The story of Indian cricket over the last 12 months has been the story of M.S. Dhoni. The year 2008 was special for Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, emotional for Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble, forgettable for Rahul Dravid, exceptional for Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, and foolhardy for Harbhajan Singh. India vanquished Australia, crumbled against Ajantha Mendis before fighting back, pulverised England, drew with South Africa, and hosted the first IPL. But each of these tales - from the Rs 6-crore price-tag to the five-over captaincy offer to Ganguly in his final Test - had Dhoni sidebars attached to them.
Looking closely, you would realise that they weren't mere asides.A study of Dhoni, the skipper, must start with a quick glance at the background of the two other Indian captains who seemed to have a similar, inspirational hold over the team.Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, trained without mercy by his father, is considered the first of India's path-breaking skippers. Forget the results, though there were some very creditable ones, what made Pataudi different was the confidence he gave his teammates. Crafty on the field, with no insecurities of his own, he dealt with his players like a well-meaning monarch off it.Then, 30 years later, with Indian cricket mired in match-fixing scandals and parochial selection policies, with their tag of poor travellers more well-entrenched, came Sourav Ganguly. Born into a rich business family, Ganguly's dependence on cricket was not monetary. A very good batsman who couldn't make the transition to greatness, his contribution to Indian cricket must be measured by the barriers he broke as a leader.Liberated because of their backgrounds, Pataudi and Ganguly were able to bring to the team a sense of freedom that no one else could.
Despite growing over the last decade into a country that allows the freedom of aspiration, India wouldn't have thought that the next captain with a shot at path-breaking greatness would come not even from the burgeoning urban middle-class but a poorer small town.What is it that gives Dhoni the belief to back his players, battle selectors, give it back to the opposition, take hard decisions about seniors, and refer to India as "my team" with such frequency that he sometimes sounds arrogant?When the story came out about his disagreement with the selectors over their decision to drop R.P. Singh, Dhoni called the leak "disgusting", and even sarcastically suggested that there should be live TV in the meeting room.He placed a rare, ultra-defensive 8-1 field in Nagpur against Australia, and then told the visiting journalists in almost as many words how there were double standards about what was acceptable on the field of play ("When they do it, it is called strategy").
While his colleagues, some of them far more illustrious cricketers, are still trapped in their own insecurities, fearing they'll be dropped for the next match, what that might mean for their endorsement contracts, how they should deal with the media and the officials to ensure a longer run, to Dhoni these are trifles he couldn't be bothered with. It's as if he's thinking the money and the fame he's got is already enough, beyond his wildest dreams, so why worry about what will happen if he gets no more? Freedom of expression is a natural corollary of such a mindset.It may be early days still for Dhoni to be placed alongside Pataudi and Ganguly. Longevity, results and, most importantly, being a catalyst of long-term attitudinal change, are the yardsticks great skippers are measured against.But Dhoni has made the perfect start, even better than the two he now seems destined to emulate....!!