Perhaps no sphere of human activity lends itself to myth-making like sport does. The case of MS Dhoni is one such. That he is a great ODI player is beyond dispute. His place in 50-overs lore was secure long before that soaring six into the Mumbai night that clinched the 2011 World Cup for India. You just cannot argue with a record of 9967 runs at an average of 51.37 and strike-rate of 88.40. The format has suited Dhoni perfectly, allowing him to nurdle the ball around and then time his acceleration to the finish line.
Unfortunately, number-crunching that goes beyond the mundane average is such a novelty in cricket that excellence in one format is often extrapolated into suitability for another. Thus, we had Royal Challengers Bangalore picking a “Test” side for the Indian Premier League’s inaugural season (2008), and players promoted to 50-overs sides on the basis of four overs of fame. For every David Warner that bridged the chasm, a dozen others floundered in the deep end.
Sport is also so much based on highlights reels that it can be easy to miss the bigger picture. That was the case with Dhoni in Twenty20 internationals. So overwhelming were the memories of the first World T20 in 2007, when he gambled on bowling the pedestrian medium pace of Joginder Sharma in the last over of the final against Pakistan, that it utterly obscured what a mediocre player he was with the bat in the format for much of the decade that followed.
Even as the Dhoni legend grew with the IPL — he led Chennai Super Kings to two titles and four other finals in the eight seasons before they were suspended — both he and the national side continued to struggle. In 2009, 2010 and 2012, India failed to make it to the semifinals of the World T20. The scheduling of the IPL didn’t help in two of those three tournaments, but India also lacked the X-factor in a format that was evolving rapidly.
No one epitomised that struggle more than Dhoni. At the end of 2015, by which time he had overseen a loss in the World T20 final to Sri Lanka (2014), Dhoni averaged 33.61 in T20Is. The problem was his strike-rate, a dismal 116.53. Instead of the helicopter-shot-playing finisher of the IPL, the Indian team usually saw someone who seldom cleared the rope and seemed to have been left behind by a new power generation.
There is little doubt that the cares of captaincy played a part, as did the fact that the team rarely got together to play the format. More than most, Dhoni has been a creature of habit, one who thrives in his comfort zone. That has been most apparent in Chennai yellow, where his 3,670 runs have come at a strike-rate of 140.66. Contrast that with his two seasons with the Rising Pune Supergiants, where he made just two half-centuries while striking at only 124.78. In the international arena, the handbrake was released in 2016. One of the more memorable games from the latter part of the Dhoni captaincy was the World Twenty20 encounter against Bangladesh, where his presence of mind and instructions to Hardik Pandya helped salvage a hopeless situation. India may not have won the tournament — blown away by West Indian six-hitting in the semifinal — but Dhoni appeared to rediscover the sense of adventure that had long been misplaced.
The numbers bear that out. Since January 2016, his 570 runs in T20Is for India have come off just 391 balls. Both his average (43.85) and strike-rate (145.78) are significantly higher than what they were. That upswing has benefited the returning Chennai franchise as well. In 2011, when Chennai last won the title, he struck at 158.7 and whacked 25 sixes. Two years later, when they lost the final, his strike-rate was 162.89, inclusive of 23 sixes.
Half a decade on, Chennai are top of the charts, with Dhoni’s 235 runs having come at a strike-rate a smidgen under 160. There have already been 15 sixes. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri, who have so emphatically reposed their faith in him for the 2019 World Cup, will be thrilled by this development. Without captaincy to worry about, except in Chennai colours, Dhoni looks set to enjoy a real Indian summer.