Growing up is not the same as growing old. A man’s age is counted in numbers but his growth is measured in experience. There is a phase in one’s life where he grows as a person and understands the world more than he did in all the previous decades he lived. That’s when his mind breaks the shackles of his physical age and evolves into a deep, beautiful ocean of wisdom and knowledge.
For Mahendra Singh Dhoni, that phase began from September 2007 – when he was handed the reins of the Indian Cricket Team – and seven years on, it goes on.
Mahi was born intelligent. As a boy, he grasped things quickly. He was aware of his surroundings, receptive of the information he was exposed to and sharp enough to filter out the bad and imbibe the good. In the last seven years, he has put these natural gifts to optimum use to achieve the level of serenity, sagacity and sanguineness that belies his age.
On his 33rd birthday, MS Dhoni relived his journey so far as Team India’s captain and gave us an invaluable insight into what makes him the leader extraordinaire that he is.
Here is the Indian captain’s exclusive interview with Drcricket7.com
It’s been seven years since you took over India’s leadership and you’ve seen everything there is to be seen. How has the ride been?
It is difficult to summarise the journey in five minutes but it surely has been a very eventful one. Once you’re made the captain you don’t know how long you’re going to remain there and it’s been seven long years for me. From being fortunate to get a very good side as a young captain to now leading this exciting team in transitional phase – it has been a fantastic ride. I have learnt so many things during this period, not only about cricket but about life. When it comes to cricket, we went to different places as a team, had very good performances and some really bad ones. Cricket teaches you a lot in life, especially during the difficult times. It enriches your character in terms of how you behave when you’re down and not only try to improve yourself but help your team mates as well. You make sure that your team doesn’t feel that extra pressure by avoiding whatever can be avoided. As the leader you have to protect your team from any negativity that creeps in during these times. These have been very educational seven years of my life.
You have played under some astute leaders in your career. What have you picked from each of them as far as leading the team is concerned?
The way I play my cricket, my subconscious mind works more than the conscious mind. And for me, it was never about consciously grasping things from the captain but subconsciously taking in certain personality traits or qualities from every individual that was part of the team. When I started to play for India, I was extremely lucky to have a very good bunch of senior players around me to inculcate things from. What they taught me cannot be restricted to the captaincy box because it was much more than that. What I learnt from them was how to be humble, how to conduct yourself when you’re successful and how to figure your way out of tough times. Captaincy is a very small aspect of my life as a cricketer and their impact on me as a person has been much bigger.
It must have been a unique experience to first play under them and then captain them! Was it seamless from the start or did you have to adapt to the new hierarchy?
I took captaincy as a job responsibility. I was given a certain role in the team and whatever I had to do to fulfill that role, I did. If anything, their presence made things easy for me initially because you don’t need to tell Sachin, Dravid, Laxman or Dada what needs to be done. Even during the fag end of their careers, they helped me as a captain by setting an example for the younger guys coming in. The young boys learnt from them what it takes to succeed at international cricket and they were groomed under them. At the same time they understood how important it is to maintain their own individuality because of which they were in the team. It’s the individual characters that shape the character of the team.
When the seniors were around, you had so many hands to guide you through your decisions as captain. But now you lead a very young team and you are pretty much on your own. How has that changed things for you?
The best thing about the senior players was that, yes. with their experience they had a lot of ideas and suggestions to give me. But more importantly, if I didn’t agree with some things they said, I could tell them so. They were absolutely fine with it and after 10-15 minutes would again come up with a different idea or options and then leave it to me, give me a few deliveries to think about it and decide. That really gave me the comfort of knowing that I can be honest and straightforward with them without the fear of offending them. As a young captain with such stalwarts around, you can feel that pressure. But I was very fortunate to have the kind of senior players around me that I did. Because of them I was able to be myself and develop my own style of captaincy.
Right now the situation is very different. Although I am leading a young team, I don’t like to give a plan that the bowler is not comfortable implementing. I might want a bowler to bowl a particular length but it could be difficult for him to bowl that length 80 per cent of the time. So I let the bowlers start off with their own plan and own fields and encourage them to think for themselves.
If I give them a plan, they will take it and keep bowling in the same way without thinking. And tomorrow when they’re on their own, they won’t know what to do. So, I let them execute their plan and when it doesn’t work, I step in with alternate suggestions. That way they understand why their plan didn’t work, they discover what works for them, and their overall knowledge about their game improves.
The phase that you are going through right now as captain is very similar to what Ricky Ponting experienced – he led a team full of legends and then was at the helm of a team in transition. Do you see the similarities?
Our culture is very different to theirs and that makes our challenges as captains different as well. I feel being part of Indian cricket or managing cricket in India is not a 100 per cent professional and pragmatic job. We Indians are much more emotional as compared to people from some of the other countries. We run on emotions. There are better ways for me to get the best out of an individual than going up to him and telling him this is what needs to be done in a stern tone.
How much of a difference does the coach make in how you captain the team?
I don’t think that a captain and a coach have any real influence on each other’s style or thinking. But I do feel that the coach and the captain should always be on the same page. And by that I don’t mean there is no difference in opinion – they will have different views on strategies or individual players. But they must sort it out in private, sit and discuss. At times the captain might not be convinced about something and he will have to trust the coach’s experience. In the same way, the coach has to trust the captain’s gut feel about certain things he is not sure about. At the end of the day, the team shouldn’t know there are differences between the coach and the captain. There is only one plan that must come out of that room.
Captaincy can be divided into two broad aspects – tactical and man-management. Which aspect have you found more challenging?
Man management is slightly more difficult because you are dealing with human emotions which are complicated. Most times an individual starts to doubt his talent before the others doubt him. He doesn’t trust his own ability and the self belief goes missing. When that happens and you go to talk to that player, you have to wait for the right time and most importantly be very careful in choosing your words. When you’re in a bad mental space, you can take even the right thing in a negative way. So the communication becomes very critical. To get it right, you have to know the individual really well – what gets him ticking, what his interests are and how he perceives things. You get most these things from the way he behaves in the dressing room and with the other players. That doesn’t mean you sit in the change room studying every individual. It all comes through subconscious observations – the information keeps getting collected in the database and you can pull out a piece when you need it.
You speak about talking to different individuals differently in order to get the best out of them. How challenging was the process of getting there where you could have a unique approach with every player?
Here it’s important to know your team mates, not because you want to get the best out of them but because you actually want to know them as human beings. We spend more time with each other than we do with our families. So, it is important that we know and understand each other inside out as people. Once that happens, you automatically know what mood a guy is in and what he is thinking if he hasn’t scored runs in a couple of innings or hasn’t taken wickets.
Is combining a type of personality with a way of communication a trial and error method?
It is, very much so. For instance, you’ve successfully communicated with one person in a certain way. You try that same method with another guy with a similar personality and it might not work at all. And you’ll realize you have to figure out a whole new way of getting the best out of this guy. To begin with, I may know three different ways of communicating a thing. But as I interact with more people and learn more about them, I might develop 15 new ways of saying the same thing. That can make a lot of difference. As humans, we can be very open and expressive but we are also very secretive about certain things. So, it has to be a trial and error thing.
It’s well documented that you lead by instincts. Have you had to work towards finding the right balance between planning and being instinctive?
I don’t plan a lot and believe in my gut feel. But what many people don’t understand is that to have that gut feel, you have to have experienced that thing before. For instance, you don’t know anything about bikes. I open one of my bike engines and keep it in front of you and ask you ‘which model does your gut feeling say this engine belongs to’, you will be clueless. You won’t have a gut feeling because you don’t know anything about the object there. My gut feeling comes from my past experiences of all the cricket I’ve played in my life and the situations I have faced. It’s not something you just feel for a moment without any logic. It is an educated chance you take based on your past knowledge, and I really believe in that feeling.
Does that shift the approach from being active to being reactive?
In our sport, there are a lot of factors that determine how a batsman is going to bat on a given day – the weather, the wicket, the condition of the ball, the bowlers he is facing and his own form. There are few plans you chalk out based on the stats and the video footage of that batsman, but I think a bowlers’ meeting is enough to sort those things out. I distance myself from it so when I go on the field I don’t have any fixed notions in my mind. I see how the batsman is batting that day, how the bowler is bowling and what the reasons are behind it. Based on that information I form my plans using my instincts.
You have always been a captain that backs the players he believes in. Does it get tough at times to defend that backing when the player doesn’t respond with performances?
What happens is for instance, someone is batting at No. 6 in the ODIs. When he is batting really well, he hardly gets six-seven overs because the top five have also batted well, and scores 30 odd runs. Then, one day he walks in to bat with 40 overs remaining, gets out cheaply and people say, ‘he got an opportunity but he fluffed it’. They fail to consider that he walked in when the team was 20 for 5 and so the pitch might be difficult or the bowling attack lethal. Don’t forget the pressure of those five wickets and the fact that he has to bat in a completely different way than he is used to, which is slogging away in the death overs. So, you have to be fair to him before just discarding him saying he hasn’t taken his opportunities. As a captain, when these things happen to a player you have backed, you sometimes, also have to accept that things don’t always go as planned, especially in an uncertain sport like ours. When you are going though a rough patch, all the good balls are bowled to you and all the outstanding catches are taken off you. Having said that, I also feel that sometimes it’s best to give him a break from the pressures of international cricket and let him come back fresh after regaining his touch in domestic cricket. If he’s really good, he will eventually make it at the top level.
Do you feel any special joy of vindication when he finally comes good? Is there a feeling of relief or satisfaction?
More than that, you feel happy for the player. It’s not about justifying your decision. Even though you backed him throughout, it was he who worked hard to overcome the failures and eventually delivered on the promise that he showed.
You were groomed under the guidance of the big five. They spotted a potential leader in you. It was Tendulkar who suggested your name for captaincy. Did you ever get an idea that they are seeing you as India’s next captain?
No, that was never the case. I think it was more about the interactions that I had with them. For instance, whenever Sachin came on to bowl – and because he could bowl so many different deliveries – he would ask me what the best ball would be – seam-up, leg-spin, off-spin – depending on the wicket and the batsman. Perhaps the honest opinions I gave him at these points made him believe that I read the game well. Also, being the keeper, I was always close to the seniors in the slip cordon and had many interactions with them regarding where the game stood or what could be done to gain an advantage over the opponent. I think those were the conversations that led them into believing that I could be a good leader.
So, did it come as a total surprise to you when you were named the captain?
It did, because I was never really aiming for captaincy. For me, being a part of the team is much more important than being the captain. Captaincy is just an added responsibility you get because others think you will be good at that job.
The ICC Test Mace, ICC Champions Trophy, ICC World Cup 2011, ICC World Twenty20 – rate them in order of importance to you as a captain and cricketer and why?
It’s like asking a mother to choose her favourite child. All of them are important in their own way and I will tell you why.
The Test mace: It was special because it was the result of consistent hard work of three years. It wasn’t like you play well for one tournament and you win. There was a lot that went into getting there and everyone, including the players, selectors and the support staff contributed to the rise. It wasn’t only about playing well on the field but also being fit on and off it. We needed our senior players to be there during tough times and for that they had to work hard on their fitness along with skills.
The 2011 World Cup: This had a different challenge. Those 15 players who formed the squad not only had to play their best cricket for that period but also be in a really good mental state. They needed to stay calm amid all the pressures and constantly concentrate on the areas they needed to improve on, despite all that were going on around them. Fitness again was very important and difficult to maintain given the amount of cricket we play.
The Champions Trophy, 2013: We were going through a very tough phase as a team and not many gave us a chance to win in the English conditions. It was a side in transition and the performance there showed the character of these young men.
The 2007 World Twenty20: Well, what can I say about that? It was the beginning of everything that followed, for my young team and for me as a captain.
I don’t think I will ever be able to pick one and say, ‘this is the closest to my heart’. They all are.
Given your habit of taking a stump after every win, you must have quite a collection already. Do you have a dedicated room for them in your house?
That’s my retirement plan. The good thing is that I do collect a lot of stumps but the bad one is I don’t put a mark as to which match they were from. So, after I retire I’ll watch the videos of all my matches, look closely at the sponsors logos on the stumps and figure out which match a stump belongs to. It will be my post-cricket pass time!