As India closed in on a victory against England in the World T20 practice match on Monday, the cameras closed in on the dressing-room. Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni were engaged in a deep conversation. It immediately told us a story.
If there is anyone captain Kohli – who is known to be his own man – banks on for big cricketing decisions, it is Dhoni. Kohli made his debut under Dhoni, endured difficult phases in his career initially, and it was Dhoni’s undying belief in the batting ability of the Delhi maestro that played a part in Kohli becoming the player that he is today.
Interestingly, the beauty of the Kohli-Dhoni chemistry is that they are two very different people. If Kohli is all fire and passion, Dhoni is the calming effect. Kohli knows Dhoni can be banked upon blindly in tight limited-overs game strategizing.
We have seen how they complemented each other on the field in 2018-19, the last years of Dhoni’s international career. Kohli often used to leave the inner-circle captaincy to Dhoni and the now-mentor used to tweak the field as Kohli kept manning the boundary line so that he could make the best use of his brilliant throwing arm.
The 2019 ODI World Cup was a shared dream for Kohli and Dhoni. While Kohli truly believed it was India’s cup for the taking, Dhoni, then already on the wrong side of the 30s, had changed his lifestyle to be in best shape for the tournament. The anguish on Dhoni’s face after being caught inches short of his ground by a Martin Guptill throw in the semifinal immediately told us how much it hurt.
But Dhoni still believed he would get another chance at World Cup glory and his target was the T20 World Cup in India in 2020. Covid pushed it back by a year and Dhoni realized he couldn’t keep himself fit for international cricket anymore. There was a sense of unfinished business, but that didn’t mean Dhoni knew that he would be back as India’s World T20 mentor. He did his own mentoring of young cricketers at the end of IPL games. The Chennai Super Kings’ dressing-room in the last two years has been an ‘open to all’ for players across franchises looking for free Dhoni tuition.
It was in Dubai, when CSK were preparing for the second phase of the recently-concluded IPL, that BCCI secretary Jay Shah offered Dhoni the opportunity to mentor Team India. It wasn’t a straight yes from the legend. He decided to take his time before confirming he would take up the role.
We don’t know who he spoke to over the course of the next week, but one can assume that discussions happened with both Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri before he took the final decision.
Given Dhoni’s nature, he must have made sure that there was no sense of ‘too many cooks’ in the dressing-room if he came on board.
Dhoni is not charging an honorarium from BCCI because the money from one assignment doesn’t matter to him anymore. Rather there is a sense of emotion attached to the T20 World Cup for the apparently “unemotional” man.
His journey as the greatest T20 strategist started with the first T20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007 when he threw the ball to Joginder Sharma in the last over against Pakistan. It was Dhoni’s instinct at a crucial moment that changed the course of India’s cricket history and it is this instinct that Kohli’s team is in search of.
Dhoni has done this time and time again with CSK, often not with the best team on paper, winning four titles. But let’s not forget, on those occasions, he was on the field. That slight alteration in field placement, the moment’s delay in the 19th over to add pressure on the rival batsman, making the bowler suggest the line of attack from behind the stumps and making him do it with his quiet command – these are all easier to execute on the field. It will be very interesting to see during the course of this T20 World Cup how Dhoni communicates his ideas to captain Kohli over a period of 120 balls, because that is where the magic of Dhoni kicks in.
While one can be rest assured there won’t be any clash of ideas with Kohli, where does this leave Shastri, for whom this is his last coaching assignment?
Make no mistake, the Mumbai man is a canny operator. He has seen it all, has utmost respect for Dhoni and even if he is not consulted for the big decisions made over the course of next three weeks, he won’t be a disruptive element and will let Dhoni and Kohli do their jazz.
As for Dhoni, he will just disappear into the shadows even if there’s a moment of glory. For him, it’s just about getting the job done and once it’s over, it’s over!