An evening with Mahendra Singh Dhoni

The occasion was the launch of the book 'Driven – The Virat Kohli Story,' written by my close, long-time friend and colleague at 'The Hindu,' Vijay Lokapally. It was an unforgettable part of an already-memorable evening.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni takes a selfie with the author (centre) and senior sports journalist Vijay Lokapally.

It was close to midnight on October 16, 2016, when I stepped out of the ITC Maurya. It suddenly dawned on me that my car had been parked on the porch of this South Delhi hotel for over two hours, with one of the parking valets keeping an eye. As I settled behind the wheel for the long drive home, images from the past few hours filled my mind.

An evening that began in the company of cricketers — both present and past — ended with a late-night meeting with Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Today, when I look back on that day, it reinforces my belief that I am the luckiest person I know.

I remember reminding Dhoni of something he had mentioned three years ago, when standing at the same place, following the release of Yuvraj Singh’s book. He appeared surprised and promptly said, “Let’s sit and chat.”

READ| Dhoni's bond with CSK, its fans and Chennai is unshakable: N. Srinivasan

When I told him I had a long drive ahead, he insisted that I stay and then turned to Vijay and said, “Sir, when do we get to spend time like this?”

Unable to attend the book launch due to a prior commitment, Dhoni had enquired from Vijay about the function. Soon, the conversation got interesting and my urgency to go home was replaced by the urge to stay on.

As Dhoni chose the corner of the seating area, which offered some privacy in the lobby of the hotel for us to continue chatting, I remember asking him why he refrains from media interviews. Dhoni had his reasons. “Back home in Ranchi, when I was getting noticed for my cricket, there were only three newspapers. Today, there are around 12. If I speak to one or two publications and decline the rest, it won’t be fair. Using the same yardstick, I prefer to stay away from one-on-one interviews even with the national media. After all, I meet the mediapersons during press conferences and these days they ask whatever they deem fit. Outside of cricket, I don’t entertain questions about me or my family. But bhaiyya, can you recall one instance when I said no to you for an interview? You never asked me for one.”

READ| Suresh Raina, a behemoth in limited-overs cricket

Vijay and I looked at each other and then nodded to Dhoni, realising we had no reason to complain. Due to my admiration for Dhoni’s on-field demeanour — blessed with the mind of a chess player and the heart of a soldier — I couldn’t help asking about his love for the army.

“Uniformed men and their discipline have always fascinated me. I think army training should be made mandatory for every citizen in India. Army life makes us look at challenges differently. Say, there are two sons of a family, similar upbringing, but one is a civilian and the other is in the army. When the armyman returns home for a short vacation and notices things being carried out in a disorderly way, he does not approve of it. Some can’t deal with this and wish to return to their posts sooner rather than later. Sounds strange, but I know it happens. When I retire from cricket, I plan to serve the army for at least two years. That’s my wish,” revealed Dhoni.

I won’t be surprised at all if Dhoni allows his sweet daughter to serve in the army.

In some context, I mentioned the movie A Wednesday! and recalled a particular scene. Coincidentally, he too remembered the scene as vividly and with equal interest. As I admired the film’s director Neeraj Pandey for handling the scene well, I noticed Dhoni smiling.

READ| Coming of age with Dhoni

After all, it was Neeraj who directed his biopic, M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. The film was released just 17 days earlier and I had watched it in Jamshedpur, where I was assigned to cover a Ranji Trophy match at the Keenan Stadium, one of the locations used extensively in the film. It was natural to ask Dhoni about the movie and his impressions of Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead role.

“I hear the movie is doing well,” said Dhoni, his tone as understated as the man himself. When I mentioned that rising box-office collections could turn the film into one of the biggest successes of the year, Dhoni added: “You know, it could have earned a few crores more if only the length of the movie was kept under three hours. Usually, multiplexes prefer movies of that length since it gives them the option of an extra show each day. The movie stretches on well over three hours. Of course, it was the decision of Neeraj [also the film’s story and dialogue writer] to keep that length and I didn’t interfere with it. And, as usual, Neeraj has done such a good job.”

“From Day One, Sushant was very keen to get all my mannerisms right... He would pester me to watch certain scenes, particularly the batting ones. He was very particular about getting my approval. He worked very hard throughout the making of the film,” Dhoni said about the man who played him in his biopic, the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput.   -  PTI


About Sushant, Dhoni said, “From Day One, Sushant was very keen to get all my mannerisms right. At that time, I was playing all three formats and could not spare much time with matters related to the film. He would pester me to watch certain scenes, particularly the batting ones. He was very particular about getting my approval. He worked very hard throughout the making of the film. I know he is very happy with the feedback, both for the film and his performance.”

I wondered how, in the second half of the film, Sushant was made to look increasingly like the Dhoni we know. He smiled and said, “I get what you mean. Thanks to the technology these days, you see Sushant’s face so seamlessly incorporated in some of the original footage of my matches. Indeed, it is amazing!”

READ| IPL 2020: M.S. Dhoni smashed sixes in all directions at training sessions

By that time, a crowd had gathered around the elevators with the hope of catching Dhoni when he headed to his room. I warned Dhoni about the waiting selfie brigade. He asked, “Don’t you want a selfie?”

I admitted that I feared dropping my phone in my attempt to take a one-handed selfie. Hearing this, Dhoni took my phone and asked me to stand on his left. When I asked why he on his left, he said, “Kyon ki main selfie le raha hoon (Because I’m taking the selfie)!”

Without missing a moment Vijay joked, “MS, remember we are not taking a selfie with you, you are taking a selfie with us.” We all laughed and Dhoni said, “Sir, it is my pleasure,” He clicked a couple and said, “See, it’s so easy. I have mastered this. These days, one has to learn these things, especially when you spend time with family.”

It was close to midnight. As we prepared to leave, Dhoni noticed the crowd growing near the elevator. He asked a hotel staffer who had been posted to ensure our privacy. “Bhai saab, koi chor-rastaa hai upar jaane ka (Is there a secret passage to the floors above)?”

The bemused staffer said the service lift from the ground-floor coffee shop could lead him to his floor. Dhoni got up, gave us a warm hug and lent a personal touch: “Jaldi milenge (Will meet soon).”

Since that evening, our interactions have been limited to organised media sessions. My planned long interview with Dhoni is yet to take place. Perhaps it is now time to ask this finest “finisher” to open up like never before!