It all started with a run-out. It ended with a run-out. In between, for a decade-and-half, he made us – enjoy milk, sport long-hair, accept mohawks, feel good about being unorthodox or odd, purchase shoes to fans to biscuits, fall for the bright yellow (despite the scars of 2003), feel happy, angry, curious and most importantly believe.
He also made you do a lot of things, but it depends on which end of the spectrum you are on. If you only hero-worshipped his predecessors, he made you fume; if you bowled at him, he made you aghast; if you are a sports journalist, he made you lose your sleep and hair; but if you blindly cared for only Indian cricket, he made you fall in love.
The enigma of MS Dhoni lies in the inexplicability. Perhaps no figure has integrated the polar-opposite north and south India like him. A north Indian from the Hindi heartland is Chennai’s Thala. Similarly, Mahi-bhaiya’s Chennai Super Kings (CSK) rests in Jharkhand’s heart.
A fan-favourite, a legend of the sport, a brand’s delight, Dhoni, the man, despite the biopic, remains a mystery. After a yearlong sabbatical (compounded by the pandemic) from the sport, he dropped the big ‘R’ word (quite literally in UPPERCASE) on Instagram.
The Mukesh classic went with the montage: “I am only a momentary poet. These little moments tell my story.” It continues: “There were many poets who came before me and left the stage. They all contributed. They were a part of many moments like I am a part of these. Tomorrow I will leave the stage…”
The Jabra Fan
Growing up in Kolkata in the early 2000s, the name Dhoni was familiar, even if you didn’t regularly follow the Ranji scorecards. Between the breaks he had from checking tickets at India’s longest railway station – Kharagpur, Dhoni would play khep cricket in Bengal. The tennis ball matches in the towns and villages attracted a vast audience, interest and rivalry. At a time when good college-level cricketers were lured with mutton or Rs 100-500, having Mahi in your team would mean shelling out at least Rs 2,000.
When Team India’s wicketkeeping reins were juggled between Rahul Dravid and Parthiv Patel, the legend of Dhoni was growing in the Midnapore region in the local khep cricket. His Kharagpur friends would still tell you how this tennis-ball star, who could tonk the ball to a neighbouring village, would admire Sourav Ganguly’s leadership while they watched the sport on television.
Dhoni, the serious cricketer, would first catch my attention in December 2002. I would follow the happenings of East Zone teams quite religiously. Though Deep Dasgupta had opened for India, keepers opening in First-Class cricket wasn’t really a trend in the country. In a Bihar vs Haryana game, Dhoni would open and get quick-fire 85 and 40 respectively in both innings.
March 2004. Just before India’s historic Pakistan tour, East Zone and North Zone locked horns in the Duleep Trophy final. Dasgupta, who played the league games, wasn’t picked for the final and Dhoni opened. The match was all about Yuvraj Singh’s majestic batting where he scored twin tons (106 and 148). East, chasing 408, made a brisk start with Dhoni belting a 60 off just 47 balls. North won by 59 runs, but I knew that this khep chap had the Sehwag-like X-factor that the other Indian keeper-batsmen in general lacked. He looked positive, uncluttered, and he backed himself. The brief scores in tiny letters in the sports pages would further win me.
The glimmer of hope turned to an assurance during the A-teams Nairobi triangular in 2004. Dhoni, batting at No.3, would score two centuries and one 70 against Pakistan A. The games being televised helped Dhoni’s cause. Ganguly’s habit of fine cherry-picking worked again, and by the year-end, the captain he admired would draft him to the international team.
Starting his career with a run-out for nought, Dhoni had a slow Bangladesh series. A month later, now a college student, I was at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, during one of the games between India Seniors and India B in the Challengers Trophy. Ganguly made Dhoni open for India Seniors, and the latter reciprocated the faith with 96-ball 102 that saw his team through. Pakistan were arriving the following month, and I could sniff something was around the corner.
As much as I love Ganguly, I wanted this raw long-haired Samson-like figure to bat higher up in the order. The moment came soon thanks to Ganguly’s vision and then the Vizag 2005 against Pakistan happened. The boyish smile, the Samsonish strength and against the Goliath of opposition, the nation fell for him and also milk, which was thought as the magic potion for his strength.
Cricketers get influenced by their heroes and start imitating. Dhoni’s strength lied in his originality. As a die-hard cricket fanatic teenager, I hoped India had found an Adam Gilchrist, a good keeper who could bat and more importantly carry himself well. He created a type of his own. He was cricket’s first Dhoni – a one of a kind phenomenon.
Dhoni, in no time, would reach the pinnacle in limited-overs cricket. Sixteen months after his ODI debut, he went on to displace Ricky Ponting from the No.1 batsman spot in the format. After 42 matches, his average touched 53, and those runs had come at a strike rate of 103. He was winning Pakistan too. Early in his Test career, he would smash a century there and then there would be a string of strong ODI finishes. The then Pakistan dictator, General Pervez Musharraf admitted being a Dhoni fan and had warned him against chopping off the locks.
In between trying to create a finisher out of Dhoni, I believe India lost out on a limited-overs batsman, who could scale to the heights of a Viv Richards or AB de Villiers. Not that Dhoni did any lesser with his versatility, but somehow his true potential as the man who hit those 148 and 183* in the first year of his cricket faded.
Foreseeing the legacy
Sometime in June 2007, I was a part of the fogyish gang and had still not come in terms with India’s inglorious exit from the World Cup. Greg Chappell was gone, but still there seemed little hope for the side’s future. I didn’t think Rahul Dravid was the right person to take Indian cricket forward. We friends discussed. Some said, give it back to Dada, some were divided between Yuvraj and Sehwag. Freshly out of college, a few drinks down, ‘MS Dhoni’, I had uttered. Silence was heard for a few seconds, followed by some head shakes in disbelief till another friend uttered the dismissive bulls**t .
A month-and-half later, in my job interview in a prominent media house, I was asked whether Dravid should continue to lead.
“No. Dhoni should take over.”
The interviewer glared, “Seriously? You see a Tendulkar taking orders from Dhoni?”
“Yes sir, Kapil has from Azhar. Azhar has from Ganguly”, I said.
Though the interviewer wasn’t completely convinced, he gave his nod, and I accidentally found myself in the world of sports journalism. And soon, the captaincy cloak fell upon Dhoni. Till date, I pride myself in foreseeing this. I walked around my gang with the swagger.
Why could I predict it? There’s no definite answer, but I often saw him being in the ears of his captain. There was the calm demeanour and calculative approach. Also, in one of the interviews of Ganguly before the 2007 World Cup, he spoke at length on Dhoni’s reading of the game. Dravid appeared too studious and meticulous, Sehwag too casual and Yuvraj too flamboyant. Dhoni seemed to be in the moment, a quality I believe an Indian captain should possess because switching off in this high-stress job is important.
From banking on Joginder Sharma in 2007 World T20, to backing Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja like no one would have, to promoting himself in the 2011 World Cup Final, Dhoni’s decisions and achievements as a leader are the stuff of legend. Yes, Dhoni was instinctive, but there was method and planning. He would break a problem into multiple fragments, addressed each one of them by living in that moment and then there was a cautious mix of contingency planning and instinctive decision-making.
When Sri Lanka had gained the upper hand in the 2011 World Cup Final, an out-of-form Dhoni promoted himself ahead of an in-form Yuvraj. Having kept wickets to Muttiah Muralitharan for CSK, he believed in his ability to read and tackle his spin. Yes, we do talk about the poor form which can only be addressed by believing in your abilities and going out and proving. We also speak of the advantageous good form. But every time, you go out to bat your score is zero.
Out of Dhoni’s many untouched captaincy laurels, my favourite has to be India’s 4-0 drubbing of Australia at home in 2013. One may argue that home Tests are India’s strength, then why this? The competitive Australians are not used to whitewashes, and this Indian team didn’t mellow down after the series win. They desperately wanted to avenge the humiliation they faced a year back in Australia and hence remained ruthless. Also, the victory came at a time when the team was in a rebuilding phase. Earlier that season, India had lost to England at home, and therefore, India didn’t really start as the usual rank favourites. Dhoni himself led the charge, notching up his maiden and only double hundred in the first Test of the series. Fittingly, it was in Chennai.
The cushion of captaincy success didn’t make him complacent as a player. No doubt, he had less hair and ones that remained turned grey in no time, but during this time he developed as cricket’s most efficient finishers. From an acceptable keeper, he transitioned to one of the best-evers – arguably, the greatest against spin bowling. He developed a technique of deflecting the ball to the stumps. How many times have we seen in the replays that gaining that fraction of second proved decisive in a dismissal? During the same time, the versions of the helicopter shots improved.
My other favourite Dhoni captaincy part is how he created a bowler out of Kedar Jadhav, a man known for his batting exploits and was a part-time keeper. He would also go on to play a significant role in the development of India’s wrist spin-twin – Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Just like Dhoni won all the adulations, he’s also one of the most scrutinised cricketers. As known to the world and his biopic highlights, he played a role in the ouster of Ganguly, Dravid and Sehwag from the ODIs, citing their agility. He could have supported certain players as he did others. He made his bias obvious.
At one point of time, Team India resembled a miniature version of CSK. Same selection parameters didn’t follow for all cricketers. While many deserving cricketers toiled under the sun, few would get an extended run due to the latent talent factor. His close association with N Srinivasan and support for Gurunath Meyippan was questionable and did little good to Indian cricket. An unfit and vacationing RP Singh’s return to the national side during the 2011 England tour remains a mystery.
He let Tests drift away when tough opponents challenged overseas. He was far too defensive. Mark Waugh would once tell me in early 2012: “Out of all Indian captains I have seen or played against, I would go to an extent saying that MS Dhoni has been the most disappointing. Indian skippers have always been defensive especially when compared to their Australian counterparts, but still, they haven t been looked as rudderless as Dhoni.”
Opting not to chase the remaining few runs at Dominica was a disappointing decision. What followed was – 0-4 in England, 0-4 in Australia, 0-1 in South Africa, 0-1 in New Zealand, 1-3 again in England and then another series loss in Australia.
VVS Laxman’s retirement wasn’t handled well. Sehwag’s career came to a premature end. Ravichandran Ashwin wasn’t used well in the 2016 season. His reluctance to move up the order denied the world the original Dhoni that captured a nation’s imagination like only Tendulkar could do. He clung on to limited-overs captaincy for far too long.
He could have quit captaincy after 2015 World Cup, which could have given Kohli two years to prepare for the 2017 Champions Trophy.
Often Dhoni would take a match too deep for one’s comfort. The anxiety levels would shoot up before a six would seal it. If you are a sports journalist, Dhoni would provide you with the same anxious moments off the field. He would brutally troll you. No, it’s not funny, especially the ones with weak heart.
Dhoni brings all the TRPs and pageviews. If you are in this profession, you cover Dhoni like no other sportsperson. From a friendly media-shy person, he would go on to take on the press and troll them. He refused to answer any question on the 2013 IPL spot-fixing before India’s departure to England for the Champions Trophy. While the press continued with their criticism of Dhoni’s unpleasant silence, the man responded by lifting the trophy in England. In doing so, he became the only captain to complete the treble of T20 World Cup, ODI World Cup and Champions Trophy.
The November-December 2014 were some of the most stressful months for a cricket journalist. Rohit Sharma had slammed that 264. Then India were touring Australia. Dhoni was injured which meant Virat Kohli would lead his first-ever Test. The verbal volleys had started and then the Phillip Hughes tragedy came about. Amid the most emotional settings, Kohli would produce two gems in Adelaide, but India would still lose. Dhoni returned for Brisbane and India would lose again. Then comes the Boxing Day Test, Kohli continued his class and picked up duels with Mitchell Johnson, Brad Haddin and other Australians. With so much happening, there was little respite for the fraternity.
December 30, the Melbourne Boxing Day Test ended in a draw. With the series lost and all the yearenders complete, we had one foot in our party shoes. Journalists, too, are allowed to celebrate New Year’s Eve. It was a little window we had before cricket commenced and even the 2015 World Cup stared at us. But, Dhoni had other plans.
Dhoni had an usual press conference. The press dispersed and returned to their own lives. He was seen smiling and chatting with Steven Smith an hour before the bomb dropped. BCCI would announce through a tweet that Dhoni was retiring from Tests. He had played 90 Tests, it was middle of the series, end of the year and he chose that moment.
Cricket journalists suddenly metamorphosed into erstwhile fans. The recollection of memories, arranging thoughts, ideating stories, clearing the wires and penning them all that was the New Year for us.
Now 2017. First week of January. Many were still on leave. At around 9.30 in the night, Dhoni announces he would step down from captaincy. What? Dinner goes for docks. Those who ended their shift were asked to log-in from homes. The next twelve hours were a flurry of emails from the marketing team, then the reactions, Google, Facebook and the order of the day was Dhoni, Dhoni and Dhoni.
And then, this Independence Day, a rare holiday the media enjoys. Minimum staff at desk and he unleashes the helicopter from nowhere. Bedlam breaks loose and if that’s not enough, Suresh Raina follows him. I would be lying if I said I didn’t anticipate that his retirement would be this random. We have read books on him, we have watched his film, we all know how much is he loved and adored, but yet, nothing captures how the man thinks… Maybe that brain was even beyond the genius of Neeraj Pandey.
Dhoni, for sure, knows our plight. Here’s to all those uncomfortable questions you asked him in the pressers. I guess, while he does it, he smiles at us or maybe he doesn’t care. We will never know. Sam Ferris can tell you more.
A more normal being would have called it a day from ODIs after India’s loss in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals. That run-out deflated all the remaining hopes. He didn’t play an international game since, so technically that remains his last international.
While his prolonged sabbatical didn’t make enough sense, it was logical if he thought he would play the 2020 T20 World Cup. Nothing against KL Rahul or Rishabh Pant’s skills, but Dhoni could have played a role because the boundaries are bigger in Australia. Quick running and finding gaps would be more critical than bravado of big-hitting. Dhoni’s hitting had waned over time, but the smart accumulator could have played a role.
The unannounced pandemic has led to the restructuring of the world. With the World Cup postponed, not even the most ardent Dhoni fans would have hoped for a return. He would be 40 by then. But until the formal retirement decision took place, a part of you still hopes. Then the realisation hits you that you will have to call him a former Indian cricketer. Why does Team India suddenly seem like Pandavas without Krishna or Kauravas without Bheeshma?
Captain or not, with Dhoni around, you believed. There was a calculative and methodical approach. Of course, it is a method that only he understands. While batting, few have culminated brain and brawn to such effect.
On Dhoni’s biggest contribution? I stay committed to the statement I have used numerous times – from a young Lobsang from Itanagar, to Pervez from Panipat to Bela from Bankura, to Pururava from Punalur, to a Jamal from Jalalabad; all believe that dreams can come true.
Let the reality dawn upon you. You will never see Dhoni in his blues. The clock’s ticking. Rejoice the Thala effecting those lightning-fast stumpings and the willow-wielding fest for Chennai till it lasts.
PS: I wondered for hours on the headline before I decided to just thank him.