Mahendra Singh Dhoni flashed a familiar smile and extended his arm. His handshake was firm, as always.
Moments earlier he had been swarmed by fans in the hotel lobby even as he alighted from the lift. Dhoni’s popularity has not dipped a tad.
Dressed in a tight t-shirt and jeans, he appeared super fit. “Do I have any other choice?” he quipped here on Thursday.
A professional athlete’s life can be hard. You come under a microscope. Then there are questions that follow – is he getting on in age, is he slowing down?
The India-Australia limited overs series beginning at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium here on Sunday could see Dhoni answering many of those queries.
As a wicket-keeper batsman, Dhoni comprehends only too well that the odd mistake is often remembered more than a weighty contribution.
He has to be on his toes, silence the doubters and build on what has been a glittering career. At 36, much of his incredible journey from a small town to the big, bold lights of international cricket is behind him. But then, the challenges ahead could get his competitive juices flowing.
For most part, he has sped down the highway to success and milestones, his biker spirit shining through. Dhoni has crossed the 300-game mark in ODIs, has a record 100 stumpings in them.
These are times though when he may have to negotiate some tight bends. Dhoni no longer plays Test cricket, there can be long breaks between series, and he has to keep his focus. And each time he fails to live up to his own high standards, he will be under even more scrutiny.
Yet, there could be some sting in the tail of a fulfilling tale which could climax in the ICC 2019 World Cup.
Dhoni is here in a city that is only too familiar to him. As the talismanic skipper who fired Chennai Super Kings to several triumphs, he has a legion of supporters in these parts. There will be a roar when he enters the ground here for the first India-Australia ODI.
India coach Ravi Shastri has backed Dhoni to continue in the side, appreciates his ability, fitness and commitment. “He is a legend,” says Shastri.
In a side of stroke-makers, Dhoni offers stability to the line-up. He has so often been the link between the specialist batsmen and the lower order.
He can rally when the chip are down, build partnerships and pilot the side home. Take the India – Sri Lanka ODI this season in Pallekele for instance. Pursuing 237, India slumped to 131 for seven before Dhoni (45 not out) guided the side to victory along with Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Years of cricket do take their toll. And his ploy of taking the game deep and exploding at the finish has come in for some criticism particularly when the tactic fails to come off.
His 114-ball 54 against the West Indies in the ODI at North Sound is a case in point. India went down by 11 runs and Dhoni couldn’t quite be the finisher that day.
But then, he still has the bat speed, dextrous wrists and the power to dismantle attacks on his day. Dhoni still covers ground like a panther between the wickets and still possesses those fast hands to effect lighting stumpings and run-outs.
This celebrated cricketer still has some gas left in the tank. Dhoni has some unfinished business.
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