Coming of age with Dhoni

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's retirement is a reminder that my youth is not just over, but now has to be accepted as over.

“I pumped my fist when he dismantled the likes of Mohammad Sami, Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq, and chewed my fingernails during the tense last-over finishes,” the author writes about the decimation of Pakistan in Visakhapatnam in 2005.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Last October, after the second day’s play between India and South Africa at the Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA) Stadium in Ranchi, I took a short stroll down the road to find a tea stall. It was a decent place to grab hot chai after the game. There was another vendor on hand to churn out singharas (the Bengali version of samosas) if you were feeling peckish. After two rounds of tea, I asked the stall owner what he made of the endless speculation over local boy Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s future.

“Dhoni le liya sanyas ODIs se bhi. Aapko nahin na pata...? Padho akhbar (Dhoni has retired even from ODIs. You didn’t know...? Read the newspapers),” said Ramesh, the stall owner. “Woh dabav mein nahi aaega... Koi boley uske pehle hi nikal liya. Just IPL (Indian Premier League) khelega. Hum Ranchi-waale pressure mein nahi aate (Dhoni will not come under pressure... He quit before anyone could tell him to. He will play just the IPL. We Ranchiites cannot be pressured).”

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Well, Dhoni hadn’t played any competitive cricket since the 2019 World Cup semifinals, and he would turn 39 a year later, but he had not hung up his boots yet. So, I baulked at the tea seller’s response and walked away.

Ten months down the line, India’s most successful captain announced his retirement from international cricket. Surely, that stall owner in Ranchi couldn’t have seen this coming, could he? It didn’t matter anymore though. But not long ago, it was all anyone talked about — on airplanes, in grocery stores, in restaurants. It seemed Dhoni’s future was the only topic of conversation. It was tough to escape. So, when the news of Dhoni calling it a day finally trickled in, there was a feeling of emptiness.

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Dhoni’s rapid ascent to stardom coincided with the onset of my teenage years. And I chose the summer of being 12 to watch a long-haired, brawny batsman decimate Pakistan in Visakhapatnam. Ebullient youngsters fell in love with the game as they watched the ball sail over the ropes. Dhoni entered the India team when the fab five – Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V. V. S. Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble – were still at the peak of their powers. But it was the boy from the backwoods of Jharkhand, detached from metropolitan glamour, that got me hooked. His early years, defined by stroke play of thrilling brutality, were a constant companion in my youth.

I pumped my fist when he dismantled the likes of Mohammad Sami, Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq, and chewed my fingernails during the tense last-over finishes. This was my comfort zone. The next hour was spent browsing through his 15 fours and four sixes. I felt I had turned a corner.

Before Dhoni, the story of the 1983 World Cup was part of our collective consciousness. It still is. The discussions before every World Cup and after the invariably disappointing exit revolved around Kapil Dev’s most significant catch in India’s tryst with destiny at Lord’s. It was the year everything changed. In the times that followed, Tendulkar still scored runs and racked up hundreds at will. India even made that memorable trip to Pakistan in 2003-04 in what was a series full of emotions and expectations, with Sourav Ganguly and his men trumping their arch-rivals in the One-Day Internationals and Tests.

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But I wanted to be a part of history. For me, and many others who weren’t even born at the time, Kapil Dev lifting the trophy on the pavilion balcony at Lord’s is an endless loop of articles read, television reruns and YouTube videos watched. The wait lingered... India came close in 2003 when we lost to Australia in the World Cup final. That was followed by a humiliating first-round exit at the 2007 edition in the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, in my inter-school matches, I started batting with ferocity, trying to launch balls over cow corner while amping up my running between the wickets. I wanted to bat like Dhoni. That’s when it happened. On September 24, 2007, in Johannesburg, Misbah-ul-Haq, having nearly taken Pakistan home in the inaugural World T20 final, scooped a ball from Joginder Sharma into the hands of S. Sreesanth. The first chapter of Dhoni’s legend had been written. I exulted in a famous victory. History was made, and this time I saw it happen.

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For the next four years, Dhoni would go on to stamp his authority on opposition teams at home and abroad. Meanwhile, my life got busier with the Class XII board exams approaching even as I got carried away in Dhoni’s slipstream. While he was brutalising bowlers at the death with his trademark helicopter shot, untouched by concerns of the past or the future, I was occupied by that dreaded existential question: arts or science? As I tethered on the edge of adulthood, the 50-over World Cup came to the subcontinent.

I watched every ball of India’s World Cup campaign, juggling between cricket and studies. Dhoni struggled with the bat even as his team grew from strength to strength. Then came the triumph in the final at the Wankhede in Mumbai. Dhoni sent a full ball from Nuwan Kulasekara for maximum over long-on and then stood still for a moment, Zen-like with a dainty bat twirl.

As I was stood watching the moment on TV, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That Kapil Dev catch was now suffixed by that straight six from Dhoni. I entered adulthood knowing we were world champions again! All in all, the experience was overwhelming, but as the time went by, the sport changed around Dhoni. Amid the lightning stumpings and the runs and the chanting, Dhoni became more and more aloof from the outside noise.

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I changed career paths, moving from engineering to liberal arts, staring at what at the time seemed like an uncertain future. Dhoni, with his gradually fading finishing skills, must have felt the same, or so I like to think. He appeared to have acquired an aura of invincibility until that Saturday evening of August 15, 2020, when he took to Instagram to announce his retirement from international cricket.

That night, my mind went back to that balmy Ranchi evening, and that tea stall chat. Perhaps, the owner did see it coming...

Dhoni is perhaps relieved as well, but for me, his retirement is a reminder that my youth is not just over, but now has to be accepted as over.