Dhoni's big impact on Singapore fans

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

After spending two days with Mahendra Singh Dhoni in January 2018, former Singapore national cricket team captain Chetan Suryawanshi doffed his cap in respect.

"Dhoni was perhaps the most noted Indian cricketer at that time," Chetan told tabla!. "But he was so simple. He was easy to deal with and disciplined. He was right on time for every function despite being a celebrity."

The legendary wicketkeeper-batsman and captain, who retired from international cricket on Aug 15, India's Independence Day, was in Singapore to inaugurate a cricket academy named after him.

"I met him at the airport when he arrived and closely interacted with him during several events over two days," said Chetan, whose company CricKingdom ran the academy until last year. "We chatted whenever we could about cricket at meals and during training and I was really impressed. He had a clear mind and spoke insightfully about cricket."

What stood out for Chetan, 35, a noted wicketkeeper-batsman and captain himself, was Dhoni's cricketing philosophy: "The process must be correct, the result will follow."

Said Chetan: "Dhoni clearly believed that every effort should be made to play to the best of your ability. Winning was important to him, but he wanted all to enjoy the game."

Dhoni imparted these lessons to about 300 young cricketers in Singapore during a two-hour training session at the St Patrick's School ground on Jan 20, 2018. His academy in Singapore failed to take off, but what he said that day impressed Shayan Mukherjee, who turned up at St Patrick's early to meet Dhoni.

"He was extremely calm even when five questions were thrown at him at the same time," said Shayan, a 14-year-old off-spinner and opening batsman. "He does not panic and no one can think like him. That makes him so special."

The Dulwich College Singapore student asked Dhoni for tips to improve his bowling. "Dhoni told me that, 'before you bowl, you should think about how you will get the batsman out'," said Shayan. "He said the key is to analyse the situation and do everything well-prepared. I now use that ideology whenever I go out and play."

Shayan is a huge fan because Dhoni is "extremely calm and confident". The boy said: "The important thing is that he is able to read situations and opponents well. He makes teammates comfortable. He always has good reasons for what he is doing."

Ramesh Sundaram, 42, who manages the Ceylon Sports Club cricket team and is a player at club level, observed Dhoni closely during his time in Singapore.

"I was tasked with taking photos, so I could not talk much with him," said Ramesh. "But he was giving tips to Singapore coaches and young players, which was a great opportunity for them. Even state players in India don't get the chance to meet him."

Dhoni, 39, retired after figuring in 90 Tests, 350 One-Day Internationals and 98 Twenty20 Internationals in a record-studded career that lasted from 2004 to 2019.

Ramesh felt it was the "right time for Dhoni to go". He said: "Dhoni should have ideally retired after India lost the semi-final of the World Cup in England last year (when he did not exactly distinguish himself). But he is supremely fit and perhaps thought that he could play in the T20 World Cup in Australia this year.

"Now that the tournament has been postponed due to Covid-19, he decided to retire without any drama."

Ramesh pointed out that the Indian selectors have given several chances to wicketkeeper-batsmen such as Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik and Rishabh Pant but they have not measured up to Dhoni's abilities.

"Dhoni won so many games for India through his thoughtful leadership, attacking batting and effective wicketkeeping," said Ramesh. "Opponents will have it easy now."

Dhoni is the only captain to have all won all three International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments - 2007 T20 World Cup, 2011 ODI World Cup and 2013 Champions Trophy. Under his leadership, India also attained the No. 1 spot in ICC Test rankings in 2010. No other cricketer has captained in more international matches than Dhoni. He led India in 332 (including Tests, ODIs and T20Is) matches out of which India won 178, lost 120, tied 6 and drew 15.

Dhoni's overall win percentage of 53.61 is the second best among Indian captains after current skipper Virat Kohli, who has a win ratio of 64.64.

Richie Abraham, a local league player, umpire and scorer, flew to Australia last year with his friends just to watch Dhoni play.

"I can't forget the 87 not out he scored to help India win the third ODI at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (on Jan 18)," said Richie. "The pitch was slow and India had lost the top-order including Kohli. Dhoni took his time to settle down but then he played a calculated innings along with Kedar Jadhav (61 not out) that took Indian to victory and clinched the series."

Dhoni won the Man of the Series award for three consecutive fifties.

Richie appreciates Dhoni's "calmness and decision-making ability". "India used to get into the finals of tournaments, but never won anything," said Richie. "Dhoni produced results consistently. For me, he is the best cricketer India has produced (since the 1990s) along with Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev."

Anuroop Narayanapillai, another local player, umpire and scorer, said that Dhoni was a treat to watch because he always took the match to the wire.

"He had the patience to turn games around," said the 34-year-old marine engineer. "He took on the responsibility to win matches. He always played at a professional level. There was nothing emotional about him."

Anuroop rates Dhoni's match-winning 91 not out from 79 deliveries against Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final as the Indian's best innings.

"He came in at No. 4 and took on the responsibility of winning the match," said Anuroop. "It was a pressure situation and he led from the front. It requires nerves of steel to seal the match by hitting a six when only four runs were required off 11 balls.

"Sachin was a good batsman but not a good captain. Saurav Ganguly was a brilliant captain but his performances with the bat did not always match that. Dhoni was a great leader and a terrific performer."

Sri Ganesh, a local umpire and senior executive at Standard Chartered Bank, believes that Dhoni was successful because he could "strike the right balance between his own ability and giving teammates the independence to go out and perform".

Said the 53-year-old: "Dhoni always put the team in front and was unapologetic about taking tough decisions which hurt some senior players. I have seen him lose his cool only a couple of times in IPL (Indian Premier League) matches. He is from a small town (Ranchi in Jharkhand state) but brought equanimity to the job of captaincy."

The question now is whether Dhoni will come out of retirement and play in next year's T20 World Cup if he shines in the IPL, which is starting in the United Arab Emirates on Sept 19.

Dhoni will be leading the Chennai Super Kings in the world's most lucrative and high-profile T20 tournament run by the Indian cricket board. "No," said Sri Ganesh. "Once he makes up his mind about something, that's it."

santosh@sph.com.sg

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