Delirium as Dhoni bids farewell to captaincy

11 January 2017
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A non-descript tour match turned into a national event after MS Dhoni announced he was standing down from the India captaincy

It was supposed to be a low-profile practice match for the touring Englishmen who are back in India after the Christmas break to play two limited-overs series starting next week.

But what Eoin Morgan's men encountered at the historic Brabourne stadium in downtown Mumbai on Tuesday night were the trappings of a full-fledged international with live television coverage and a packed house of more than 20,000 screaming fans.

All this because Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who resigned as India's limited-overs captain last week, was due to lead India A in the day-night 50-overs-a-side match.

Star TV, Indian cricket's television rights holders, suddenly decided to telecast the game live, billing it as the last opportunity to watch the popular World Cup-winning captain lead a team on home soil.

Quick Single: Dhoni's perfect timing

Which may not be entirely true, as Dhoni remains captain of Rising Pune SuperGiants in the Indian Premier League and is also slated to lead his state side Jharkhand in domestic limited-overs tournaments.

The organisers stuck by their earlier decision to throw open the gates, as is the usual practice for warm-up matches of this nature, but instead of a handful of diehards scattered about the stands, it was suddenly the hottest ticket in town.

The 35-year-old did not disappoint as he cracked an unbeaten 68 off 40 balls – including 23 runs in the final over by Chris Woakes – to lift India A to 4-304 in their 50 overs.

Even a three-wicket defeat for the hosts with seven balls to spare did not dampen the enthusiasm of fans, whose cries of 'Dhoooni, Dhoooni' reminded of shouts of 'Saachin, Saachin' that revibrated across stands a few years back.

His entrance was the type usually reserved for rock stars, the decibel level reaching dangerous territory with every strike.

Dhoni's sudden decision to step down from the limited-overs captaincy was similar to his equally stunning retirement from Test cricket midway during a tour of Australia two years ago.

But this time Dhoni, arguably the most influential limited-overs cricketer in the modern game, had opted to prolong his career as a wicketkeeper-batsman.

Former team director and TV pundit Ravi Shastri is convinced Dhoni remains indispensable as a player and could make a bigger impact without the burden of captaincy.

"There is no wicketkeeping alternative to him," Shastri said in a recent interview. "No one is anywhere near him, forget about someone competing for his slot.

Quick Single: My sit-down chat with Dhoni

"And giving up the captaincy will allow him to express himself in a bigger way and enjoy his cricket and his batting even more."

Dhoni's initial target will be the Champions Trophy in June, a tournament India will go to as defending champions after Dhoni's men surprised hosts England in the final in 2013.

India play just three ODIs and as many T20 internationals at home against England before the Champions Trophy, which gives Dhoni little room to fail if he is to make the flight to London.

MS Dhoni salutes an ODI century against Sri Lanka in 2005 // Getty
MS Dhoni salutes an ODI century against Sri Lanka in 2005 // Getty

Dhoni's fairy-tale rise from a lowly-paid railway ticket collector in the backwaters of Jharkhand to one of the richest sporting superstars on the planet is already the subject of a Bollywood biopic.

Barely three years after making a modest international debut in 2004, Dhoni was thrust into a captaincy role, which he carried out with such aplomb as if to suggest he was born to lead.

He was picked as captain for the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007 – a format India at that time believed was a waste of time – only because senior players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble declined to play.

Dhoni celebrates victory over Pakistan in the 2007 World T20 final // Getty
Dhoni celebrates victory over Pakistan in the 2007 World T20 final // Getty

A stunning victory by Dhoni's young team in the final over arch-rivals Pakistan at the Wanderers was just the start of an extraordinary saga of courage and conviction.

Few captain in world cricket have enjoyed the success that came Dhoni's way.

Taking over from Anil Kumble as Test captain in 2008, he led India to the number one ranking in Tests between 2009 and 2011. Then came the World Cup win in Mumbai in 2011 and the Champions Trophy success two years later.

Dhoni hits a six to win the 2011 World Cup final // Getty
Dhoni hits a six to win the 2011 World Cup final // Getty

Incredibly, in his later years, Dhoni was dogged by regular questions about his longevity and future in the game. Memorably, he made a show of it with journalist Sam Ferris at last year's World T20.  

MS Dhoni talks retirement with Sam Ferris

Virat Kohli, who was groomed to succeed Dhoni in all three formats, said he could not have asked for a better mentor and guide than his predecessor.

"When you think 'Dhoni', the first thing that comes to mind is 'captain'," Kohli told the website. "For me he's always going to be my captain because I started my career under him.

"I've learned a lot from him in terms of leadership and conducting myself. He will always be the guy who guided me, who gave me opportunities, who gave me ample time and space to grow as a cricketer, who saved me from getting dropped many a time."

Quick Single: Dhoni reveals career turning-point

Kohli echoed Shastri's view that Dhoni still had a lot to offer as a player.

"It's a win-win situation for the captain to have Dhoni around for his advice, his inputs and his cricketing brain," he said.

"But what I'm most happy about is that he'll be able to play free cricket and express himself as the aggressive MS Dhoni we knew when he first came into the team.

Dhoni and Kholi celebrate an Asia Cup win in 2012 // Getty
Dhoni and Kholi celebrate an Asia Cup win in 2012 // Getty

"I would love to see him bat higher up than he has been for the last few years and totally enjoy his cricket. If MS Dhoni enjoys his cricket and plays the way he did in his initial years, then the team is in a very solid space."

The three ODIs against England will be played in Pune (Jan 15), Cuttack (Jan 19) and Kolkata (Jan 22). The T20 internationals will be hosted by Kanpur (Jan 26), Nagpur (Jan 29) and Bangalore (February 1).

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