Dhoni and the art of delay

It would seem a bit ironic that while talking about one of the world’s foremost wicketkeepers when it comes to reaction time behind the stumps, I want to emphasize on how he is a master at delaying things. But Mahendra Singh Dhoni is paradoxical like that. 

His entire career in cricket has been built on this art of the delay, often manifest in how he takes matches down to the last over or last ball (a notorious or a heroic ability depending on who you ask). A gambler who always knows the odds of the bet he is getting into, Dhoni has earned the moniker Captain Cool by being someone who never shows his hand. He is ridiculously calm and collected in the cauldron of a frenzy that India’s cricket games can be. For Exhibit A, look at the photograph below. 

There are many theories about how Dhoni does it. There are an equal number of detractors out to theorize why he is wrong. But that’s hardly the point. What, in my opinion, Dhoni has mastered is the art of delay in decision making. 

The Wall Street Journal’s tennis writer, Tom Perrotta, had written an article earlier in the year explaining how Djokovic succeeds by hitting the tennis ball deep into his opponents’ court giving them less time to react. But there is another fascinating side to this. In a Financial Times article back in 2012, Frank Partnoy, author of the book ‘Wait’ described how super athletes can ‘procrastinate at the speed of light’. 

Watch Novak Djokovic. His advantage over the other professionals at Wimbledon won’t be his agility or stamina or even his sense of humour. Instead, as scientists who study superfast athletes have found, the key to Djokovic’s success will be his ability to wait just a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball. That tiny delay is why most players won’t have a chance against him. Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light. 

When Dhoni takes the game down to that last ball, or makes a fielding change seemingly after the chicken’s flown the coop, he is subconsciously doing exactly what the likes of Djokovic do. Reduce everything down to a moment where his faster reaction time helps him outthink the bowler and delay and adjust his shot at the last moment. The reflexes may be slowing but his mind remains as sharp as ever on that note. 

Dhoni has often expressed the desire to be in the army. He probably could have been easily a fighter pilot – one who can act lightning fast but within that split second consider all scenarios. Gary Kirsten is right. You’d want to go to war with Dhoni by your side. Delay is half the story because there is one last crucial aspect if you want to understand the psyche of Dhoni. We are fond of quoting Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, specifically the lines that tell us that about the ability to meet success and failure and treat both imposters the same. Most of us fail ridiculously at doing that. Dhoni doesn’t. 

As Rahul Dravid once memorably put it:

 “Win, lose, he can walk away. I don’t know many, if any, who can retain their perspective like he can.” 

He weighs risks, takes decisions, delaying them to the last possible moment to increase his advantage and chances of success, but also knows that it is a gamble. Sometimes it doesn’t come off and he remains nonplussed. That indifference (which I have written about here not once, but twice before) is often misinterpreted as him not caring. 

In a game that ignites unbelievable levels of passions among Indian players and fans alike, cricket is unlikely to see a textbook decision maker of this level ever again. 

Cherish Captain Cool while you can. Happy Birthday, Hefe! 


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One response to “Dhoni and the art of delay

  1. Pingback: Dhoninomics – Economic lessons from MSD | It's the Market, Stupid!

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