Mahendra Singh Dhoni Curated
Former Cricketer and Captain
CURATED BY :
Has technology influenced sports in any way?
Any specific reason why you haven’t acted yourself in your own biographical movie, Dhoni: The Untold Story?
What is your normal day like when you are not playing cricket?
Who is your favorite sportsperson other than in the field of cricket?
What is your opinion between Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, since you have played with both of them?
Where do you see yourself at 45 years of age?
What place does Chennai & Chennai Super Kings hold in your heart?
Can you share your secret for staying cool under pressure?
Being prepared will always keep you cool. Whether you are a student or a pro athlete you have to get into the zone. The zone is a state of performing with zero friction. Practice and preparation will always help you perfect your skills and get you in the zone. If your skills go up, stress goes down. Psychologists say that 10,000 hours of practice will always get you to your goal! There's this scene in the movie where my dad lets me go off to play a cricket tournament just before my exam. I still remember what he said to me: "If you've studied and worked throughout the year, then there's no problem if you go off to play today. If you haven't studied every day then one day is not going to make a difference." My dad used to wake me up at dawn every day to study for two hours throughout my years at DAV Jawahar Vidya Mandir because my evenings were crowded with football and cricket practice. Being regular and deliberate with your preparations keeps the pressure away at crunch time.
What can India do to become a good sporting nation?
You can't get results with a short-term approach to sports. Money doesn't directly translate into gold medals in the Olympics. How it works is that nations have to build infrastructure, provide nutritional information and then spot talented athletes, supporting them financially and with first-class training, coaching and scientific expertise. To become a great sporting nation you can't be result-oriented. We also can't watch more sport than we play. You have to educate and draw young people into sports. When we were growing up I played at least five sports: football, cricket, badminton, hockey, table tennis. When I interact with children in school nowadays and ask who plays football? There are a lot of hands. Then I point out that I am not referring to playing FIFA online. Immediately a lot of hands go down. Parents are happy sometimes to let their children play video games all the time, but they must think of their child's fitness. If you don't play any sports when you are young, you are not going to pick it up at 30. If you play sports you will do better in your academics. It is important for schools and parents to push for sports and that is how we will win medals in the Olympics. With enough passion for sports I am sure we can become a good sporting nation.
How did you decide that you wanted to be a cricketer?
I loved sports right from the very start. When I was in school, I used to play a lot of other sports as well, and it would be wrong for me to say that I wanted to become a professional cricketer. For two years, I played proper football. I was the second goalkeeper for my school team, but our cricket team also needed a wicket-keeper. That was the time when people asked me to try wicket-keeping, and I used to keep wickets when we were playing tennis ball cricket. The reason was that I was very small, timid, short at that time, so maybe all the seniors thought that was the best place for me to be. In school, I also pursued badminton, and was very active when it came to the annual sports participation, whether it was track and field events or other sports. So, cricket just… everything happened at the right time and I became a cricketer.
What was your best moment as a cricketer?
We have had quite a few good ones, but the 2011 World Cup, winning in India at the Wankhede Stadium, in front of the home crowd, was something that was really amazing and I think the whole process was good. But that exact point, you know, maybe four or five overs before we won the game, when the whole stadium and the spectators knew that we were going to win the game… that was the time when they started chanting, ‘Vande Mataram’ and all the other songs, that was the moment. We knew from that point that we will win the game. That whole atmosphere has never been recreated, but hopefully someday, I will be able to witness it again.
Can you describe the first time you entered the Indian team’s dressing room as a player?
It was very awkward. It was in Bangladesh, it was a very short tour, and we played three games, and I think three games got over in four days. Like my career, the tour was also one of mixed emotions, as we lost the second game.Getting into the dressing room… in fact, it was even before the dressing room, when we went into a meeting room, all the senior players were there. It is the first time you are actually seeing the big names when it comes to Indian cricket, and you don’t know how to react, you just keep watching everyone, you are shy, you don’t want to speak a lot. You just want to figure out really what is happening.I don’t think I spoke much, I was just watching the senior players and it seemed that the whole room was filled with them, people who you at times dreamed of playing with, and that is the time you are actually sharing a dressing room with them, so it was an amazing experience.
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.
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.
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 was 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.
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.
How sports can be incorporated into an education system in a country like India?
The shots you play are unique but there is one shot people call it the helicopter shot – did you practise it as a young boy in Jharkhand when you were 16? Or is this a shot you have evolved over the years or does it just come naturally to you?
I used to play a lot of tennis-ball cricket. [We would] play on a 16- to 18-yard wicket with a lawn-tennis ball, and most of the time the bowler tried to push in a yorker. That was the kind of shot you needed to hit for a six, because in tennis-ball, you don't have to middle it. Even if you are using the bottom-most part of the bat and if you hit it quite well, it always goes over the boundary.
You keep, you bat, you captain. Have you ever felt tired in 2011? That enough is enough, I’m going with my wife to Ladakh or somewhere for one month, away from cricket? Have you ever thought, “Let me take a break from this game for one month”?
At times you feel tired. Again, what's important is that you can push your body. Unless you're mentally tired, I don't think you really need a break. And even if I was really tired, I don't think I have been in a position where I could take a break, because our senior players were missing because of injuries or some other things that happened. If there are players, senior players, who are there to play in the next series, and then if you take a break, it is fair enough. But if you see the last few series, we have missed most of our senior players. So you have to see the strength that the team has. And if the team needs me most right now, I don't mind playing a few more series before taking a break.
There are thousands of youngsters who want to be Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who idolise you, who want to be like you. What would you like to tell those young people?
I think keeping it simple is very important. Of course, working hard, because I don't feel there is any shortcut. You can have a bit of luck on your side. But it's very important to realise at the right time what you are good at, whether you're good at cricket or any other sport or at studies. If you are good at studies and you want to play cricket, you may work harder than any other person but you may not achieve it. So it's something you have to balance in life, and be practical where you are good and then channelise your efforts in the right direction to be successful in life.
Do you call yourself a wicketkeeper-batsman or a batsman-wicketkeeper?
When India is fielding, I am a wicketkeeper-batsman; when India is batting, I am a batsman-wicketkeeper! But, seriously, both are my main jobs. I have to specialise in both of them. I can't afford to be less than 100 percent in any of the two roles. I think they complement each other and give me my identity.
Which was the quality that helped you become captain of the Indian team?
That is again a very difficult one (laughs), because a lot of senior players would have supported me. I was not part of the conversation when I was made captain of the team. I feel that looking at everything, maybe it was the honesty that I had, and my ability to read the game. Reading the game is very important, and even though I was one of the youngest in the team at that point of time, when asked about my views by a senior player, I was not afraid or hesitant to share my feelings about the game. It probably also had to do with the fact that I was quite good with the other team members in the squad at that point of time.
How was the feeling when you hit the ball for the winning six in the ICC Worldcup at the Mumbai Wankhede Stadium?
There was no plan to hit a six, and I was not looking for a fairytale finish. It just came, I swung the bat, it went over the boundary and then there was a sense of satisfaction. It was just watching the ball, there was nothing in the mind, and after a few seconds, I realised that yes, I had done it. We were quite happy with the fact that we were the first home team to have won a World Cup, and also, we were quite relieved because for that whole tournament, there was a lot of pressure from everyone. We were quite relieved. I do not think we got enough opportunity to enjoy the win for whatever reasons, but I think it was really that moment, just before winning the World Cup, the whole atmosphere… it always comes to mind, and it will be tough to replicate that atmosphere. But as I said, I would love to witness it – whether it is while playing or from the stands, I would love to witness it again.
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.
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.
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.