Master of mayhem

"I LOVE TO HIT THE BALL. From the time I first held the bat, I have always been an attacking player."-

It was the absence of his school team's regular wicket-keeper that made DHONI, a football goalkeeper till that point, take this significant step by donning the big gloves, writes S. DINAKAR.

The roar of the engine excites him. The power of a bike gets his adrenalin flowing. And the speed of the mean machine thrills his senses. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a biker boy. His long mane flowing, his eyes fiercely focussed, his hands and feet in perfect harmony, he enjoys those daring rides on tough terrains.

Lurking in this Jharkhand lad is the spirit of the adventurer — whether he dumps the bowlers into the stands or powers his motorcycle into uncharted territory. "I love the feeling of riding a bike. I think it gives you some kind of energy," says India's latest cricketing sensation.

Dhoni's passion for bikes dates back to the period when he was growing up. The sight of motorcycles racing by on the roads of Ranchi left an impression on him. It is a ride of a different kind, though, when he scorches at the crease, demoralising attacks, leaving the bowlers with psychological scars.

It was the absence of his school team's regular wicket-keeper that triggered his cricketing quest. A football goal-keeper till that point, Dhoni took this significant step in cricket by donning the big gloves. While his natural ball sense enabled him to keep adequately, his astonishing ability to send the ball out of the park ensured that his name spread quickly. An explosive batsman had arrived.

Dhoni has not changed his style of batting. "I love to hit the ball. From the time I first held the bat, I have always been an attacking player." He wants to stamp his dominance on the bowlers. And his methods do have captains making urgent alterations in the field, bowlers switching from an attacking to a defensive mind-set.

The Sri Lankans were full of beans in the Jaipur ODI last year, with seemingly enough runs on the board and the early scalp of Sachin Tendulkar. Dhoni, the pinch-hitter at No. 3, gave the islanders a nightmare in daylight. Wily left-arm paceman Chaminda Vaas was twice dismissed ruthlessly over the cover boundary and he peered down the pitch in disbelief. Off-spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan saw the ball being blasted past him. Dhoni's unbeaten 183 was the highest individual score in the ODIs by a wicket-keeper batsman. Had the target been more, he could well have surpassed Saeed Anwar's world record 194. "Yes, I could have done that. It was a very flat wicket. I knew if I stayed, I would be able to score the runs," remembers Dhoni.

It was with a blazing hundred against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam during the six-match ODI series in India last year that Dhoni signalled his arrival in international cricket. Here was a cricketer who was striking through the line quite beautifully. Dhoni's straight hits in that match took the opposition by surprise. Importantly, he had a liking for the big stage. The ferocity of his strokeplay was quite astonishing.

THE INTREPID CRICKETER has stormed into the nation's consciousness.-PTI

The bottom line is that Dhoni is an entertainer. And like most men of his ilk he often walks the edge. He ended two ODIs against Sri Lanka, in Jaipur and Pune, with roaring sixes. He realises the risks involved. "I know I can get out but this is the way I play. Of course, I have worked on things like the shot selection."

The story of his success

also reflects the spread of cricket in the country. Dhoni, a small-town lad staring into the big, bold lights of the city, made the transition with ease as he has loads of self-belief. In fact, his cricket reflects his confidence. So does his gait to the wicket. The man has a personality all right. Not surprisingly, two of the foremost entertainers in the game, Vivian Richards and Adam Gilchrist, are his heroes. "I am a bit of a walker, like Gilchirst," he claims. The intrepid cricketer has stormed into the nation's consciousness. His name is chanted by the crowd in the Indian arenas even when bigger names walk alongside him. But he is level-headed to comprehend that popularity is related to performances. And that adulation can be a fickle thing. "This is a game where you will have the ups and the downs and this will happen to every cricketer, at some stage. The important thing is how you overcome the bad times."

He has also adapted himself to the different situations in the ODIs and coach Greg Chappell spoke about his attitude to learn and evolve as a cricketer. Flexibility is India's mantra in the ODIs and Dhoni and Irfan Pathan do have key roles in the Indian game-plan. Dhoni has also coped with the demands of Tests in an admirable manner. On a raging turner in Ahmedabad, Dhoni was equal to the task with the gloves when Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh got the ball to turn and bounce. He went through an ordinary phase as a wicket-keeper at the beginning of the season, but has shown a marked improvement. Here, the role of sports scientist Ian Fraser, who simulated match situations and made Dhoni go through various types of drills, has to be acknowledged. With the willow, Dhoni produced a crucial half-century in the first innings of the Ahmedabad Test in an adverse situation. He does appear to have the temperament for both forms of the game.

There were periods

when he struggled in the ODI series against South Africa — the pacemen were able to pin him down with tight line and length — and Dhoni would have learnt his lessons from the series.

He talks about a happy family ambience at home; his father was a strict disciplinarian, while his mother was a lot more lenient. The Rajput — his family has roots in Uttaranchal — has not forgotten those who helped him along the way in Jharkhand. The dashing cricketer unwinds by listening to music and among his favourites is the legendary Kishore Kumar. "There is so much depth in his voice," says Dhoni. And there is so much energy in Dhoni's cricket. And so much passion in the manner he wades into the opposition.