He attended no camps and did not have an exclusive coach. At different stages in his career, former players and various coaches lent their experiences to help him improve. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a self-made man, a cricketer who learnt from watching others and training tirelessly for six to eight hours every day, without ever compromising with his dream of making a career out of cricket.
From the obscure cricket fields of Ranchi, he has come to dominate his opponents with a special brand of batting. His aggression has rekindled interest among old timers. His dashing looks and style have become a rage. Dhoni, known as `Maahi' to his friends and relatives, continues to be down to earth though, relishing the "you are my hero" accolade from Kapil Dev. His friends are embarrassed when he seeks them out even before they can. A simple youngster, who gulps a litre of milk daily in various forms, Dhoni is the hottest property in Indian cricket today. His favourite dish? "Bowlers and rice-milk," he smiles.
When someone suggested he move to another state in order to improve his cricketing prospects, Dhoni lost his temper. "I will never play for another state (than Jharkhand). I am proud to be a Jharkhandi."
Question: What were your dreams?
Answer: I never thought I would ever play for India. I did dream of playing with Sachin (Tendulkar), Sourav (Ganguly), Rahul (Dravid). They were the superstars when I was preparing to become a good cricketer. Those days, I used to play a lot of football and badminton. Cricket was special though. From school cricket I moved on to club cricket and then to State. I was happy playing Ranji Trophy. I did not get disappointed when I missed selections. I always looked at the positive things of life.
How important was the Nairobi tournament for you?
It was a big breakthrough for me. I can say it was a very valuable innings because it was the first chance for me to prove myself. I was projected as a batsman who could hit hard and also keep wickets. I did not do well in the first match, but managed to play my natural game against Pakistan and Kenya. The tournament provided me the platform to raise my hopes for a place in the Indian team. After that tournament I was sure I would get an opportunity.
What did you learn from that tournament?
A lot. It was my first opportunity to play against foreign teams. Pakistan was a very competitive side with some capped and some fringe players. It was a good exposure for me. It helped boost my morale and confidence. I learnt about cricket outside India. The ball moves a lot, there was swing and bounce. It was a great experience. There was this pressure too of scoring. I wondered what would happen if I failed. It was one great opportunity and I am glad I grabbed it.
How much has your batting evolved?
I have been playing my natural game and have stuck to my style. It was attacking batting that brought me to this level and no way was I going to discard my style. In the last one year I have learnt to read the game better. I play a different innings every time I go to the middle. It all depends on the situation. It is not just bang, bang. I like to play for the team. People talk of the 183 (against Pakistan). But I like the next knock at Pune. It was different. The innings against England were different. I did not attack because there was no need to take any risk. I could easily get six to eight runs an over. Let me tell you, I will never play for individual honours. It will always be for the team.
Is your aggression natural? Are you not the shy and quiet type?
My aggression is only on the field. This swagger is only on the field. I am a shy person and sometimes it creates problems because people think I have become arrogant. I can never be arrogant. My parents keep reminding me that I should be humble and should not forget my past. But I am aggressive when it comes to winning. I will do anything to win. I am tense even in warm-up matches. It is good to have the confidence to seek success.
Do you not feel the pressure of high expectations?
Frankly speaking no. I don't give much thought to it because it will only add to your pressures. I am batting at 6, 7, 8... It will be wrong if I try to look at making a 183 every time I bat. I think a good 50 that can bring a victory would be far more important. My desire is to keep improving and for that I keep assessing my game.
What sort of benchmarks do you set?
It depends. Since I do not have a set batting slot it is really hard for me to set targets. I hardly get time to think on these lines. My concentration switch lies in my batting boots. Once I put them on I start to think. Otherwise I just relax. It helps a lot.
Your own expectations?
I don't think much because it will raise expectations within myself. Why add pressure?
But players do tend to take the pressure on themselves...
Yes. Irfan (Pathan) shares the pressure at No. 3. He bowls on batting tracks. Every one wants to share the pressure. Our wins have been cumulative efforts. You will always have one player who will rally the team, but overall it is a collective effort.
And what about your batting style? Will it ever change?
Never. It will never change. I will make adjustments depending upon the situation but will not stop playing my natural game. How can I compromise with my strength?
What is your cricket philosophy?
Work hard to maintain your success level. Stay focussed to achieve your goals. Learn to have faith in your mates and yourself. If the team feels I am good enough to bat at any position and score too then I think I am a very lucky person. It is a great feeling to be made to feel important by your teammates. One has to earn it.
Where do you draw your strength from?
I don't know really. I have had a hard grind, from club to state to India. I have grown up playing in hard conditions. The more you play you read better. You need to play normal cricket. The amount of cricket I played in the past has helped me a lot.
How hard were the conditions?
Pretty tough. We never had turf pitches. We had to practise on basketball courts and all kinds of surfaces. It helped us to become good cricketers because we could play in all conditions.
Where did you learn to innovate?
During tennis ball tournaments. On 18-yard pitches we had to face a lot of yorkers. You have to be prepared all the time. At the international level, you have to create scoring opportunities and that is why I have developed certain shots. You have to be different. If you want to succeed at the international level, you have to do things differently. The shots I play when batting at No. 8 will not figure when I am batting at No. 3.
How do you look at wicket-keeping?
I enjoy it. People say it's thankless, but I enjoy being a wicketkeeper. It is a matter of confidence. If you bat well, it helps you to be a good wicketkeeper. It also helps you to read the pitch well.
Recently, you had a chat with Farokh Engineer. What was it about?
Not a very long chat, not very technical, but general. I had heard about him so much and wanted to meet him. He told me a few things, which can be very helpful in preparing me for my lean period. A bad patch is inevitable for all of us. These conversations with past players will help me a lot.
What changes have you seen in yourself?
Not many. But I have lost privacy. As I said, all this swagger and aggression is only restricted to the field. Outside the field, I am very lazy, slow. Sometimes at functions people say things about me and I do wonder if that is the real me. I have learnt to take things as they come.
How important is your family in your rise as a cricketer?
The most important factor. My parents never stopped me from playing. They gave me good schooling and grooming. They made a lot of sacrifices for me. But I don't prefer them to come and watch my matches. That would put pressure on me.
How do you handle success?
Not difficult at all. I have not forgotten my roots. It is important to remember your roots, old friends. How can I forget my coaches (Rohit Kashyap, Chanchal Bhattacharya, K. R. Banerjee, Deval Sahay); players who helped me (Randhir Singh, Kajal Das, V. Venkatram). See how Rahul, Sachin, Sourav have remained level-headed. Look at how they have handled fame. They do not crib or complain. I admire them and would love to emulate them. I want to learn from them. And why should I change with people I have known when I was climbing the ladder? I will always have my head on my shoulders.
(This interview first appeared in the Sportstar Magazine dated April 29, 2006)