Cricket: Zen in One
by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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18 August -2020

His steely gaze on a dead-panned face gave nothing away. His celebrations were almost always muted and his achievements, at least to himself, were mere milestones in the journey, not the destinations themselves. Whenever a bowler had an upperhand over him with a brutish delivery to his helmet or to his body, he simply absorbed the pain, giving nothing back to the bowler in terms of any satisfaction, simply returning the animal glare with an equally emotionless gaze. Coming down the order after celebrated record holders at the top, he still made his mark down below grafting, and calculating his innings, never throwing away his wicket even when the situation was hopeless. 'Talent' is a word not often associated with him, yet when he finally hung up his boots, the word didn't mean much to his career. What simply mattered was how many wins has he singlehandedly delivered, with whatever style he had, and how much he squeezed out his limited 'talent' in the long run. Yes Sir! Steve Waugh was no slouch, even in that celebrated Australian team that steamrolled the world for well over a decade.

Frustration reigned supreme to the opposition whenever he was at the crease, and more, whenever he was on a song. It was not so much his hitting abilities (which were indeed remarkable) as his street-smarts that employed those hitting abilities to the hilt, only when needed. He didn't hit every ball in the air, trying to clear the ground, only to hear the death rattle behind the following delivery carried away by the adrenaline. In fact, he took the heroics away from his game until the last delivery of the game has been bowled. And the rest of the times, he was content taking breathtaking singles, derring-do doubles and impossible threes, to drive the opposition captain insane and the opposition audience insane. His mantra was pretty simple, take the game down the last over, the last ball, and see who blinks first! He won many a game putting use that simple principle in a variety of situations and more times than often, he came up all trumps! He remained the last hope even in dire situations and his rescue acts from those hopeless situations were etched in memories and histories! Yes Sir! the mere mention of the name 'Javed Miandad' would strike terror in opposition's (especially, Indian) minds and it took an entire (cricketing) generation to erase the painful memory of the last ball six win!

The world watched in envious admiration of his (limited over) cricketing skills. His ability to pace the innings, gradually build it to a crescendo and then deliver the coup de grace, all with very limited risks all throughout, were a treat to watch. And not enough can be said of his running between the wickets! When paired with the right partner, he could milk the bowling without any hard hits to the boundaries, relying on his instinct to judge the speed of the pickup and throw and trusting his ability to make it to the other end with time to spare. The opposition could barely relax with him at the crease unable to decide between guarding the boundaries or stopping the lightning quick runs. Whether he came up the order, upon the fall of quick wickets, or came late, when only a few overs remained, he made sure his stint mattered, and his average of 50+ right till his last name stood a proud testatement of it. Yes Sir! Michael Bevan was a rare combination of discipline and swashbuckle, who played within himself.

And for well over a decade, India was privileged to have the amazing abilities of those 3 players rolled in one across all the formats, climbing to the top of the charts in the individual categories, on the back of his guts, wits and hits.

From the outward, probably the only thing that qualifies Dhoni as Indian was his passport alone, and everything else, his abilities, attitude and, most importantly, his demeanor belied his Indian-ness. Being 'Indian' is raring for the opportunity to repay the opposition player's antics of a topless celebration of a victory and when it presented itself, launching into an equally over-the-top bare-chested thumping from the players' balcony. Indian-ness is the about the flag waving, card carrying patriotism. Indian-ness is starting off with an "agar tu ne maa ke doodh piya" emotion, and ending with a "bharat maa ki jai" flourish, enroute a "kasam paida karne wale ki" challenge. And it is definitely an evolutionary anomaly that Dhoni's genes hopped over this part of the Indian-ness and moved along with the usual nonchalance. By removing emotion from his repertoire, he developed the much needed detachment that allowed him to look at the game, his included, and come up with a cold calculation to a sitatuon, even if that meant retiring mid stream in a test series and handing over the reins to a more abled person. Looking back, it was not his ability that dictated his attitude, it is the other way around. 'Know Thyself' was his mantra and never was it more evident than when he opted for safe (and boring) draws with an aging bowling line-up than trying to go for the kill and chase the impossible. Control is the keyword in his operational style, concentrating on elements that could be controlled and bettered, while not bothering about the rest. And with things that could be controlled, he practically toyed with them - bowlers, tactics, grounds, angles, hits, targets - leaving no stone unturned. While his limited over record lorded over the longer format stats, it should be remembered that a great part of his test career, as a captain, coincided with the transition of the aging stars who could only be hidden and covered-for so much on the field. But come the colored jerseys time, when he could his pick his team, study the batsmen, plan his attack and read the game down to the last ball, the records speak for themselves. In all these, he relied on just two - emotion and control, keep one in check and the other in hand.

And then there's Dhoni, the wicket keeper. Criticized during his early days for lacking the proper technique of be a conventional keeper, and even offered advices to hand over the gloves and play as a traditional batsman, by the time he hung up his boots, he ended up as the third best overall (in the shorter format), and when it came to stumpings and run outs, he had his own showreel to boot. Lifting his right leg to block the cut shot, removing the right glove off the last ball of the match to effect a run out, diversionary tactics, sleight of hands, no-look shy at the stumps, Dhoni's compilation of getitng the batsmen out from behind in a dizzying variety of ways flout the same conventions, traditions and textbook tactics that he was found wanting right from his early days.

Dhoni defies definitions. His style doesn't adhere to any standards. He didn't let emotion dictate his game. In fact, he didn't let anyone get bigger than the game, and that included even himself. And his annoucement(s) of retirement, mirroring his career, subject only to cold logic, is proof enough. In all his ways and means, he is the first foreign-minded India-born player, with a mindset that is alien to the native land. Can there be another Dhoni? Surely, if only someone can be taught to think past himself, run like the wind, clear the ground at will, read the game like a textbook, absorb all the pressure like a dry sponge, guide his players from behind and lead the team from front, all the while keeping his emotions in the bottom drawer, sure, there can be another Dhoni!

- Srinivas Kanchobhotla


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