MS Dhoni and the super gut

We try simplify what the greats do, and by doing so we often end up selling them short.

Dennis Rodman used to watch players shoot in warm-up. He'd look at footage as well. He wanted to know what happened when the ball missed, did their shots go left or right,  was there a big bounce or would he have to be closer to the rim. This may have looked like chance to others, but he believed rebounding was partly reading the shooters. He was ensuring every opportunity was more in his favour. This was one reason Rodman became the greatest modern rebounder.

The narrative wasn't that strong around his preparation.  Rodman was seen as an athlete who hustled more than anyone else. The technique and skill were overlooked.

This isn't a one-off thing. You watch a header goal in football and one player jumps and meets it perfectly, and the rest don't move. The commentator will say, "He wanted it more". Often ignoring the many obvious technical reasons, like the closest defender losing his footing, another misreading the ball and a third is just out of position. It's not that individual athletes don't try harder, but that's hard to define or prove, and it becomes a catchall for all success.

All of this comes to mind after someone tweeted me this.

It's the gut/intuition that bothers me here. And this is not having a go at this tweeter, this is the definitive narrative about MS Dhoni. But your guts have sh*t for brains, so let's ignore that for a moment, and look at intuition. That means you feel it in your bones, that you have this near-magical ability to just get cricket. Like Dhoni was somehow born with more cricket knowledge than others. That's obviously not how these things work. What Dhoni had to do was learn.

We like to superheroise the best athletes, but we don't want to show how the sausage was made. That often doesn't fit the narrative.

Dhoni wasn't born with this, he picked it up; step by step. This is learned knowledge, and the easiest way to see is in the decisions he makes. He is brilliant at matchups. Now I don't know if that is his memory, or he's playing the percentages (which he often does), or it's because someone has given him this information. But it's undervaluing his intelligence and game sense to say it's just something within him. He had to know that a certain player would struggle at the death against left-arm spin, and then he needed the calmness of mind to recall it, and if it's a risky strategy, he needs the self-belief to pull it off.

We see it as a gut call because we don't have his knowledge. Most captains, even the poorer ones, are reading the size of the boundaries, wind direction, if one end is easier/tougher to score from, and the batsmen's likely boundary options for each bowler.  Dhoni is less magical and more like an extreme pragmatist, a living cricket algorithm. It's possible he doesn't spend as much time with his analyst or watching clips as other captains (though, I'm not sure that's true), but he is in a state of constant learning. Because as an analyst who watches him, captain, I'd suggest he's making these calls based on previous results.

How he learns that information, whether through an enthusiastic Chennai Aussie-fan super-nerd analyst or via just sitting on his sofa and watching the games. People learn in distinct ways. And it's clear he has a different brain than other captains.

After India lost to Australia in the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, everyone wanted to know why they hadn't gone harder.  Dhoni said they weren't built to score at that rate. Dhoni looked at his middle order and knew that it couldn't chase a total like that, even with him there. That is not how most athletes think, they are trained to believe they can win from anywhere. Dhoni has never worked that way, many times I've been in press conferences where he's given such an honest, analytical reason for the loss.

This is what he takes into his plans, what might look like stunning gut led intuition is him being pragmatic. It's him working a match up so that instead of it being a 50/50 shot, it's 60/40 in favour of his team. And he does this regularly.

Cricket captains like Dhoni have extra skills. They're often better at man management, think clearer in high-pressure environments, and possess incredible memory recall. They're not some kind of Hollywood trope autistic rain man.

And to be fair to the original tweeter, he was working towards this answer himself.

The idea of this super gut is just silly, and yet so many sports fans feel that way. It's great to think of the magical elf-like creatures who bounce out of their mothers with sport skills that salty veterans dream of. But it's unfair. You can be gifted with more talent than others, and these abilities might give you an advantage. It's up to you what you make of them. There are incredible natural athletes who never even arrive at the top level of sport because physical gifts aren't all of it. Most of the best stars are a combination of so many factors. We look at one or two and often give them a supernatural air.

Rodman didn't have a sixth sense where the ball was going, Dhoni doesn't have an intuitive gut. They use work and intelligence to make the most out of themselves. Less magical, more conventional.