The global sports shutdown after the outbreak of COVID-19 could bring about an early end to many athletes’ careers. We’ve already seen Vince Carter play what was likely his final NBA game, while the runs of Olympic athletes and tennis greats are also in danger of being cut short. And one of the world’s most popular sports may lose the most effective leader in its largest market.
Cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the longtime wicketkeeper1 and former captain of the Indian national cricket team, turns 39 in July, and there had been ample speculation about his retirement from international play even before the pandemic hit. Though he stopped playing the five-day-long Test matches at the end of 2014, Dhoni had continued playing internationally — in 50-overs (one-day international) matches and in the shortened Twenty20 format, producing marquee performances in both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups — and at the club level for the Chennai Super Kings, which he led to the 2018 Indian Premier League title.
Dhoni’s career was extraordinary. He worked as a ticket inspector for the Indian Railways while playing on the local cricket circuit before bursting onto the national scene in 2005. Against Pakistan, the relatively unknown 23-year-old notched 148 runs off just 123 balls — then the third-highest run total in a single batting outing by a keeper in one-day internationals. He would smash the overall record later that year, blasting 183 runs against Sri Lanka for a mark that still stands today. From there, it was a fast rise to the top of the sport, as Dhoni earned the title of No. 1 batsman in one-day international cricket in April 2006 and assumed the captaincy of the Indian one-day side in 2007 and the Test-match team in 2008. Unlike its cousin baseball, where the title of captain is mostly honorific, cricket captains are responsible for designing a great deal of strategy. Whether it’s choosing the batting order, who bowls each over or different fielding arrangements, a competent captain is key.
Dhoni will likely never be as revered as fellow countryman Sachin Tendulkar, international cricket’s highest run-scorer of all time, or even current India captain and phenom Virat Kohli, who has already surpassed Dhoni’s career run total and could pass Tendulkar’s. But it’s hard to see Dhoni’s record as captain as anything other than the greatest in Indian history. Dhoni led India to more one-day international victories than any captain in team history, and he steered India to the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup title and captured the coveted 2011 World Cup, scoring 91 runs in the final against Sri Lanka and leading the highest run chase ever in the Cup final.2 Dhoni played the sixth-most matches and captained the most matches (332) in cricket history, and he led India to its first-ever No. 1 Test-match ranking in 2009.
|SP Fleming||New Zealand||1997-2007||128||135||303|
|GC Smith||South Africa||2003-2014||163||89||286|
|A Ranatunga||Sri Lanka||1988-1999||101||114||249|
|WJ Cronje||South Africa||1994-2000||126||46||191|
As a wicketkeeper, Dhoni displayed deft, often underrated glovework and recorded the third-most dismissals of any keeper in international cricket history — including the most stumpings and third-most catches.3 As a batsman, Dhoni was known for his often “gritty and unruffled” style of hitting, eschewing the more refined technique of Tendulkar for a harder-hitting and more aggressive style, perhaps best exemplified by his 359 career sixes,4 fifth-most in international history. And though that style often betrayed him in Test matches, a format that lends itself to more deliberate play,5 it helped him tremendously in 50-overs matches: He notched the 11th-most runs ever in one-day international matches and had the second-highest batting average of any player with at least 10,000 career runs, trailing only Kohli.
Perhaps more important than any of Dhoni’s individual accomplishments, though, was that he filled the void left by the departure of Tendulkar and the rest of India’s “golden generation” in the early 2010s. In a country where people often treat cricket as religion, Dhoni was the ideal leader of a rather large congregation, guiding the country through a changing of the guard while putting on dazzling performances, shouldering plenty of criticism along the way. What he lacked in Tendulkar’s finesse and Kohli’s eye-popping stats, Dhoni made up for with his calm, measured demeanor that earned him the nickname “Captain Cool.” If he has indeed played his last international match, Dhoni has completed one of cricket’s most remarkable careers in front of arguably its most fervent observers.