M.S. Dhoni: O Captain! My Captain!

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s journey is worthy of a subject in school, where you learn to chase your dreams. He saw them and achieved them, much to the delight of a nation that has accorded him the status of a much-loved, much-revered, flawless icon.

Dhoni, at 39, may have walked away from all formats of international cricket but not from our memories.   -  Vivek Bendre

To draw a portrait of Mahendra Singh Dhoni can be a fascinating project. A challenge to encompass the man’s career in words. Tomes can’t do justice to his rise – from the dusty bowls of Ranchi, a young man determined to shake up the world of cricket, to some of the iconic venues where he left an indelible mark with his brand of cricket. What was it about this man that he scaled the peaks of greatness in a game that is supposedly a team one. He was an individual who was a force equivalent to the entire opposition at times.

I remember a Karnataka fast bowler taunting some of us in the press box. “You guys haven’t heard of this amazing batsman from Ranchi? He can destroy the opposition.” I had to correct the cricketer and just reeled off details of Dhoni, who he had watched smash the Pakistan A attack to smithereens in Nairobi in the Kenya Triangular Tournament in 2004. Dhoni had produced an electrifying 119 off 134 balls with nine fours and five sixes. The Ranchi boy had introduced himself in a style that was to become his trademark in all formats of the game.

Eighteen matches in the under-19 category prepared Dhoni for the exciting arena he was to dominate. To possess a personal kit was a dream for him. But then, his dreams were big.

“There was awesome strength in his shots. Never have I seen bowlers ducking for cover at the nets and in matches,” recalled National Stadium coach M. P. Singh. Dhoni would often practise at the famous centre in Delhi and to this day acknowledges Singh’s guidance.

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And to imagine Dhoni was rejected by Railways initially. He did land a job of a ticket checker later, but he never played for cricket team. It did not matter really. It was embarrassing for the Railways cricket authorities and they repented their monumental error of judgement in later years, but Dhoni held no rancour. “I was spurred by that rejection,” was Dhoni’s reaction.

Dhoni has stuck with friends from his teenage years. His inner circle is secure and guarded. He is possessive of his friends and his relationships. When he settles with them for a fun session of banter and favourite dishes, he is not Dhoni the famous cricketer. He is just Mahi, just one of them, a lovable guy who has not forgotten his roots.   -  PTI

 

Having heard of his exploits, I was keen to watch Dhoni when he was part of the East Zone team for the Duleep Trophy match against England A in Amritsar in February 2004. The memory is vivid. I struck up a conversation with him at the nets a day before the match. East Zone skipper Devang Gandhi and wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta mentioned him in particular. The England team included, among others, Kevin Pietersen, Ed Smith, Matt Prior and James Tredwell.

Dhoni was not strikingly different, but he looked special with some robust strokes in his innings of 52 and 24 as an opener. “Hamara chance kya kabhi aayega (Will I ever get a chance)?” was his innocent query when we chatted on the balcony of the Gandhi ground. I said a few encouraging words. A week later, I saw him against North Zone in the final at Mohali. Dhoni cracked a 60 in the second innings to confirm he was on his way to bigger recognition with his batting. This was the match where Yuvraj Singh, forced by the selectors to prove his fitness, had responded with a century in each innings.

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By the time we met next, eight months later in Jaipur, Dhoni had already made a splash in Nairobi and Hong Kong (the International Cricket Sixes). He was named in the Board President’s XI for the match against South Africa. He flashed a smile as he saw me. I could sense the confidence reflected in his voice. And I also saw the swagger. He seemed on the right course with a knock of 39. This is what I wrote then in my match report in The Hindu: “The best phase of the day was Mongia’s 91-run association with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who played an attractive innings. Some robust shots dominated Dhoni’s knock but his strokeplay became impetuous too, costing him his wicket off an innocuous ball. Dhoni could have put the ball anywhere he wanted on the on-side but an unwise reverse sweep saw the ball falling nicely in an arc for wicketkeeper Thami Tsolekile to pouch the offering comfortably. Dhoni, the most talented among the fringe candidates, could have done without this indiscretion. His 62-ball knock contained six fours and a long-on six off Graeme Smith.”

I was happy for Dhoni when he made his India debut a month later. He may have seemed desperate, but then, it also showed his ability to back himself. His first three appearances (on the tour to Bangladesh) were disappointing — 0, 12, 7. His next outing, against Pakistan in Kochi in April 2005, was a miserable knock of 3. All this while he had batted at No. 7. His fifth international innings defined his career. His most important knock ever. A scintillating 148 at No. 3 after walking to the middle at the fall of Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket in the fourth over. His world changed that day — April 5, 2005.

His 148, off 123 balls, was a masterclass in attacking batsmanship, with 15 fours and four sixes. The Pakistan bowlers were flattened by his wrath. It remains the innings of his career. It was make or break for the Ranchi cricketer when skipper Sourav Ganguly, for reasons best known to him, slotted Dhoni at No. 3. Had he failed that day, who knows if the world would have experienced this phenomenon. Full marks to Ganguly for keeping his faith in Dhoni. Twenty-nine months from that eventful day, Dhoni led the team in the One-Day International (ODI) against Australia in Bangalore. The stalwarts he commanded included Ganguly, Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Within six months, Dhoni was handed the Test captaincy, too.

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Dhoni can be a compelling case study for cricket aspirants. There is nothing indiscreet about this man. His batting, leadership and stature in society form an exemplary chapter of Indian cricket. To have known him has been a privilege because one never saw the man change. He always greeted with a smile, a hug, respectful to seniors. For all his fame, Dhoni has stayed amazingly grounded. How many would rise in reverence when approached by a senior or a star from the past. Dhoni does that without fail.

Twenty-nine months after Dhoni hit 148 off 123 balls in a masterclass in attacking batsmanship against Pakistan on April 5, 2005, he led India in the ODI against Australia in Bangalore. The stalwarts he commanded included Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Within six months, Dhoni was handed the Test captaincy, too.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

What a following the man has! Chennai comes to a stop when he lands at the airport or leaves the hotel for the ground. Ranchi lines up to a man when he arrives in or departs the city that is his “proud” home. At the first opportunity, Dhoni rushes to his home town to spend time with his family and friends. I admire him for the fact that he has stuck with friends from his teenage years. His inner circle is secure and guarded. He is possessive of his friends and his relationships. None of them holds him in awe. None. When he settles with them for a fun session of banter and favourite dishes, he is not Dhoni the famous cricketer. He is just Mahi, just one of them, a lovable guy who has not forgotten his roots.

Yes, Dhoni’s love for the armed forces and bikes is well known and documented. What of his flair to remain the cynosure? His fetish for giving the finishing touches to a campaign built on his strength of self-confidence? It has been his schooldays obsession to draw “attention.” To take the contest to the wire and settle with a flourish, a rasping boundary or a towering six. He has loved it all his life — in neighbourhood games and in the highest leagues. Remember the shot off Sri Lanka’s Nuwan Kulasekera at the Wankhede Stadium when he promoted himself up the order to win India the 2011 World Cup? And they said he was off-form. He had to prove them wrong in his inimitable style.

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Dhoni, at 39, may have walked away from all formats of international cricket but not from our memories. His varied images, from the long-haired athlete to the crew-cut soldier in fatigues, are an inspiration for the youth. His journey is worthy of a subject in school, where you first learn to chase your dreams. He saw them and achieved them, much to the delight of a nation that has accorded Mahendra Singh Dhoni the status of a much-loved, much-revered, flawless icon. A once-in-a-century sportsman, Dhoni is a shining mentor and performer for the most passionate lovers of cricket. He is an athlete to be celebrated, a match-winner and a game changer of great prowess. And reliably joyful! He played on his terms. And left on his, too. Thanks Mahi, for being what you are, and for shaping cricket for the future.