Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s greatest quality is his equanimity

WHAT is Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s greatest gift as a sportsman, as a person, as an A-list celebrity in Indian cricket?

Dean Jones, the former Australian cricketer, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, the other day, described Dhoni as an “enigmatic figure” and a “rare breed of cricketer and a game changer.”

“He is cool and unflappable,” wrote Jones. And this is very much in sync with the popular image of the Indian skipper — Mr. Cool, Captain Courageous, Zen Master.

While clichés have an argumentative simplicity, they often hide a lot. For, language can often make a mockery of meaning when we become too lazy and fail to get under readymade explanations with which we stereotype fellow human beings.

Dhoni is certainly everything that Jones says he is; certainly everything that millions of fans believe he is. But when you unwrap the package and the clichés fall away, you see what makes Dhoni special.

Right perspective

The man has got his perspective right, something that is rather easy when doing just about anything other than leading the Indian cricket team during a time of transition.

Dhoni is Dhoni because he knows that sport is not a matter of life and death, that it is something to be enjoyed while also providing enjoyment to those watching it — even those watching it on seat-edge.

This is precisely why Dhoni does not remind me of any other cricketer of his era as much as Boris Becker. On a lovely summer afternoon at Wimbledon in 1987, Becker walked into a room for a post-match media conference with a wan smile after a shock defeat to a little known Australian, Peter Doohan, in the second round.

Was that the most shattering loss of his career, he was asked. “Well, I just lost a tennis match. Nobody died out there,” said Becker, all of 19 years old then, already a two-time Wimbledon champion.

Becker instinctively knew what sportspersons, or even fans, his age would have struggled to clearly understand — that sport is not really a matter of life and death.

Sport is enjoyable only so long as we can get our perspective right and put it in its place, put it where it really belongs in the big picture. If we let it become too important, then what was sought as a pleasurable experience will turn out to be a pain.

As gifted as he is as an athlete, Dhoni’s greatest quality is his equanimity. He has a Kiplingesque kind of grace under pressure. He has the ability to meet with “triumph and disaster,” and “treat those two imposters just the same.”

Sport is not actually a very complicated and serious business so long as you are mentally prepared to keep it that way. This is true as much for a sportsman as it is for a passionate sports-lover.

It is only when you get carried away by all the hype, the megabucks and a dozen other things that tend to divert your attention from what sport essentially is that you end up tying yourself up in knots, missing heartbeats and, finally, missing the point.

Before it began, the second Test of the ongoing India-Australia series was termed pivotal, a do-or-die match that could well decide the destination of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Give yourself some time, perhaps a year or two, look back and then let me know what this do-or-die was all about.

We so readily employ all sorts of scary metaphors (war, death, etc.) in sport simply because of our vacuousness when viewing athletic activity in the larger context of life.

If India does happen to lose this series — something that is highly unlikely — the result will not test the critical-care capability of hospital emergency services across the country. A few tears might be shed by a fanatical few, but cricket and life will move on.

The country’s per capita income does not climb with the Indian cricket team’s — or any other sports team’s — fortunes. In fact, a successful World Cup campaign at home might adversely affect the country’s per capita income and GDP because of the man-hours lost to television-watching.

We love sport precisely because it makes room for a million mini-deaths, a million ‘Oh-what-a-relief’ sighs. But this is not a good enough reason to feel any sense of shame when India loses.

There is enough in this country to be ashamed of as an Indian — poverty, child labour, discrimination of all sorts — without having to include sport in that category.

“You know, as a cricketer I never took it seriously. I just had fun. But this is the fight of my life,” said my late friend T.E. Srinivasan, a former Test cricketer, a year before his death from metastatic brain tumour.

That’s what perspective is all about; without it, sport would hardly be worth the time and passion we expend on it.