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DILEEP PREMACHANDRAN
TWELFTH MAN

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India

Dhoni did the best that he could

M.S. Dhoni

t the press conference that marked the end of the Test tour of England, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was asked if he felt his time as captain was up. His response was to tell us to wait and watch, the answer delivered with the merest hint of a smile on his lips. He wasn't overly cheerful that afternoon, and bristled when asked a question about whether the IPL had skewed players' priorities. That response dominated the headlines, but it was the manner in which he had responded to the captaincy query that was most intriguing.

For more than three years, after the World Cup win of 2011, Dhoni had led a team in transition on the toughest of assignments. Away from home, the defeats had piled up. In England, where the final two Tests were surrendered in abject fashion, something finally seemed to snap. Two days before the fifth and final match at The Oval, he had skipped practice and gone off to the Metropolitan Police Training Centre at Gravesend in Kent. When questioned about his absence the following day, he suggested that his players didn't need coddling. Without going too much into amateur psychology, he had the demeanour of someone happy to let the fledglings leave the nest.

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In limited-overs cricket, the lack of firepower didn’t matter as much. Dhoni could wait for mistakes, and even if the opposition blasted their way to a huge score.

The manner of Dhoni's Test exit, after helping India secure a draw in the Boxing Day Test – averting another overseas whitewash – didn't surprise those that have followed his career in the decade since he made his debut. In the 24 years that he played for India, Sachin Tendulkar guarded his privacy quite zealously. Dhoni, who grew up wanting to play alongside Tendulkar, took that distaste of the limelight to another level. Above all else, he seemed to understand that what he was engaged in was just a game, and certainly not war without the shooting.

hen India won, Dhoni didn't thump his chest, wave his shirt around or come up with bombastic statements. When they lost, he seldom made excuses, apart from pleading for patience with the more inexperienced players. After victory at Lord's last summer, he could have put the boot into Alastair Cook, under acute pressure at the time. Instead, he patted away all potentially tricky questions, showing nothing but respect for his opposite number. The losses that followed were met with phlegmatic responses. It made some think that he didn't care. Others think, probably rightly, that it was just his way of staying sane while doing the toughest job in sport.

Dhoni wasn't a great Test player, but he was certainly a very good one. He joked about his "horrible" technique, but he could adjust and adapt far better than some that played according to the manual. When people think of Dhoni and Tests, it's perhaps natural that those 13 defeats in 18 overseas Tests going back to July 2011 command the most attention. The sheer scale of some of those thrashings has made many forget just how successful Dhoni had been before that 4-0 drubbing in England. However flawed the ranking system, he led India to the top of the tree in 2009 and helped keep them there for 20 months. Then, decline set in and he was as powerless as anyone to prevent the toboggan ride downhill.

There have been many experts scathing of Dhoni's approach to leadership. They make good points, while often ignoring the most important one – the lack of quality bowlers. In the rise to No.1, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh had pivotal roles to play. Sreesanth had a cameo or two. Once all of them dropped off the radar, there was next to no nous to depend on. R Ashwin is still finding his way abroad, while the pace bowlers continue to show promise only fleetingly. Without consistent bowlers that don't give up 500 in every game, it's hard to even fathom winning a Test.

In limited-overs cricket, the lack of firepower didn't matter as much. Dhoni could wait for mistakes, and even if the opposition blasted their way to a huge score, he backed his batsmen to chase it down. In Tests, you can't hide behind such bowling.

When all is said and done, Dhoni finished with 27 wins in 60 Tests as captain. As many as 21 of those came on home turf. It's easy to be disparaging of that figure. We shouldn't be. If winning at home was so easy, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Azharuddin and others would have had similarly awesome records. They don't. With the hand that he was dealt, Dhoni did the best he could. No matter what the timing of his exit, we should all thank him for that.

 
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