You were not comfortable when MS Dhoni asked Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over of the 2007 World T20. You were secretly (or audibly, depending on who was around), cursing him when Misbah-ul-Haq lofted Sharma for a six when 12 was required from five deliveries. You had your heart in the mouth when Misbah moved across the stumps for that scoop that never happened. And then, you forgot all that when Ravi Shastri’s voice blared across your living-room.
India had not taken T20 cricket seriously. They played their first international match later than most other Test-playing nations. There was no major domestic T20 tournament. Rahul Dravid had opted out of India’s first-ever T20I, letting Virender Sehwag lead. Along with Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, Dravid had opted out of the 2007 World T20 as well.
This was hardly surprising. India had not warmed up to ODIs either. They did not host ODIs till the 1980s, and only six ODIs had been played on Indian soil until they won the World Cup in 1983.
The usual thrill of an India-Pakistan encounter, combined with the novelty of the bowl-out, generated some interest early in the tournament, but there was not much following back in India till Yuvraj Singh smashed Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over.
A few months after the tournament, BCCI launched the IPL, a tournament of unprecedented grandeur that witnessed star cricketers being auctioned for ridiculous amounts of money. So keen were cricketers around the world to be part of the IPL that it found a near-exclusive window in the ICC’s tight schedule.
However, there was a minor problem. Six of the eight cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chandigarh, and Hyderabad (Laxman turned the offer down) – had local ‘icon players’, cricketers who would be priced at 15% above the highest-paid cricketer of that franchise.
This left Jaipur and Chennai. While Jaipur signed up Shane Warne, Chennai chose Dhoni, at that point just over three years in international cricket. Over the years, CSK have won the IPL thrice and have been runners-up five times – in ten attempts. One can see why they are the only long-standing IPL franchise to have not changed their captain.
But there is more to Dhoni leading both Chennai Super Kings and the national side than it meets the eye. He hails from Ranchi, and played his cricket for Bihar (later Jharkhand). India have had small-town cricketers, even some big names, but rarely full-time captains.
Coming from a state, preferably a city, with an established infrastructure was one of the factors that gave a clear edge. Some early Indian captains – Vizzy, the father and son Pataudi, Datta Gaekwad, CK Nayudu, Lala Amarnath – were either linked to royal families or found rich patrons.
The only exceptions to this were Vinoo Mankad and Kapil Dev, both of whom had to establish themselves as the greatest in India (and among the best in the world) before they got the job. Nari Contractor, who led in the aftermath of a phase where India had six captains in a span of seven Test matches; and Bishan Bedi, who moved from Northern Punjab to Delhi soon after his Test debut.
Not Dhoni. Dhoni did not come from a big city. He did not have royal connections or a major patron. He was still new to international cricket when he was appointed captain. While he had risen swiftly to the No. 1 spot in ICC ODI rankings, he did not have ODI performances outside Asia to write home about.
At this point, he was an unusual choice as captain. Sehwag, who had already led India in Test cricket in the absence of Dravid, was in the squad, as was Yuvraj. Yet, when Dhoni’s name was announced, there was little surprise.
Even before taking the field as captain, Dhoni had managed to step into unchartered territory, of a small-town cricketer with two years’ worth of experience behind him leading India in a major tournament.
As Dhoni assumed his dual leadership roles, Indian cricket witnessed something it had never seen before – Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, R Ashwin (not to speak of CSK’s many overseas stars) – all of whom played for major state teams and were based in Tier 1 India cities – were now led by a small-town cricketer.
Dhoni turned the underlying hierarchy in Indian cricket on its head. IPL franchises put little emphasis on the place of origin of the cricketer. Once cricketers became part of the IPL, performances for the franchises were all that mattered to become part of mainstream cricket.
As the other domestic tournaments took backseat, the ground was levelled for small-town cricketers. They had a readymade role model who had managed to thrive under these circumstances. As captain, Dhoni had delivered in two sporting events that mattered the most in India – international cricket and the IPL; and as batsman, he was among the best wicketkeeper-batsmen in the world.
The journey to the top – and beyond
The first team Dhoni led in a major ODI tournament – the 2007-08 VB Series in Australia – did not feature Dravid, Ganguly, or Laxman. It had been a one-off decision. Neither Ganguly nor Laxman played another ODI, while Dravid returned for two brief stints.
Dhoni took some flak for these omissions, but it did not matter once he became the first Indian captain in 23 years to lead India to a tournament win in Australia. The core of the team that would win the 2011 World Cup was being built.
At the same time, India put together a team that secured the top position in ICC Test rankings. Under Dhoni, they won a series in New Zealand in 2009 (they have not won another Test, let alone series, since 1975-76). In 2010-11, they also drew a series in South Africa for the first – and so far, only – time in their history.
There was no fairy-tale batting performance from Dhoni in the 2011 World Cup – till the final, that is. Promoting himself above Yuvraj, who finished as Player of the Tournament, was a move so spectacular that it ended up being the starting point of Dhoni’s biopic.
And like most things he attempted between mid-2010 and mid-2011, this one came off as well, culminating in one of the most iconic photographs in Indian cricket history. Dhoni became the largest cricket brand of the era, more so with Tendulkar’s career approaching its twilight.
Whitewashes in England and Australia, followed by a home series defeat against England in 2012-13, took some sheen away – but in 2013 he stamped his authority yet again, this time becoming the first captain to win all three ICC tournaments.
Dhoni retired from Test cricket and stood down as international captain, but there was one final hurrah. He was sacked as captain after leading Rising Pune Supergiants for a season. When Chennai Super Kings returned after their two-season ban, Dhoni returned to the helm in 2018.
Sunrisers Hyderabad, who played outstanding cricket throughout the tournament, were blown away in a one-sided final. For Dhoni and Indian cricket, everything was back to normal again.