What sets MS Dhoni apart from his predecessors and successors
The day was 31st August, 2005. India were playing Sri Lanka at the Sawai Man Singh stadium in Jaipur, and they had a (then considered) mammoth total of 299 to chase down in 50 overs. A brilliant innings from Kumar Sangakkara who scored a 138 and late exploits by Maharoof helped the Lankans do well.
India did not begin the chase well, losing Sachin when the team total was 7. I remember my dad telling, "okay, we have lost the game" and turning off the TV and pushing me to go and do my homework. People who used to watch cricket well in the 90s are aware of this phenomenon more than me, for "Sachin-is-out-TV-is-off" was the most common practice in Indian TV households in those days.
Well, it turned out, that I missed the world record knock of a certain MS Dhoni, who blasted his way to a 183 not out, taking the team beyond the finish line with a six. The next day was Diwali, and a frontline daily read "Dhoni fireworks help India celebrate Diwali". Despite not watching the game, reading every bit of detail on the innings was so exhilarating.
Dhoni would go on to repeat the same thing on numerous other occasions for his national side as well as his IPL colors. I have actually lost count of all those instances where Dhoni's heroics have singlehandedly placed his team on the victors' podium. At the back of my mind, there is the 72 not out against Pakistan at Lahore, and definitely the 91 not out which brought the World Cup to India after a gap of 28 years, and the 64 not out for the Rising Pune Supergiants, wherein he won the game singlehandedly after RPS needed 23 runs from the last over.
All this doesn't mean that he is a slouch at keeping either, which he isn't. With 776 dismissals to his credit, he is third in the list of most successful wicketkeeper ever. He is also the only Indian on the better end of the list; the next best Indians Nayan Mongia and Syed Kirmani are at numbers 25 and 26 respectively, in the all-time list. With the sheer volume of international cricket played these days, and the longevity of Dhoni, that is not unexpected, but still.
While he is unlikely to move higher in this list (Gilchrist at number two has 905 dismissals, Boucher at the top has 998, and Dhoni is close to 37 years old), he is already on top of another. Dhoni holds the record for most stumpings across formats (148). While the huge bulk of Gilchrist and Boucher’s dismissals are catches, Dhoni has a larger percentage of stumpings to his name. In standing up to the stumps, he has no parallel in the world. He has also affected the most dismissals in T20s till date. I could go on and on about the superhuman that is MSD, but I am supposed to cover a topic with a broader point-of-view.
Before I do, I want the readers to look back and try to remember a good Indian wicketkeeper prior to MSD. By "good", I mean good enough. To most of the older readers, I am guessing Nayan Mongia and Syed Kirmani would be the top names. Nayan Mongia played for India between 1990 and 1998, and Kirmani, even earlier. Post-Mongia, India have tried several wicketkeepers - MSK Prasad, Saba Karim, Vijay Dahiya, Deep Dasgupta, Ajay Ratra, Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik, and so on - and failed. While Parthiv and Karthik currently enjoy a new lease of life in the game, it has not been that way for any of the other players. Indian wicketkeepers tended to underperform so much, that mainstream batsman Rahul Dravid had to keep wickets for some time in his career because they could simply not afford to field a poor wicketkeeper who wouldn't bat well either. Dravid keeping the wickets meant that India could add another bowler to the squad, and at least look to strengthen the bowling. The idea was Sourav Ganguly's.
Things drastically changed since 2004, with Dhoni bursting into the national scene, again, a Ganguly find. The guy was unique already - a wicketkeeper who was known for many steady yet explosive innings in domestic levels. Only in his third game, he scored a 148 and washed off rivals Pakistan from the game, and India's first wicketkeeper-batsman was born. Once considered a novelty only of countries like Australia, South Africa or Sri Lanka, through the likes of Gilchrist, Boucher and Sangakkara respectively. India suddenly found themselves winning more matches, and this new long-haired guy was at the helm on many of those occasions. Things definitely reached a pinnacle when he later captained the team to their maiden T20 World Cup win, and four years later, to the memorable 50-over World Cup win, his well-anchored 91 not out an added bonus that made him the Man of the final. There has been at least fifty different matches where MS Dhoni's batting exploits have helped the team steal a win right out of the jaws of defeat.
Fast-forward to several years later, and today we stand a few hours away from the finals of the 11th IPL season, and Dhoni has led his team once again to it - a record seventh time. It has become so frequent now, and we are used to it. Dhoni has also contributed with the bat well, scoring over 400 through the tournament.
Meanwhile, a few things elsewhere have changed. Dhoni is no longer a long-maned guy in his 20s; he is 37, and we are already looking for younger replacements. But things are not as they used to be. The way things are right now, we could make a whole XI out of wicketkeepers - such has been the talent and skill on display. There is the resurrected Dinesh Karthik who has been India's newfound finisher with that last-ball six in the recently concluded Nihadas Trophy, Ishan Kishan who played an important role in the Mumbai top-order, Sanju Samson who has become a mainstay for Rajasthan, KL Rahul who singlehandedly took up Punjab's batting responsibilities on several different occasions, and Rishabh Pant, who was a strong contender of the Orange cap with a massive 684 runs in his tally, including a 128 not out that is the highest ever individual score by an Indian in the IPL. And these are just the main names. And by no means are they poor in their original trade of wicketkeeping.
As mentioned earlier, when the wicketkeeper bats, it is one less headache for the captain and the team officials. Most wicketkeepers feature between No. 3 and No.6 with players like Rahul even ready to open the innings. The team will hence already have a formidable batting strength with its first six players, enabling the captain to play an extra bowler. It helps in India's case especially, as along with Virat, Shikhar, Rohit and so on, India already has a very strong batting unit, and the fifth bowler could work wonders for the team that usually has sub-par standards.
With the 2019 World Cup almost around the corner, Dhoni's days are ending apparently, and he will definitely look to end his career on a high. Rest assured, India will definitely have a worthy successor for him, due to our revised way of looking at Indian wicketkeepers. That being said, a lot of credit is due to MS Dhoni himself for becoming a huge influence on the country and the game as well. While the pre-MSD era looks bleak and dull, the post-MSD era looks bright and promising, though the man himself will be heavily missed.