Six months later, a galactico-less squad led by MS Dhoni won the T-20 World Cup in South Africa, a tournament no one really gave India a chance in.
Next year, the first edition of the Indian Premier League was held. Galvanised by India’s success in the T-20 World Cup, it captured the imagination of the Indian public. A tournament conceived by Lalit Modi and BCCI to ensure that rebel competitions like Zee’s ICL did not gain ground, became the biggest money spinner of world cricket.
The commercial and cricketing blueprint of the modern day Indian game is inextricably linked to Dhoni. He may not have been its architect, but at his pomp, he was its most effective ambassador.
Much before Modi hain to mumkin hain, there was Dhoni hain to mumkin hain. Between 2007 and 2013, when Dhoni was at his prime and was leading by example, he taught India how to play nerveless, high-pressure cricket.
He perfected the art of taking a 50- or 20-over match right to the end, running hard between the wickets, eschewing too many risks, avoiding too many big shots, all the time backing himself to score 15-20 runs in the last over.
It was thrilling, high-risk cricket. It raised the heartbeats of the fans, but it also kept them on the edge of their seats, glued to their TV screens (Dhoni’s finest performances came in the pre-devices era). Gautam Gambhir once questioned the wisdom of taking matches to the end, when they could be finished earlier. But Dhoni operated on the assumption that in the last over, when it was him versus the bowler, he would hold his nerve, while the bowler will lose his.
Of course, this style of play could not have worked without enormous talent, excellent eyesight, and tremendous power in the forearms. Much is made of Dhoni’s temperament. But it must have been backed by hours and hours of practice.
The same ‘show no nerves, soak the pressure’ philosophy permeated his captaincy when India was bowling second. Score a lot of runs, don’t panic, keep the pressure on, and believe the opposition will make mistakes.
And so, Dhoni taught India to win. More importantly, he made India believe every match could be won. For generations, Indian fans and players feared losing from winning situations. Dhoni turned that around. That confidence remains instilled in Virat Kohli’s men as well.
It was said Dhoni didn’t enjoy Test cricket as much as the shorter versions of the game. Certainly, he quit the longer format much earlier. But between 2008 and 2011, it was under his captaincy that India climbed to the top of the test rankings.
At home, when he could exert pressure with his spinners, Dhoni was formidable. But abroad, especially after 2011 when the batting galacticos retired or passed their prime, and lacking penetrative fast bowlers, he realised he didn’t quite have the tools to win. Also, unlike the shorter formats, he couldn’t single-handedly change the course of Test matches.
And yet, when he announced his retirement from test cricket in 2014, it caught everyone by surprise. His retirement from international cricket on Saturday evening, the cryptic Instagram post notwithstanding, was on more expected lines.
In the last few years, his powers had dimmed, his reflexes slowed. He could still be there at the end but could no longer produce the explosive finishes. He still remains a force in IPL, and in a normal Covid-free world, a good performance there might have tempted him to take a final stab at the T-20 World Cup that was scheduled in Australia later this year. But with that event cancelled, there was probably no incentive for him to keep going, on the world stage at least.
From the time he burst onto the national scene, by scoring 148 against Pakistan in an ODI in 2005, Dhoni has held centrestage. The game brought him unimaginable wealth, fame, and adulation. Yet he always exuded calm and never appeared to lose control. In a cricket-obsessed country, his greatest achievement was his ability to convey the feeling that at the end of the day it’s only a game.