Mahendra Singh Dhoni is regarded as one of the country’s most dashing cricketers, but his flamboyance is founded, almost ironically, on an inexplicably cool and calculated head. There are no means of divining why he chose to relinquish India’s limited-overs captaincy when he did; his natural reserve ensures that his cards are almost always played close to his chest. In the context of where Indian cricket is at this juncture, it appears like an exceptionally clear-sighted decision, brave and selfless in equal measure. He has effectively said he will earn a place as a wicketkeeper-batsman.
He has given the team management time to build to the next World Cup, in 2019; if he is not a part of that vision, he will not hold down a spot merely by virtue of being skipper. Given Dhoni’s standing, he is probably the only one who could have made that call. It is unlikely that any selection panel will have summoned the courage to drop him. While his glove-work has not dipped significantly — he remains a predatory presence behind the wicket — his aura as a finisher has dimmed. Although he is no less capable with the bat, the almost eerie certainty one had that he will get the job done has dissipated. With age — Dhoni turns 36 this July — the greats do not necessarily lose their skill. But the consistency of execution suffers.
The legacy Dhoni bequeaths Virat Kohli is a team secure in its skin, certain it can win from any position. There was no better captain in the game’s shorter forms than Dhoni during his time. He is the only skipper to have won all three major trophies — the World Cup, the World Twenty20 and the Champions Trophy. Michael Clarke and Brendon McCullum had greater attacking verve. They were certainly superior Test captains. But in the art of managing a finite innings, reading a contest’s rhythm and its tactical contours, Dhoni had no equal. He had an intuitive feel for what could happen and the ability to get the best out of his resources, however bare.
His greatest strength was his nerve. Where others tried to finish things quickly to pre-empt panicking, he took games deep. He raised the stakes, knowing he would not blink before his opponent. Remarkably, he managed to transmit this sense of composure to his team. He asked his bowlers to relax and stick to the plan; the responsibility of the result was his to bear. Few cricketers have stayed in the present as successfully as he has. Fortunately for Indian cricket, his successor is every bit as impressive. Kohli, moreover, will have access, should he choose, to all of Dhoni’s considerable powers.