Thursday, April 7, 2011
Mahendra Singh Dhoni - an astute leader, a modern day Midus or simply destiny's favourite child?
What separates champions from good or average sport persons? It is their uncanny ability to choose big occasions to deliver stellar performances. A true champion rarely lets the occasion get to him and hamper his performance. A bigger stage invariably brings out the best in champions. Dhoni is a winner and certainly a champ.
A great leader always sets his sight on the larger goal and is never caught up in mundane issues and events. It was evident during the toss fiasco at Wankhede. No expression of anger, discontent or frustration for not getting the opportunity to bat first in such a crucial game, due to the stupidity of someone else. A close-up of his face would however have shown Dhoni’s already steely resolve hardening up a few notches after the incident. Dhoni certainly didn’t want to start his day at office fretting and fuming over the incident, which was at best a minute blip in his overall plan, and he got himself and his team to quickly shift into the Plan B mode with ease. Yet, someone had to pay and Dhoni’s team ensured poetic justice at the end. I am not sure how someone else in Dhoni’s Shoes would have reacted on the given day and what repercussion it would have on the morale and performance of the team. Great leaders handle various set backs on their path to destiny with élan and a certain amount of calm and sees it an opportunity to push ones self and his pack of men to deeds of greatness.
Gautam Gambhir’s innings in the WC final was that of a fighter’s – an innings of struggle and resilience amidst adversity. But it was actually Dhoni who took the battle firmly to the opposition camp and decisively stamped India’s authority, shutting out Sri Lanka from the contest. I have seen out-of-form captains in the past, pushing themselves down the order and shying away from impending challenges. Lesser leaders, often after a string of failures, seem to start doubting their convictions while believing in their own doubts. But Dhoni is no muck as a leader. Dhoni’s decision to promote himself was a master stroke. Yuvi, by far, was the man for India in the tournament. But when Yuvi took guard against the Pakistanis in the semis, it was evident that the Pakistanis had a plan in place for the graceful south paw. Sri Lanka, without an iota of doubt, would have had plans for Yuvi. Malinga’s super fast, slingy toe crushers would have been quite a handful or even deadly at worse for Yuvi with his high back lift. Another quick wicket at that stage would have put immense pressure on the lower middle order. Also, Yuvi’s record against genuine off spinners like Murli had been less than enviable in the past. Sri Lanka had couple of good offies operating in tandem at that point in time, threatening to further tighten the screws and create a stranglehold over the Indian middle order. Dhoni’s decision to promote himself was an out-of-the-box decision, very few people apprehended or liked. The decision was more to do with upsetting opposition’s plans and winning small turf wars amidst the larger battle. The first killer blow landed even before Dhoni took his guard. The Sri Lankan think thank could never have imagined to see Dhoni, with his terrible averages with the bat in the recent past, walking into the middle at that stage of a World Cup final, promoting himself up the order, ahead of an in-form Yuvi! Another quality of great leaders is their ability to shock their adversaries by doing things least expected by the opposition.
Dhoni with his with his modified bat lift for the occasion, low and crouchy stance and trademark strong bottom hand continued with his mission as opposition shoulders and confidence drooped. As always, Dhoni refused to play up to his opposition’s plans. He took a ‘two-leg guard’ to Murli to counter the vicious top spin and ‘doosra’ and took a stance deep into his crease to upset the length and trajectory of Malinga’s lethal yorkers. The deadly duo clearly did not have an answer to Dhoni’s proactive and brilliant strategy. Dhoni continued winning his small wars, while the opposition kept falling apart. The six off Kulasekara, to get the winning runs was a clear demonstration of what Dhoni could have done earlier, possibly playing into the hands of the opposition. But as always, personal glory and short-lived heroics was never his goal … his sight was set firmly on the real goal and his measured approach was in direct response to the prevailing match situation, worthy of a WC final showdown between two tournament favourites.
The man of the match award could easily have gone to Gauty. But it was Dhoni’s shrewd reading of the match situation and his courage to face and pay back wily Murli and slinger Malinga (cleverly held back by Sangakara, to be unleashed at the very sight of Yuvi and Raina), without exposing the susceptible left hander duo, is what won him the award from the Pundits.
I have never seen a chest thumping Dhoni, his expressions of satisfaction and fulfillment rarely go overboard, as a leader he is always holding up the team with his calm demenour in the most challenging match situations. He is pretty graceful, more often than not, in accepting defeat, but never ready to dwell in records, failures or errors from the past, those couldn’t be corrected, but always focused on the road ahead for himself as a leader and his team. His uncanny resemblance to a skilled surgeon clinically completing the task at hand under critical conditions is striking. Dhoni, with his clutter-free yet shrewd mind has never been over anxious or overtly reactive and has always had excellent measure of his opposition, delivering clinical responses to match situations. I vividly remember a renewed Indian team under Saurav’s great captaincy registering wonderful performances in the 2003 WC and then faltering at the final hurdle. The entire team crumbled after Zaheer was taken to task early during his initial spell, by the formidable Australians. Indians seemed to lack ‘Plan B’ and no one took the bull by the horn. India didn’t manage to mount or even launch a counter attack on the opposition, neither did anyone try to patiently claw back into the game for a counter offensive at a later stage. For me emotions got better of practicable logic and realistic assessment of the match situations on that day for India. I witnessed similar scenes and a terrifying Indian approach during the semi-final match between India and Sri Lanka at our own backyard, the Eden Gardens, during the 1996 World Cup. As a captain, Saurav brought back Indian cricket from the ignonimity of match fixing scandals, decently managed a group of current and future Indian cricketing legends, groomed and oriented budding match winners, resurrected the Indian teams credence in the cricketing world, nurtured an ‘eye-for-eye’ approach for the toughest opponents and most importantly got the team to believe in themselves and in their ability win in alien soils. Dhoni took over the mantle like a fish that takes to water, and along with his perfect foil in Gary Kirsten and his support stuff, managed to instill one quality which has rarely been the hallmark of any Indian team in the past – consistency. He got the team to seek collective, relentless and consistent pursuit of cricketing excellence.
An Indian captain is no less than a senior Indian Diplomat and I have hardly seen him shoot his mouth, pass value judgements or make juvenile comments. I have rarely seen him loose his composure. He always lets his leadership skills talk. Whether it’s the opposition, board president, the opportunistic Indian media or the ‘I-know-all’ TV commentators, Dhoni never seems to be flustered with criticism nor unduly bloated with praise. He just gets his ‘job’ done and he is mighty good at doing so.
While playing, I always carried my emotions on my sleeves. Hence, it was always easy for me to identify with Ganguly’s style of captaincy. Sometimes, when we are deeply influenced by a particular method or a pattern and even start identifying with the style, it becomes mighty difficult to appreciate, recognize or even see any other form, style or personality. I must admit here that at the start of Dhoni’s tenure as a captain, I wasn’t a great fan of his methods or his approach. I was so caught up with Ganguly’s presentation and approach that I almost scornfully wrote off Dhoni’s near stoic demeanor as a ‘less-than-interested’ attitude. I mistook his patience and calm as lack of charisma. My ignorance and scant regard for alternatives beyond Ganguly’s style made me judgmental and myopic.
But the Zen-like champion in Dhoni, waited for the right moment, when his biggest detractors would become his greatest admirers. He hardly used words to stamp his authority within the team or outside. He never demanded loyalty or following, he simply got them. He never tried to hog the limelight after every milestone his team achieved and quietly slipped into the next task at hand. He neither tried to banter an opposition player out of a game nor kicked the hell out of his colleagues who failed to deliver on a given day. Paradoxically, everything that he didn’t want to get forcefully, landed on his lap in due course … success, pride, respect, appreciation, loyalty, following, friends, all of them and more. It is Dhoni who taught me the fact that one can be fiercely competitive without being histrionic. If I look inward and honestly evaluate how we would normally react in euphoric and adverse situations, we are certain to realize what a great ability and almost a super-normal gift this individual has. Restraint is an understatement, when it comes to attributing the most striking aspect of Dhoni’s personality. Each time he scales a new height of as a captain, he seems to get calmer as a leader, allowing us with occasional grins and carefully crafted yet spontaneous and often hard-hitting press statements. No histrionics, no tears, hardly any dressing room tantrum. He is ever ready to soak up all the pressure, stress and failures, own up to most of the mistakes he and his team make on or off field. His emotions and frustrations are certainly not for public consumption. The only thing that he would allow us mere mortals is the spoils of his consistent efforts and the pride of being an Indian cricket follower. With success and fame comes not-so-kind detractors, waiting for opportune moments to pull him down from his hard earned pedestal. Yet, his worst critics become fully aware of the value of Dhoni as a leader of men, when they decide to suspend their skewed judgmental vision and pay heed to their conscience and sense of pure cricketing logic.
Carrying the legacy of a successful predecessor is always a tough job and doing it as an Indian cricket team’s captain is simply mind boggling. Dhoni had to carry forward the legacy of our great Dada. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of imagination (ask the successors of Clive Lyyod, Imran Khan, Steve Waugh to name a few). Some other day we’ll talk about the challenges faced by Mahi and what took him, his coach and the support stuff to blend a set of legends, promising yet underperforming youngsters and a few out-of-control yet immensely talented cricketers into a bunch of consistent and relentless winners. Today let’s celebrate and raise a toast to the team that has taken us to the new heights of cricketing excellence, from where Saurav had earlier left us.
Lot of people label Dhoni as a gambler who has more lady luck than others in every throw of his proverbial dice? Although initially I bought into the arguments (assuming there were any at all), I finally managed to think straight and get sane with my assessment of Dhoni. A fluke can happen once or twice but definitely not again and again. 20-20 World Cup, IPL, Champions Trophy, Asia Cup, World Cup, World’s No.1 Test playing team, World’s second best limited over team … all of them couldn’t surely have happened due to consistent strokes of luck. If one carefully analyses his on and off field decisions, one is sure to find a clear method to the entire madness. For example, his decision to play Nehra in the quarter finals, defying the popular choice in Ashwin. Nehra’s inclusion was based on the pitch and so was Sreeshant’s. Experienced Nehra lived upto this purely cricketing logic and the maverick Sreeshant wasted the beautiful opportunity presented to him. Incidentally, even Ganguly predicted and later supported Sreeshant’s inclusion, while doing the pitch report that afternoon. Neither Nehra’s success nor Sreeshant’s failure made Dhoni a better or a worse captain. He always insists that a leader needs to have a clear and dispassionate view of a situation, should be able to take decisions based on the given situation and choices presented to him and should be ready to stand by the consequences of the choices he makes and back his and his team’s abilities to the hilt, irrespective of the final result. The process has always been Dhoni’s focus, while the results are just the fruits he and his team enjoy today.
Given an opportunity to lead a team, more often than not I would perhaps follow Ganguly’s style, rather than that of Dhoni’s. The reason is simple, not because I prefer Dada’s style over Mahi’s … but because I cannot be a Dhoni even if I try to be. It isn’t easy to be a Mahendra Singh Dhoni, to be able to go bald and yet look absolutely at ease during ones own marriage ceremony or even during a Presidential tea party the day after a World Cup final!
Pics courtesy: Various Sources