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MS Dhoni: Plaudits from Pakistan

Dhoni announced his retirement at 1929 hours on Saturday 15 August 2020 at the age of 39 years and 39 days. Auni Akhter reflects on the career of MS Dhoni from the perspective of a Pakistan cricket fan.

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Last updated: 29.08.2020
MS Dhoni fans in Pakistan | Sports Social Blog

Dhoni announced his retirement at 1929 hours on Saturday 15 August 2020 at the age of 39 years and 39 days. For a man with immaculate timing and a penchant for cinematic finishes, one wonders what significance lies behind this date.

Dhoni was born in Ranchi, Jharkhand to a Rajput family. The Imperial Service Troops in British India considered the Rajput caste a “martial race” – a sort of warrior class – who, along with the Sikhs and Pathans, were seen as courageous and well-suited to serve as soldiers for the British Empire.

15 August 2020 was also the 74th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule and with independence all those years ago came partition and the birth of a new country: Pakistan. And so, it is with this history in mind that I reflect on the illustrious cricketing career of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and ask: what if he had been born in Rawalpindi instead of Ranchi?

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Young Dhoni famously worked as a ticket inspector with the Indian Railways before bursting onto the cricketing scene with two centuries for India A at the age of 23. He would go onto become the most successful wicketkeeper-batsman to captain in one day international cricket[1]. All major Indian institutions would stand in line to salute their cricketing hero. First the Indian Territorial Army conferred Dhoni the rank of honorary lieutenant-colonel for his contribution to cricket. Then Bollywood cinematize his rags to riches story in a blockbuster biopic featuring the late Sushant Singh Rajput. And now politicians are flocking to praise the former ticket inspector.

"I want a team that can stand before an advancing truck", Dhoni once commanded of his troops. Whilst his Rajput-roots have helped to make him battle-hardened, his lower-middle class upbringing have taught him an endearing sense of humility. When predecessor Anil Kumble retired, Dhoni carried him off the field on his shoulders.

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Suresh Menon, Editor of Wisden, said that “of the three Mahendra Singh Dhonis who served Indian cricket—the wicketkeeper, the batsman and the captain—each would find a place in an all-time Indian one-day XI.”

Would the three Dhoni’s also make it into an all-time Pakistan one-day XI? The stats would certainly suggest so.

Between September 2007 and December 2014, Pakistan cricket experimented with no less than 6 captains[2] and 7 wicket keepers[3] across all formats. During this same period, Dhoni became the only captain to win all three limited-overs ICC titles: the World Cup, the Champions Trophy and the T20 World Cup. He also led India to the top of the Test rankings in 2009, a position they held for 18 months.

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And whilst Pakistan lifted the T20 World Cup in 2009, there was little else Pakistan could celebrate during the period Dhoni was at the helm in India. Younis Khan led Pakistan to the title in 2009 but was temperamental and divisive and did not last the year. Then in August 2010 Pakistan cricket was engulfed in a humiliating spot fixing scandal under the tainted auspices of Salman Butt. A scandal for which they are still paying the price.

Meanwhile in India: Dhoni the captain, Dhoni the wicket keeper and Dhoni the batsman all looked like they could walk their way across the border right into the Pakistani side with relative ease.


Dhoni the Captain:

Only Ricky Ponting has won more ICC titles as captain than Dhoni[4]. Yet Ponting’s captaincy is often perceived to have been made considerably easier by the technically gifted generation of players he inherited. Contrastingly, India under Dhoni - as Anil Kumble once said - was only as good as its captain; and Dhoni’s team was the best in the world.

Pakistan cricket has seen what captaincy looked like from behind the stumps, but – perhaps Sarfraz aside - it hasn’t been a particularly pretty sight. Imtiaz Ahmad captained Pakistan between 1961-1962 but Pakistan did not mage to win a match under his leadership[5]. Wasim Bari (1977-1978) also had an underwhelming record as wicket-keeper batsman. Moin Khan and Rashid Latif showed more encouraging signs in the 90s but neither of their various stints as captains stand up to Dhoni’s record.


Dhoni the Wicket Keeper:

As well as his batting and captaincy, Dhoni has proven an outstanding wicket keeper. Dhoni has the third highest number of dismissals in one day internationals, behind only Kumar Sangakara and Adam Gilchrist[6]. His technique was never quite “traditional”, but his modes of dismissal were effective, nonetheless: especially stumping batsmen with his short-arm jab and running them out by reverse-flicking the ball onto the stumps.

The wicket keeper / batsman position has proven an acute problem for Pakistan during the time Dhoni occupied the same position for India. Between 2010 and 2014 Pakistan's wicketkeepers averaged a miserable 19.44 with the bat, which is their second-lowest in any decade; the only decade in which they averaged lower was in the 1970s, when, in 69 innings, they scored 17.98 runs per dismissal. During this same period, there was no century scored by a Pakistan wicketkeeper.[7]

During Dhoni’s time as the sole wicket keeper for India across all formats, Pakistan selectors tested out all three Akmal brothers behind the stumps,[8] like a deranged scientist working on a hopeless experiment.


Dhoni the Batsman:

Dhoni’s batting record against Pakistan is phenomenal. In the 36 ODIs that Dhoni had played against Pakistan, he scored 1,231 runs[9] at an average of 55.90 and a strike rate of 90.50, which also included two centuries and nine half-centuries[10].

The first of these centuries was my earliest memory of Dhoni; his 148 in 2005, in what was only his fifth ODI innings overall. Ganguly had sent the young Dhoni in up the order at number 3, to mitigate the early loss of Sachin. Dhoni the Rajput lieutenant-colonel, red-tinged shoulder length hair, clutched tightly onto his clunky Reebok bat and marched into the middle of the raucous Visakhapatnam Cricket Stadium like a Spartan Warrior going into the heat of battle. He scored his maiden ODI century of just 88 balls, demonstrating a full array of swashbuckling-on drives, scoops and sweeps that the world would become familiar with over the next 15 years. India won by 58 runs and Dhoni, unsurprisingly, was man of the match.

The lasting memory of MS Dhoni, however, will inevitably be the six to win the final of the 2011 World Cup against Sri Lanka, a moment forever etched into the Indian cricketing folklore. As a Pakistan cricket fan, the inevitable comparison to be made here is with Miandad’s last-ball six in the final of the Austral-Asia Cup against India at Sharjah. And like Dhoni, Miandad knew how crucial his presence was in the final moments of high-pressure games.

Since Miandad, though, Pakistan have never had a finisher of Dhoni’s quality and indeed few of Pakistan’s batsmen have been able to perform on the biggest stage much like Miandad of old. Of the nine Pakistanis to score over 6000 ODI runs, only Saeed Anwar did significantly better in major events than outside them[11].


And so, it was in an Instagram post on Saturday 15 August 2020 in which Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Rajput warrior, announced his retirement from international cricket. While speculation of his retirement had been swirling around cricketing circles in the months leading up to the moment itself, I still felt a sense of wonderment at the news and his choice of timing.

Both India and Pakistan have produced some transformational cricketers over the years since Partition. Imran Khan’s retirement in 1992 had a similar feel to Dhoni’s and the reverberations of Imran’s career are still felt in Pakistan today. Perhaps no other cricketer has had a greater impact on the game in India than MS Dhoni and so who knows how long after 1929 hours on Saturday 15 August 2020 his impact will be felt in India, and beyond.


References:

[2] (Shoaib Malik: 2007-2008; Younis Khan: 2008-2009; Muhammad Yousaf: 2009-2010; Shahid Afridi: 2013-2015; Salman Butt: 2010 and Misbah-ul-Haq: 2011-2016.)

[3] (Wicket Keepers (Test): Kamran Akmal: 2002-2010; Sarfraz Ahmed: 2010-2019; Zulqarnain Haider: 2010; Adnan Akmal: 2010-2014 and Mohammad Salman: 2011. Wicket Keepers (ODI): Kamran Akmal: 2002-2013; Younis Khan: 2004-2005; Sarfraz Ahmed: 2007-2019; Zulqarnain Haider: 2010; Umar Akmal: 2010-2015; Mohammad Salman: 2011 and Adnan Akmal: 2011-2012.)

[8] Ibid.

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