a pale shadow of his former authoritative self. While playing for Chennai, the spring in his stride, the out-ofthe-box thinking, the supreme finishing skills -all that had gone into the making of Brand Dhoni - seem to be on the wane. The well-cultivated retro look is only an exterior. The Dhoni of old looks a thing of the past.
It had all started during the tour of West Indies, a couple of months after winning the World Cup, it was very unlike Dhoni when he decided to play safe and opt for a draw when a Test win was just about 100 runs away. Almost the entire World Cup-winning batting lineup was still to come in and in that one instant in the Caribbean, Dhoni proved that he was no longer the skipper that he was.
"Once you have won a lot, there is a tendency to play a little safe and not take too many chances. It's in the Indian psyche and you can't exactly blame Dhoni for that, " says former India batsman, WV Raman. "He had come up the hard way and he wanted to cling on to what he had achieved, " he adds.
But it's true that the man who didn't think twice before pulling the curtain down on the ODI careers of Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid in 2008 and took the chance of going in with a new-look side for the fiercely contested VB tri-series in Australia (which they eventually won), was clearly losing his edge. The man who exuded fearlessness in every step, was now afraid of defeat.
"Dhoni, since the time I had seen him, never knew how to take a backward step, " says Deep Dasgupta, Dhoni's former East Zone captain in the mid-2000 s, adding, "We were always wary that the fame that comes with an India cap may not be there tomorrow. But it didn't matter for Dhoni, it seemed he was there to win. He was the greatest calculated gambler I have ever seen. "
Dhoni was an apprentice keeper still learning the tricks of the trade when Dasgupta was already a star, having played for India. According to Dasgupta, Dhoni was "never the perfect keeper when he started off, but he knew his limitations and learnt how to work around it. In addition to that, he had the guts and determination that is so essential to carry a player through. "
It was this courage under fire that made Dhoni such an instant hit since his international debut in 2003-04. A magical century against Pakistan in Vizag, a supreme batting show against Muralitharan's Sri Lanka in Jaipur had every coach - John Wright to Greg Chappell - realise they had a new star in the making.
Dilip Vengsarkar, who was the chairman of selectors at that point of time, had said that there were two people of captaincy material in that team - Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. It would have been a close call but a good England series in 2007 just ahead of the T20 World Cup gave Dhoni the captaincy and the rest followed.
But four years down the line, when Dhoni took his troops to England, he was probably the emperor who was happy with his conquests and cricket. But like life that hits back when you're complacent, things began to go all wrong. The English and the Australian whitewashes exposed the chinks in Dhoni's armour and his struggle with the bat against the moving ball created the furore that probably the time had come to remove Dhoni from captaincy. Constant reports of rifts in the team, the failing form of the ageing stars, and the wear and tear of constant cricket have taken a serious toll and Dhoni now looks vulnerable.
Yet, when he came to the IPL this season, he exuded the same extreme confidence which said that his Team Chennai only needed to turn up at the ground to win. "Even R Ashwin can open for us, so what's the worry?" Dhoni was almost bordering on arrogance when asked about the unavailability of Mike Hussey in the first few games.
But as the tournament progressed, Captain Cool found out that the road has become just a bit rocky. The Chepauk pitch, that always suited his spin bowlers to the tee, was not the same any more and the batsmen went into a collective bad patch.
"You shouldn't forget that a captain is as good as his team. It's true for every side, be it India or Chennai ... I don't think there's anything drastically wrong with Dhoni, " was Hussey's take as he stood in support of his skipper. But the fact that Dhoni is losing his grip is evident from the way he has chopped and changed the team in virtually every game.
Chennai's success over the past few years had a lot to do with finding a template and working according to it. But this time - the fifth week of IPL at the time of going to print - it just hasn't seemed to work for Dhoni. "The dynamics of the IPL are a little different. There are 16 virtually back-to-back games and you hardly get a chance to analyse. Once you don't win, the pressure gets to you, " Dasgupta, who is currently in charge of Cricket Operations of Pune, says.
The pressure, of course, has told on Dhoni. Even if he has tried to maintain that cool demeanour of his, he has reacted way too much more than he has ever done before. Constant cribbing about pitch conditions at Chepauk hasn't won him too many fans in Chennai and the general consensus is that the struggling captain is trying to make excuses for his poor show.
The fans can't be blamed altogether. Dhoni had mastered the art of finishing T20 games in the past, but this time around, his batting hasn't clicked the way it used to. When Chennai bowling coach Andy Bichel said that "we are missing a quality finisher, " it said all about the predicament of Dhoni, arguably the best Indian player in that role.
"It's about the high standards he has set for himself. Don't forget that he has played a few crucial knocks for Chennai ... But it's not coming with the regularity that it used to earlier. It happens to every cricketer and we should allow him some more time, " says Raman.
But time is what's running out for Dhoni and he will get another week to get the house in order. He, after all, is playing for the Board president's franchise in the moneyspinning IPL and if the results don't keep coming, the patience may just run out. Dhoni had said that he may give up one format in two years to concentrate on the 2015 World Cup, but it's to be seen whether he gets that chance to take the call on his own.
As of now, the signs are not too good. .
(With inputs from Indranil Basu)
His highest innings during the last 14 innings in the IPL (vs Bangalore at Chepauk on April 12, 2012). Dhoni's last fifty was 70 not out off 40 balls against Bangalore at Bangalore on May 22, 2011, also his highest score in the IPL.
Dhoni's highest score in Twenty20 Internationals - scored without being dismissed off 43 balls against Australia in Sydney on Feb 1, 2012. It is also the second highest by an Indian captain in this format, next only to Suresh Raina's unbeaten 72 off 44 balls against Zimbabwe at Harare on June 13, 2010.
Highest innings in ODIs after the World Cup 2011. The unbeaten innings off 70 balls came against England at Uppal, Hyderabad on Oct 14, 2011, enabling India to register a 126-run win.
Number of victories recorded by Chennai Super Kings under his captaincy (29 defeats and one no-result out of 72 games played) in the IPL. His success rate of 59. 15 is still the highest for captains with 45 or more games.
He is the only Indian wicketkeeper to manage 3, 000 runs and effect 200 dismissals in Tests (3, 509 at an average of 37. 32 plus 220 dismissals in 67 matches).
His average in ODI wins after the World Cup -- the best ever by any batsman. His sequence of scores in victories being 87 not out, 35 not out, 15 not out & 75 not out against England - 4 against Sri Lanka, 44 not out against Australia, 46 not out against Sri Lanka and 4 not out against Pakistan - display his finishing prowess. His aggregate reads 310 runs in eight innings including seven unbeaten, the strike rate being 111. 51.
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