My trysts with Mahendra Singh Dhoni

You can hate him for his ultra-defensive tactics as a Test cricketer. You can love him for leading India with great success in ODIs for a really long time. What you cannot dispute is the fact that he remained a team man all along!

Mahendra Singh Dhoni built a reputation of responding to media queries — albeit only in press conferences since being made captain — without giving much fodder.   -  Mukesh Trivedi

November 4, 2005, Aurangabad: A day earlier, I had first witnessed the charisma of Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the Nehru Stadium in Pune – sealing the One-Day International (ODI) series for India against Sri Lanka with successive sixes off Russel Arnold. Hours later, while Dhoni and his India teammates left for Ahmedabad, I left to cover a Duleep Trophy game. Soon afterwards came V. B. Chandrasekhar, who was then a national selector and who would later build the Chennai Super Kings team around the man in question and on whose first death anniversary Dhoni would announce his retirement from international cricket. While the jovial VB joined in an informal conversation, I asked him about his first impression of Dhoni after watching him in the Deodhar Trophy a year earlier. “The cleanest hitter of the ball since (Sachin) Tendulkar.” Wow! This was special, coming from a no-nonsense person like VB.

September 18, 2007, Durban: Minutes after he was anointed as Rahul Dravid’s successor to lead India’s ODI team, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, while reluctantly agreeing to speak to the Indian mediapersons’ entourage in Durban during the inaugural World Twenty20, placed a rider: “Only four questions and no one-on-ones except for him. He has been chasing me for a month.” I was thrilled. What had started as a hunt during the preceding ODI series in England ended up being the prize catch – that too at the most opportune time – of my first tour as a cricket journalist.

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April 1, 2011, Mumbai: It’s the day prior to the World Cup final. I wasn’t supposed to be in the press box for the match, having spent six weeks in Sri Lanka chasing the co-hosts’ run to the final, but I had to attend at least the training sessions of both teams ahead of the big game. After addressing a choc-a-bloc media gathering in the stuffy press conference room in the basement, as Dhoni started taking the stairs with a journalist from East India speaking into his ear, the witty captain turned back and screamed: “Yeh dekho, gyaarah pooch raha hai (Look, he is asking about the XI)!” Two days later, I saw Dhoni tell his wife Sakshi to ignore the shutterbugs as he along with the rest of his teammates attended a reception hosted by the governor of Maharashtra.

May 28, 2013, Mumbai: Dhoni had built a reputation of responding to media queries – albeit only in press conferences since being made captain – without giving much fodder. But this was different. The Indian Premier League corruption scandal had just been unearthed, with a team official (also a family member of the owners) of Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings being in the thick of it. Four times was Dhoni asked to share his views on the matter. Every time he maintained a blank face with the media manager responding with “Next question, please.” This was probably the moment in Dhoni’s captaincy that changed his relationship with the media.

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March 31, 2016, Mumbai: The captain seemed to have lost his patience, at least with the media. Yes, he did try to keep it casual – even comical – when an Australian journalist asked him about his retirement plans minutes after India lost to West Indies in the World T20 semifinals. But the fact that he annihilated a working journalist – while other (alleged) journalists inexplicably burst into laughter – for asking an objective question was testament to the fact that he was no longer Captain Cool, at least off the field.

January 13, 2017, Pune: It was possibly Dhoni’s last press conference as an India cricketer. Before addressing the gathering in the afternoon, soon after passing the baton to Virat Kohli as the India captain across formats, Dhoni asked a Board of Control for Cricket in India executive, “I hope you have informed everyone in Bombay in advance so that they can make it today.” With the pressure of captaincy off his shoulders, the jovial and expressive Dhoni of the olden days – albeit with hair much greyer than when he took over the captaincy – was back. From indirectly slamming some of his seniors (“At times I found individuals can be very rigid about their batting position”) to stamping his authority (“The wicketkeeper is always vice-captain of the side”) to spelling out the reasons for letting go of the captaincy (“A split captaincy doesn’t really work in Indian cricket”), Dhoni was back to his best at speaking a lot without saying much.

November 27, 2019, Mumbai: It was a promotional event for a luxury watch company that was announcing Dhoni as its brand ambassador. As he started responding to what sounded like PR plugs for questions after the event, I had enough and started asking him about his absence from the field after the World Cup. Dhoni got the drift, ended the interaction, turned around and said with a typical wink: “January tak mat poocho (Don’t ask till January).”

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August 15, 2020: The writing was clear on the wall. In fact, the cynic in me is proud of having won a bet against a childhood friend for predicting in June 2019 that Dhoni will not play for India after the 2019 ODI World Cup. But the fan in me – and I’m glad he’s still alive somewhere – is still trying to let it sink in. Let’s not get into whether Dhoni could have timed it better. Or knowing the patriot he is at heart, was he thinking of announcing it on January 26 when he uttered those four words last November?

One thing that strikes me right away is that long before he took over as captain, Dhoni had some sort of a deal with NDTV and in one of those interviews he had said something like: “When I retire, nobody will know.” That was somewhere in 2006 or ’07, in the pre-Instagram, pre-Twitter and pre-IPL days. Dhoni’s retirement announcement, when it came, was as nonchalant as it could have been in today’s day and age.

As I look back at being privileged and fortunate to have had brushes with Dhoni, among other greats, his persona remains as enigmatic as his rise to be a world-beater despite hailing from a small town.

As for Dhoni the cricketer, he deserves multiple accolades. The unconventional yet highly effective wicketkeeper, the world-conquering captain and the finest finisher. What epitomises him for me, though, is a response from that interview in September 2007. When I had asked him about his priorities as a cricketer towards the end of that interaction, he responded with: “Playing for the team, wherever it takes me. It’s not about the rankings, or averages. It’s not about statistics. It’s more about what the team needs from me.”