Lucky captain Dhoni admits he cannot enjoy playing for India


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The Independent Online

All the fuss on the way to the first Test match has been about one Indian cricketer. Sachin Tendulkar, who has achieved a veneration usually reserved for gods, stands improbably on the cusp of making his 100th international hundred.

It has been natural to talk about him, and anybody (which is everybody) who has been asked, has been glad to the point of desperation to praise his unparalleled contribution to a sport he has graced for 20 years. But another Indian cricketer in this series is assuming, if he has not already done so, a significance every bit as great.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the captain of India. On his watch, they have become the world's top side in the ICC ratings and they also won the World Cup. When he led Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League, they won it. This boy has something. To the naked eye there is nothing especially prepossessing about Dhoni's captaincy, no cute tactical tricks, no apparent psychological masterstrokes.

But there is no doubt that this is his team. India were first dragged into modern cricket by Sourav Ganguly, whose hauteur and conviction were boundless. Dhoni's leadership is defined by tranquillity which never appears to be disturbed despite the constant attentions of a billion people.

Two months ago, Dhoni pulled off an astonishing coup in the World Cup final. He had been in moderate nick throughout the tournament, but his calm demeanour had ensured that India progressed to the final without undue alarm. But it was beginning to look bad for them against Sri Lanka when they lost their third wicket. To general surprise, Dhoni promoted himself in the order, judged his innings perfectly, finished it with a six, scored 91 not out from 79 balls and India had won the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. That was leadership all right.

Dhoni has a neat trick in press briefings where his opinion is sought on everything and he gives one on virtually nothing while speaking at length with considerable charm. He attempted superficially to explain the elements of his captaincy yesterday on the eve of the series in which India may lose their Test ranking to England.

"The first thing is to have a good side," he said. "Then, trying to keep it simple is very important especially when you have the expectation of 1.2 billion people. What we really emphasise is enjoying the game. Cricket is a sport, you're supposed to enjoy it, which more often than not being part of the Indian team you're not really able to do.

"The hype that is around cricket, the amount of people that watch cricket, the amount of opinions that float around, I try to set the right expectation level. When we turn up on the field we're expected to win each and every game which we know is not possible."

And there you had it, the secrets of MS Dhoni. It is common for folk today, usually on television talent or reality shows, to talk of their journey. Dhoni has had a remarkable journey from the Indian railways. When India reached the World Cup final in 2003, he was a ticket clerk on a station near his home in Ranchi, in north-east India, some 250 miles from Calcutta.

Greg Chappell, one of India's less-successful coaches, first spotted his leadership potential (and that really is it – he is a leader). The cricket skills are high but rudimentary. There is no grace about his method; it simply gets the job done. He never expected to be at Lord's or anywhere else playing international cricket. He was asked what he thought about the opinion that he was a lucky captain.

"In 1999 I first played under-19 state cricket," he said. "If somebody had told me I would be playing with Sachin I would have told them that's a lie, it won't happen. I never thought I would play for India, I never thought I would share a dressing room with Sachin Tendulkar or some of the other legends, from Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman. It's an honour. I feel if the team is winning it doesn't matter if we are a good side or the fact that the captain is lucky or the player is lucky, if we're winning I don't mind."

Tendulkar is one thing, by the end of the series England may have rediscovered that Dhoni is quite another.

First test details

England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, E J G Morgan, M J Prior (wkt), G P Swann, J M Anderson, C T Tremlett, S C J Broad.

India (probable): G Gambhir, A Mukund, R S Dravid, S R Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, S K Raina, M S Dhoni (capt & wkt), H Singh, P Kumar, Z Khan, I Sharma

Umpires B Bowden (NZ) & A Rauf (Pak)

Weather forecast Cloudy with the threat of rain today, but the weather should improve over the next four days. Maximum temperature: 20C

Pitch report The elements may play a part in encouraging England's seam bowlers but it will probably be a typical flat Lord's pitch.

Television times Sky Sports 110am-7pm. Highlights: Channel 5 7-8pm.

Odds England 9/4; India 9/2; Draw 10/11.