Ending an over 15-year journey, Captain Cool calls it an ‘independence day’

‘Main pal do pal ka shayar hu.’ With this Mukesh song that talks about an imminent end to every journey ever taken, Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced his retirement from international cricket on Saturday, ending an over-15-year journey that was mostly a joyride for Indian cricket — and for MSD fans.

Known for his penchant for taking the game deep before pulling the rug from under the opposition’s feet, Dhoni did the same in his retirement. For the last couple of years, there were strong speculations of his retirement, but it never came. But just when the Covid-19 pandemic centre stage, he dropped the hammer. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the announcement came on Independence Day.

Easily one of India’s most popular — and arguably most scrutinised cricketer of the last 15 years — Dhoni’s career is a quintessential fairytale. Coming from the cricketing backwaters of Jharkhand, he went on to become India’s most successful captain ever, winning the top prizes in all the three formats — ICC No. 1 Test ranking, the ODI World Cup, and the T20 World Cup.

As captain, MSD’s biggest achievement could have been how he handled the big egos in the Indian dressing room. He didn’t care for hierarchy or reputation — everyone was part of the 11-member fighting machine — while always being respectful of his colleagues.

Rest came easy to him — at least that’s how it looked easy from the outside. His poker face hardly gave anything away to the opposition. He sucked in pressure like a vacuum cleaner. The way he manoeuvred his troops on the field so many times gave the impression of a grandmaster setting up a trap on the chess board. Dhoni was always aware of the limitations of his bowlers and helped them punch well above their weight with his masterly reading of the game.

MSD chose effectiveness over elegance. His homespun batting and wicket-keeping techniques weren’t always easy on the eye — his trademark ‘helicopter shot’ made the purists blanch — but he learned and improvised to become so effective in his trade that he became the benchmark. His quick hands and smart moves behind the stumps made the same purists acknowledge that there are things that coaching manuals can’t teach.
He became a well-rounded limited-overs batsman who could accumulate runs when the going was tough, build the innings after much damage had been wreacked, and do the heavy hitting when needed. For a long time, he was the best finisher in white ball cricket in the world. No game was over as long as Dhoni was in the middle.

MSD’s Test career wasn’t a laggard either. Though he will always be remembered for his white ball exploits, he had his fair share of success in whites. Apart from taking the team to the pinnacle, he must be credited for rebuilding the team after several giants of the game retired.

With age, Dhoni’s batting started to fail him. Though he could still graft and showcase an occasional masterclass, he the finishing touches weren’t as easy to come by to help him retain the faith of his teammates. He was still supremely fit — probably as fit as his successor Virat Kohli — and his wicket-keeping skills were as sharp as ever. But he was no longer a reliable batsman down the order.

The lure and availability of younger talent was also making MSD’s position increasingly untenable. The problems were being accentuated by inflated expectations. After every failure, Dhoni was being compared to his own past. Obviously, he would fail to match up to such a legacy. Increasingly, there were suggestions that he should step down before he was dropped.

But Dhoni was too big to be dropped like that. It would have made everyone in BCCI and in the team ‘look bad’. The decision had to come from him. And it did — perhaps a bit later than expected.

MSD’s over-boundary at Wankhede that brought the World Cup ‘home’ in 2011 will always remain etched in the collective memory of 1.3 billion Indians. Though he hasn’t been the captain of any Indian side since 2017, he will always be our Captain Cool.

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