Virat Kohli has more hundreds than Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Virender Sehwag has a better strike rate than the skipper and Yuvraj Singh, more runs. And none of them happen to be in the 10,000-runs club, unlike Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. So what is the big hype around Dhoni, the ODI batsman? It is actually an unconventional statistic, the kind that doesn't appear on TV screens while a player takes guard, which explains why Dhoni doesn't need to sit atop the run-getter's podium to reach lofty heights of fame and greatness.
Dhoni has seen India cross the line while still at the crease an unprecedented 34 times in his ODI career. On 15 of these occasions, he has sealed the win by sending the ball sprinting to the ropes or flying into the stands. Most times, it is the latter, and that too in games as important as the World Cup final or as close as the tri-series final in Port of Spain last week, where India won by a wicket in the final over. Only once in his career has Dhoni remained unbeaten in a lost chase.
The final swing of Dhoni's bat, bowler shaking his head in disbelief, fielders slumping around on the turf, crowds erupting and a blue stream of his wildly celebrating teammates trickling out from the dressing room to flood the field: Venues can change but this is the familiar aftermath of all such Dhoni specials.
Untouched by this outpouring of emotions around him, the man of the moment would walk to the pavilion with the casualness of a 9-to-5 worker returning home after a hard but satisfying day at office. The bat in his hand can pass as a briefcase and that souvenir stump, mostly tucked under his arm, a curio collected on a memorable official trip. Firefighters don't pump fists or run amok in celebration after conquering the flames. Dhoni, someone with roughly the same job profile in the playing XI, seems to follow the same work ethic. He is paid well to do a job, and he does it without fear or fuss.
That expressionless calm on Dhoni's face while navigating the toughest of chases has resulted in various interpretations of the man behind the blank look. For many, he is a monk. For others, he is a gambler who is just plain lucky.
But a close study of the games in which Dhoni has got the baton with his team trailing by miles, but ended with his signature swagger on the home stretch, shows a measured and scientific approach of pacing his strides to perfection. His ability to scale run-peaks wasn't an overnight transformation or something he picked up from batting stalwarts in the dressing room. Sweaty palms, a muddled mind or reluctance to lunge at the collar of a tall score wasn't something that was ever associated with the boy from cricket's backwater, Jharkhand. Just 24 and in his first year of international cricket, Dhoni found himself in the thick of things as India, playing Sri Lanka, needed 299 to win. That is when Dhoni, batting at No 3, showed the first glimpse of his finishing skills.
But his straightened and streaked long hair, a style statement not associated with someone from the big cities and the mythical milk-drinking tales that somehow get tagged to sporting achievers from Little India, played a role in typecasting the early Dhoni. Back then, he was seen as a fictional, renegade John Rambo when he was actually someone who read books about real wars and could hold his own while talking military tactics with real generals. Swayed by his 10 fours and 15 sixes, he was labelled a buccaneer. But Dhoni's unbeaten 183 was anything but a mindless slog-fest. He seemed to have neatly divided the Lankan attack into two groups based on their skills and experience. Group one, which had Chaminda Vaas, Dilhara Fernando and Muttiah Muralitharan, was treated with caution. The much lighter group two (Farveez Mahroof, Upul Chandana and Tillakaratne Dilshan), he took liberties with. When bowling to Dhoni, Vaas conceded 22 runs from 18 balls, Fernando 13 from 25 and Murali 29 from 30. Nothing untoward, just par for the course.
It was Mahroof (38 from 22), Chandana (61 from 38) and Dilshan (22 from 12) who were taken to the cleaners. This truly methodical assault saw India win comfortably by four wickets, with 3.5 overs to spare. With Dhoni scoring 15 from Mahroof's first over, 14 from Chandana's and 11 from Dilshan's opening overs, it was clear that he didn't waste time in exploiting Lanka's weaker links.
Years later, on a grander scale, he would play a similar hand. On April 2, 2011, Dhoni was about to turn 30 and as a captain playing a World Cup final, was on the verge of history. India chased 275 on that jittery night at the Wankhede Stadium, but the famous Dhoni poise and belief in his old tactics remained unshaken. Once again, he would divide the bowlers based on the kind of attention they needed. On a sluggish track where the ball gripped, the demarcation this time was pacers-spinners. So against Murali, Suraj Randiv and even Dilshan, Dhoni scored at around a run a ball. The pacers (Nuwan Kulasekara in particular, who conceded 17 runs from 9 balls to Dhoni) were shown no mercy. For the fans wearing blue, Kulasekara will always be remembered as the bowler that got hit for Indian cricket's most famous six. The Dhoni hit over long-on has even got its own Facebook page.
Of late, Dhoni has been blamed for leaving things too late. Last week at Port of Spain and at Adelaide last year, with Dhoni at the crease, India went into the final over of the game needing 15 and 13 runs respectively. It made fans edgy and teammates question his approach. But this misunderstood madness too had a method. Dhoni needs the comfort of wickets in hand to take his team home without the last over drama. In both contests, against Sri Lanka and Australia, the skipper was running out of partners. In such situations, Dhoni avoids taking risks in the period between overs 45 and 49. Apparently blind to the escalating run rate, he protects the tailenders by conceding dot balls or taking singles. His agenda in such games is to be alive till the final over for that all-or-nothing face-off with the death bowler. It isn't so much a gamble as a dare. By virtue of playing countless close IPL games, possessing a multi-dimensional arsenal of strokes and a mind that never panics, the odds of untying the ropes and surfacing triumphantly over the waters favour cricket's Houdini. His final-over winning shots are as precious as gold dust for fans. They also provide a popularity spike for the game and give the team, keen to make a habit of winning, a boost.
Yet, for a statistician, it's a mere six runs added to Dhoni's ODI account. After 226 ODIs, Dhoni has a run aggregate of 7,358 — that's 1,000-plus runs less than what Tendulkar and Ganguly had after the same number of games.
But cricket doesn't short-change the ultimate finisher. They may not be on top of the archival charts, but they do jump out from the bottom of famous scorecards because of the all-important "not out" next to their names. The souvenir stump under the arm and the bear hugs from their thankful and relieved teammates compensate for their low finishes on individual ranking ladders. And that is the reason the Dhoni story will always be light on numbers, but rich in words.