`I can adapt to the Test match situation'

I used to hit balls right from the start. I loved the feeling. There was nothing else in my mind. When I started with tennis ball cricket, there was no leaving the ball and stuff like that.



HIS eyes look into you and ask questions when it is you who is interviewing him. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the man, has a burning intensity about him. Dhoni, the cricketer, radiates aggression. The Jharkhand boy's astonishing tale suggests that cricket in the country is truly reaching out. His ferocious blows travel the distance. His popularity cuts across barriers. No wonder, when Dhoni was sharing his thoughts with The Sportstar in the coffee shop of the team hotel in Chennai, the effervescent Harbhajan Singh, climbing the staircase to the lobby, turned back, peered at the dashing wicket-keeper batsman, and shouted, "He is the next King." For now, Dhoni is the thunderstorm that has swept its way into people's imagination.

Question: Can you tell us about your early days in Ranchi? Where did it all begin?

Answer: I started as a footballer. I was a goalkeeper in school. Our school team was lacking a wicket-keeper batsman. My games teacher came up to me and said, "look, it is basically the same thing, the footwork and the eye. You can give wicket-keeping a try with the leather ball." I practised for a whole year without playing a single match. It was fun for me. I love keeping, goalkeeping or wicket-keeping. I just loved it. I was in class seven at that time. Things happened from there. That was the beginning.

Where you always so aggressive?

I used to hit balls right from the start. I loved the feeling. There was nothing else in my mind. When I started with tennis ball cricket, there was no leaving the ball and stuff like that. It was just scoring from each and every ball.

What was the turning point in your school days as a batsman?

It was 1997. I was in the tenth standard, and it was the school league final, a limited overs match, and I got 213 not out. My partner Shabbir Hussian got 119. We made around 378 runs in an opening wicket partnership. That was one of the turning points in my career. I started playing for the official club in Ranchi after that. That's when I started playing real, competitive cricket.

You continue to be attacking. You do not hide your urge to dominate the attack.

I have always batted that way. Of course, there are different aspects I have learnt about the right ball to strike, about temperament. It has been a learning experience.

There must have been quite a lot of people who helped you in your cricketing journey...

The first man was K. R. Banerjee, who was our games teacher in school. Then there was Mr. Rohit Kashyap who used to make us practice. Then there was a coach Mr. Bhattacharya. Then, when I started playing for the official team, the CCL, there was Mr. Devan Sahai. When I made my Ranji Trophy debut, Mr. Randhir Singh was the coach. He actually picked us for the Ranji Trophy squad.

What I remember are the innings of Sachin Tendulkar (in picture) and Sourav Ganguly in Sharjah against Australia. Sachin's innings was called the 'Desert Storm'. I used to play cricket but never used to watch a lot of it. But I loved Sachin's batting. I loved the way he smashed the ball, along with Sourav.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

What was the atmosphere at home as you grew up?

I am from a middle-class family. My father, Mr. Pansingh, was employed in MECON. The best part was that my father never said, "don't play cricket." He wanted me to study as well. Only after I was in the tenth did he probably know that I could make a career out of cricket. There were no obstacles at home.

So there was plenty of support from the family.

There is dad, mom, one brother and a sister, both elder to me. I am the youngest in the family and the `dearest one' you can say. I was not really pampered because I was not that sort of a child. I used to study a lot. I used to play a lot. I was quite scared of my father. And I was quite close to my mother. My mom was more like a friend to me. My brother is in Almora. My sister is married and settled in Ranchi. It was a happy atmosphere at home as I grew up. There was plenty of encouragement for me.

Which part of India do your ancestors hail from? The popular belief is that you are a Jat.

My parents are from Uttaranchal. I am a Rajput, there are lots of them in Uttaranchal. But I am proud to say that I am from Jharkhand. I was born and brought up in Jharkhand.

My idol is Adam Gilchrist. I love the way he bats, the way he keeps. I like his attitude, his aggressive batting. He dominates the bowlers completely. He is also an excellent keeper.-V.V. KRISHNAN

How did the small-town boy stare into the big, bright, bold lights of the city?

The best part was I never thought that I would be excluded from the zonal level because I am from Ranchi. Whether it was for the school, club or the Ranji Trophy team I just wanted to perform. My theory was that if I kept performing, nobody could keep me out of the team.

Any innings you can recall as you were developing into a cricketer?

What I remember are the innings of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly in Sharjah against Australia. Sachin's innings was called the `Desert Storm'. I used to play cricket but never used to watch a lot of it. But I loved Sachin's batting. I loved the way he smashed the ball, along with Sourav.

There must have been words spoken to you that have stayed in your mind, probably egged you on in your journey?

When I made my Ranji Trophy debut I got 60-odd and 40-odd runs. Bihar's Avinash Kumar, among the best left-arm spinners I have seen, said, "You've got the talent to play for India". That was the first big comment for me. That was the last first class match that he played. I cannot forget that moment.

You are a blazing magnum on the field. Off it your persona undergoes a transformation.

I am very quiet, calm and cool. I always keep smiling. When I am not smiling, I look quite intense and some people are afraid of me because of my looks. It is not like that. People close to me know me well. I am quite aggressive on the field, particularly while batting. But while keeping I don't pass comments on the batsmen.

What are your recollections about your 148 against Pakistan? That innings captured the imagination of the people in the country, and put your career on the road.

I knew I had to perform to be there at the international level. Against Bangladesh, I could not do so for a variety of reasons. Against Pakistan, when I got my second match at No. 3, I knew it was my last opportunity. It was a challenge for me. The wicket was good. It was a flat track. The ground was not very big. All the things were set up for me.

You tend to underplay your achievements. You often talk about flat tracks...

It was actually a flat track and I cannot say anything otherwise. The toughest part was the heat. It was hot and humid over there.

What is the secret of your ability to send the ball soaring over the ropes effortlessly?

Technically, it must be my power, the bat speed that I generate, and the swing of the bat. These are the things that help me hit big sixes. I practice a lot for those sixes because I gain confidence. If you clear the field once, then most of the other times you are through. When you are confident you can go for the sixes.

You walk with an unmistakable swagger. There is a famous West Indian who used to saunter in like that.

Not really, I have not really seen any of Vivian Richards' clippings till now. I am quite different. I also walk a little fast. I was reading somewhere that my walk was like a tribal leader walking. It's quite natural to me. I have not changed it. It was with me from the start.

You are also learning to play according to different situations. In the Pune and Vadodara ODIs, you only opened out in the latter stages of the innings.

I read the game quite well and that's because I have played a lot of domestic cricket. I have learnt to play according to situations and that is the crucial thing. Whether batting at No. 3 or No. 6, I know that I have to go there and perform. At No. 3, the requirement is a big innings. At No. 6, the team would want you to finish things well.

For such an aggressive batsman, you hit through the line and your defence appears fairly secure.

I have worked a lot on my defence. But I always look for singles. There are situations when you cannot hit the ball. Even if you are confident you can clear the field, you don't do so because the situation is like that. You pick singles to keep the scoreboard moving.

Your blazing effort in Jaipur sent your popularity skyrocketing.

When the first ball was bowled, I knew this was among the best tracks you can get. Even after the first innings was over, it looked a good placid batting track. I was promoted to No. 3 because we were chasing a big total. The thing that came to my mind was just play my normal cricket.

Is a whirlwind unbeaten 183 `normal cricket' for you?

Yes, that's my normal cricket. I just had to choose the right ball to hit. I went after the bowlers but knew which ball to hit and which to leave. This was my best innings, better than the 148 against Pakistan.

You came strikingly close to Saeed Anwar's world record of 194...

Maybe. The way it was going. How would you define aggressive batting?

Aggressive batting is not wasting a delivery that is there to be hit. You have to make the most out of it. If the bowler is really bowling well, you have to improvise in some way or the other. You got to try and make the bowler change his length. Make him bowl short or bowl a fuller one. For that you have to improvise.

South African captain Graeme Smith hinted in Hyderabad that you were perhaps not as destructive against fast bowling. How would you react to his remarks?

I love facing fast bowlers. Particularly, when they bowl short. I love to hit them. I am very confident. In Hyderabad, I did not play the pull shot because the team had lost wickets. I will prove them wrong.

The challenges of batting in Test cricket would be different...

The conditions would be different. The strategy would be different. The field settings would be different. I can adapt to the situation and play accordingly. But I would love to play my natural game.

You went through a torrid time with the gloves in the season, especially the ODI tournament in Sri Lanka. After that, your keeping has taken a turn for the better.

I could not get used to the pace of the wickets in Sri Lanka. They were pretty slow wickets. I had some problem over there but after that I have worked really hard on my keeping. In Zimbabwe and in the ODIs in India, my work behind the stumps improved. This is not an aspect that would improve dramatically, but gradually I can be better.

Isn't standing up to Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in Tests quite a test for a young keeper?

That's the toughest part, I admit. Of course, I am training hard for it but the best training is when you keep to these spinners in a match situation. You have to adjust to the bounce they extract, the spin and the variations.

You have been putting in a lot of work with the support staff in your bid to improve your keeping...

I have put in a lot of work. Generally, it is about the feet movement. When I am keeping to the spinners, I stay low and then rise with the ball.

There is intense competition between yourself, Dinesh Kaarthick and Parthiv Patel for Indian slots. How do the three of you get along?

Of course, we are good friends. The competition is on the field. We are together in the camps. We share good things.

Who are the wicket-keepers you look up to?

Among the Indian keepers I like Kiran More. Not just because of his keeping but because he used to take on people like Javed Miandad on the field. I used to love that. He was very combative. My idol is Adam Gilchrist. I love the way he bats, the way he keeps. I like his attitude, his aggressive batting. He dominates the bowlers completely. He is also an excellent keeper.

He has set a shining example by walking. Are you a walker yourself?

I prefer to walk myself. I walked in the match against Pakistan in Ahmedabad. I nicked one to the keeper on the leg-side. The umpire might not have given me out, but I walked. I don't like to stay when I am out, apart from the run outs.

What is the secret behind your immense physical strength?

Maybe it is in the genes. I come from a hilly region. I work hard on the field, but I don't really work that much in the gym.

You also drink a lot of milk.

Yes, I drink a litre of milk everyday. It may be milkshake, hot chocolate or anything.

Dhoni's long mane has become something of his style statement. It goes well with your image of being an adventurer.

It was one year ago when we went on the `A' tour to Zimbabwe that I first grew my hair long. I have retained it since. It is a superstition as well.

What are your thoughts on coach Greg Chappell? He is an influential personality...

Our coach is very demanding. He knows what he needs from a player and how to get it out of him. That's the best part. He said, "give the first 20 balls to the bowler, get yourself in and go after the bowling". He often says, "look for the fuller ball, everything else will come to you." If anyone wants to talk to him about anything, whether it is cricket or mental strength, he is quite open.

Rahul Dravid has already been captain of the team and a role model. Your impressions on him...

He is quite calm and cool. He is not afraid to take decisions, which may not be usual. The team has come together.

In the present Indian team, flexibility is the key word. Cricketers are performing different roles, in different positions. How difficult is it to adapt?

It's quite tough, but at the international level you have to. You should. If you succeed your confidence grows.

Does the fear of failure bother you?

I think positive. But I also know there will always be a bad patch in a cricketer's life. It could be two months from now or a year from now or five years from now, it is bound to happen at some stage. I will be prepared for that. The only thing I am thinking about now is my current performance.

Can you shed light on your hobbies and other interests?

I love computer games. I am into first-person shooting games. I have lots of them. I carry them with me. I carry my laptop with me. I love bikes, basically the racing sports bikes. I don't drive very fast, but I just love them. I don't really watch too many movies, but I occasionally go to the cinema hall. I don't read a lot, but I like listening to music. I love Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Basically, it's Hindi. I don't really go for English songs.

Where do you get your inspiration?

The popularity you get by being an India player is an inspiration in itself. To maintain that popularity, you work hard.

Who are the bowlers you have found tougher than the rest?

At the international level, every bowler is difficult to face. It depends on the situation. Shane Bond and Muralitharan are quite difficult.

You attempted to end the Vadodara ODI with a six, but failed for once...

I went for it. I just thought I could clear the field, but I didn't.

Does the pressure of being a big-hitting entertainer weigh down on you? Do you run the risk of being undone by your own image at some stage?

I play for the team, not for the crowd. If the situation demands a six, I will go for a six.

Your popularity is astonishing. The biggest cheers are reserved for you these days...

The crowd mostly comes to the ground to watch sixes and fours. I hit them quite well, maybe that's one of the reasons I am popular. After the Jaipur innings, I have only been travelling with the team. I am actually not aware of my popularity right now (smiles). I have to see how it is when I travel out alone.

You insist that Mahendra Singh Dhoni remains the simple boy from Ranchi?

Mentally and physically, everything is the same. Only thing is that I travel more these days. Things like endorsements do not bother me because my agent looks after them. I am the same boy from Ranchi.