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Aura of MS Dhoni Will be There But He's Not Someone Who Crosses The Limit: Lakshmipathy Balaji

Virat Kohli (left) has been reunited with MS Dhoni for T20 World Cup. (AFP Photo)

Virat Kohli (left) has been reunited with MS Dhoni for T20 World Cup. (AFP Photo)

With MS Dhoni's appointment as mentor of the Indian team, the BCCI hopes that India lift the T20 World Cup, an ICC title that has eluded the Men in Blue under Virat Kohli’s captaincy.

The seventh edition of the ICC T20 World Cup is only getting bigger and better. As if the star players of each of the participating teams are not enough, some of the teams have bigger names from the past assisting them.

To name just a few, Mahela Jayawardene has been named Sri Lanka’s consultant for this tournament, Aussie Matthew Hayden completed his IPL commentary stint and the next day joined Pakistan team’s coaching staff. Fresh from coaching Chennai Super Kings to their fourth IPL title, New Zealand’s Stephen Fleming joined the Black Caps to share his expertise for a few days prior to their first second-round match next week (the first round involves the eight teams from which four qualifiers will join the top eight in the second round).

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And, India have their own Mahendra Singh Dhoni as mentor for this tournament in a one-off assignment. Dhoni has, no doubt, got the knack of winning titles and guiding his team to greater heights. He did it in his first major assignment as Team India captain by winning the inaugural T20 World Cup title in 2007 in South Africa.

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The 40-year-old Dhoni led India to lift their second trophy in his first World Cup as skipper in 2011. He led Chennai Super Kings to their fourth IPL title last Friday. Besides, he has led India to World No. 1 rank in Tests and lifted the ICC mace more than a decade ago to symbolise India’s supremacy in red ball cricket.

With his appointment as mentor of the Indian team, the BCCI hopes that India will lift the T20 World Cup, an ICC title that has eluded the Men in Blue under Virat Kohli’s captaincy.

Dhoni knows that it is not going to be an easy task as mentor of the Indian team. He may have been on the winning side in his first game as Team India mentor, albeit a warm-up match against England on Monday night. What exactly has been Dhoni’s inputs that helped India successfully chase England’s 188/5 with one over to spare is not known yet.

But, as he settles down into his role, Dhoni will surely play a major role when approached by every member of the playing group as well as the coaching staff led by Ravi Shastri, all in their last assignment as coaches of the Indian team.

To help understand better, News18.com spoke with former India pacer, Lakshmipathy Balaji, who has known Dhoni closely for nearly two decades, having played with him and under him in India colours and CSK colours, and at the CSK set up as the bowling coach for quite a few years now.

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Speaking from Dubai, still savouring the latest IPL title triumph of last week, Balaji said that Dhoni will not interfere with the roles of the coaches that are already in the Indian team. Shastri has been one of the greatest admirers of Dhoni and his accomplishments, having seen him enter the Indian team in 2004 as a television commentator and exit in 2020 (though Dhoni’s last match for India was in the 2019 ICC World Cup) as the head coach.

“Dhoni was also a part of this same set up until two years ago. They have been part of the group. So, it is not new for Dhoni. Knowing Dhoni very well, he is not someone who will cross the limits,” said the 40-year-old Balaji.

The former right-arm pacer who played in eight Tests, 30 ODIs and five T20Is including four in the 2012 T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka under Dhoni’s captaincy, said: “It is a totally different ball game when it comes to MS as on-the-field contributor and off-the-field contributor. He has proved himself over the years because of his easy approach to the game and also the fact that anybody can go to him and talk about the game. Of course, the aura of MS Dhoni is going to be there. But, what he has maintained over the years with different age groups of cricketers is the ability to connect.

“He has that ability to break the ice between the seniors and the juniors in the team. In the last decade and a half, what I have seen of Dhoni as a leader, first as a CSK player and then as a member of the CSK support staff, is his ability to connect with the cricketers. You don’t want a disoriented unit. All the current players in the Indian team have played a lot of cricket with Dhoni. There will be no short of communication between them," he added.

Asked if he had a chance to discuss about Dhoni’s role as a Team India mentor, Balaji said there was no discussion about it as the focus was on CSK winning the IPL title. Balaji, though, said that Dhoni will bridge certain loose links, if any, in the Indian team.

Balaji said: “A mentor is a link holder, not a link creator. This Indian team is already led by a leadership group. So, there is less of a role when it comes to rebuilding or re-establishing, as it is an already-established unit. All the major components are already set. It is about stabilising or making it a little bit stronger. There is a marginal factor, which we fail to notice.

“Even if the team is successful, there is something that one is not able to address. Sometimes, that ‘something’ is noticed from the outside. It is here that Dhoni’s expert guidance comes in handy, making it easier for the team. Dhoni has been a part of all the six previous T20 World Cups – all as captain. And, in a tournament like the T20 World Cup, Dhoni is one who has understood many tournaments, been there and done that, knows exactly how white ball cricket is being played. It is these little links like communication and players opening up to him that Dhoni will look to consolidate in the team," he added.

To state just an example, we have openly seen in the last couple of years how Dhoni has made the young Rishabh Pant feel comfortable and taken him under his wings in the latter’s early days in international cricket. The camaraderie between them is so relaxed that Pant can take the liberty of pulling Dhoni’s leg and the two have a good laugh about it, though they have been rival captains in the IPL and the age difference between them is 16 years.

Balaji continued: “One major advantage is that Dhoni is very open. This approach will make people feel comfortable with him. This is from the communication aspect of it. The trust that Dhoni has in the players and vice-versa. Dhoni has to trust your moves, your approach even though the approach can be of the old school. What I have seen across different generations of cricketers is that, even if the approach is of the old school, it is accepted because of Dhoni’s trust. It may be a little sour but they will enjoy the fruits of it in the end. Dhoni gives the players that assurance, the sense of belonging and at the same time, the individuality will be given importance.”

Balaji, the lanky former pacer with the infectious smile, said that Dhoni’s inputs on the tactical side of the game can be second to none. “As a player, as a leader, Dhoni has worked with a lot of coaches over the years. He has handled a lot of them, sometimes two-three of them in one team. And, he has come good with all of them without any hiccup, without any miscommunication, without losing the momentum,” said Balaji, who has taken 71 international wickets across all formats.

“Dhoni has been able to get what he wants from his players. His biggest advantage is his ability to remain calm and do simple things. In this team, there may have been some tactical changes made in the knockout stages of the major tournaments. The team has, in the past, made emotional changes to the side. In hindsight, those changes were made to benefit the side, as we come to know later. Look at this side, we have a top order that is intact but the middle-order department needs to be looked into and the fifth bowler option has been unconvincing. This has been hampering India’s chances in recent times, which, I am sure with Dhoni around, will be looked after with greater clarity. With Dhoni’s experience, there will be more clarity and nothing complicated,” analysed Balaji.

It is hoped that Dhoni’s presence will help Kohli step down from India’s T20 captaincy with the elusive ICC trophy from his cabinet. Dhoni has encouraged Kohli in his early days and believed in his abilities. Kohli grew up under Dhoni’s wings and eventually took over as India’s captain, first in the longest format and then in the limited-overs, even skippering the Jharkhand legend in the latter’s last two years in international cricket.

The bonding between Dhoni and Kohli is legendary. Balaji said: “Both Dhoni and Kohli have a cordial relationship from the beginning. Both know the kind of trust each has for the other. Am sure Kohli will take whatever comes from Dhoni and his experience.”

Balaji concluded: “Dhoni is a man of simple words. He has kept it very very simple all these years. And this approach of his has got the desired results for his team, be it Team India or CSK. He is not someone who will just say from the boundary line. He will make others do it on the field. The leadership of Dhoni has its own pattern.”

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first published:October 20, 2021, 10:45 IST