While he might have retired from the world of test cricket, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s sporting journey is far from over. Sports Illustrated India’s editor Siddhanth Aney looks back at all the hits and some misses.
A few months ago, in an interview, India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist revealed to me what changed his relationship with his sport. It seemed a simple, and minor, shift in attitude had transformed Abhinav Bindra from a good shooter into a great one. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Bindra was in the form of his life and, when he qualified for the final in third place, a medal was definitely on the cards. Then he fell apart. He shot the worst final of the eight shooters in the fray and had to go home without having culminated what has been his obsession from the age when most of his peers were discovering soft porn.
At the athletes village that night, a couple of fellow shooters saw him, morose and ignoring the free food, and asked if he was hungry. “No, thanks,” he said. “I am still digesting all those nines.” In an Olympic final, a perfect shot scores a 10.9. So, while nines are very good efforts for people like you and I, they won’t quite win you international medals.
On Nov. 1, 2011, the Indian Army granted Bindra an honorary commission with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. By his side was the man who had led the country to the prize it covets most in all of sport—the cricket World Cup. M.S. Dhoni is a self-confessed military-lover. When he participated in NDTV’s Jai Jawan show—where celebrities visit soldiers posted in various parts of the country to boost morale and get a sense of their lives in field areas—you could almost tell he was more excited to be there than they were to have him. In fact, it is the most excited I have ever seen Dhoni. But the Ashoka lions and star on their shoulders is not the biggest thing Dhoni and Bindra have in common. The philosophy that helped Bindra achieve the tranquillity to win gold in Beijing (he qualified fourth but went on to shoot a series of tens in the final), from all accounts, is something Dhoni was born with.
When Bindra was at his lowest, Dhoni was on the verge of beginning a decade of success no one could have expected. India knows very little of the man who evokes a deep and enduring admiration in the cricket fan. Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests greatness was in Dhoni’s destiny. At the 2003-04 Duleep Trophy final, North Zone were to play East Zone at Mohali. The ESPN Cricinfo preview of that game talks of the selector’s interest in the fitness of Ashish Nehra and the form of openers Aakash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir. Nehra, Chopra and Yuvraj Singh would all go on to feature in the successful tour of Pakistan that followed. Yuvraj, playing at his best, treated the East’s bowlers with disdain on the way to scoring fluent centuries in both innings and setting a formidable target of 408 to chase. And then, in the fourth innings, came the talking point of the match. Dhoni, opening the batting for East Zone, was an unkown quantity. As a wicket keeper he was, in fact, not expected to play at all. A last minute opening—after Deep Dasgupta pulled out injured—meant Dhoni had a chance to do what he did best. The selectors just happened to be watching.
Nehra opened the bowling for North Zone and Dhoni hit the first ball, one-bounce, into the fence. Pissed off, the Delhi seamer bowled the expected bouncer next, hoping to rattle the young keeper. Dhoni hooked him for six. He ended the game with five dismissals behind the stumps. But it was his 60 runs of 47 deliveries that really caught the attention of the establishment. The boy had balls—that much was clear.
In early 2004, Dhoni was with India A, playing a triangular series in Kenya that also included Pakistan A. Chopra, who has seen Dhoni up close as much as anyone and has also been a vocal critic of his captaincy in the recent past, was Dhoni’s roommate on the tour. In The Caravan’s recent cover story on Dhoni, Chopra says he was, “taken aback by his audacity” as he swept and reverse-swept Iftikhar Anjum, a Pakistani seamer, for consecutive boundaries in a match in which he scored 119 runs unbeaten.” He told Sports Illustrated India of another incident that stands out as an example of the man’s thought process. Chopra was watching as Dhoni bowled over after over to Dinesh Kartik in the nets, giving him valuable batting practice. Chopra was intrigued by the situation and asked Dhoni why he was so diligently helping a player who was his immediate competition not just on that tour but also for an eventual place in the senior squad. Back then, in fact, Kartik might have been slightly ahead in the race for the keeper-number-six number-seven spot. “Aakash bhai, agar aapko bhi batting karni hai toh kara deta hoon. (I don’t mind bowling to you too if you want some batting practice),” Chopra recalls Dhoni’s response. “For me, individuals don’t matter. My intent is to help anyone who is going to play for the country.”
I recently read the story of Anthony Blake, the first African-American All-Ivy League swimmer. A philosophy major at Yale, Blake had an assignment on the subject of the love of fate. The swimmer (whose story, by the way, is worth a read) wrote the words Amor Fati (Latin for love of fate) in bold letter and submitted the assignment. He argued that he was embracing his fate in the context of the assignment. Dhoni might not have a degree in philosophy—nor might he concern himself with such intellectual concepts—but he certainly took all that came his way in a boundless stride that naturally attracted anyone who watched him play. And he certainly hasn’t shied away from his fate.
From the first time we saw Dhoni on the cricket field he had about him the aloofness of an outsider. Perhaps, the fact that he came from the cricketing boondocks of Jharkhand had something to do with that. There was no Ranji Trophy teammate to help him settle into the Indian dressing room. Sachin Tendulkar entered the India squad with the support of Mumbai stalwarts Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar. In the dressing room he had seniors like Ravi Shastri to chat with in Marathi. Dhoni—a ticket checker with the Railways based in Kharagpur—had no one.
At the turn of the century Indian cricket was in trouble. A series of fixing allegations and indictments cast a swarming shadow on the sport and the country. Sourav Ganguly was instrumental in resurrecting the image of the team and the nation. Under his passionate leadership India became competitive, fought hard and, sometimes, won. Dada became the Captain. He was born to be a leader. And his elegance in stroking a ball through covers only added to his aura. When Dhoni played his first ODI in December 2004, Ganguly, Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were all in the squad. In 2007, he took a team of boys to South Africa to play another kind of world cup—the World T20—and let the side to an unlikely victory in that memorable tournament. By then it was clear Dhoni would lead India not just in limited overs cricket but in every format of the game.
The challenges were immense. Over the next few years the men who had been the backbone of the senior squad would, one by one, call time on their careers. Dhoni’s contribution in building on Ganguly’s successes while leading a side in transformation was immeasurable. It is for these reasons that Dhoni has been rated as India’s best captain by both Ganguly and Tendulkar. In 2001, Dhoni had the chance to get Tendulkar a drink of water in an East versus West Zone match. In 2010, Dhoni was Tendulkar’s captain and the non-striker when he became the first man to score a double hundred in a One Day International.
My colleague, Vimal Kumar, had requested Dhoni to write a chapter in his book on Tendulkar. For the write up, Vimal suggested to Dhoni that he was best placed to speak about the weight of expectation that burdens Tendulkar when he steps out to bat for India. It was a fair point. Perhaps no other cricketer has ever carried the expectation that Dhoni has. Yet Dhoni’s response was unequivocal. “No matter what you or the media might say to me but you can’t do that to Sachin,” he told Vimal. “Similarly, I can go out with you to any multiplex for a movie or may have lunch at any restaurant without any hassles, but Sachin can’t do that. No one can come even remotely close to Sachin in terms of popularity, admiration and fame. He is like Amitabh Bachchan.”
If Tendulkar is like Amitabh Bachchan then Dhoni has clear similarities to Clint Eastwood. Whatever the odds, or the situation of a match, or the result, he has almost never lost his cool. The stress of the job and the sheer volume of cricket he has played over the last decade might show on Dhoni in the form of a greying mane and stubble. But those years of working on his strength as a club cricketer—come rain or sun—and feeding his explosive energy made Dhoni a prime physical specimen capable of dealing with the rigours of non-stop cricket. Rarely has there been an Indian cricketer who has so symmetrically balanced physical prowess and mental fortitude.
But for all Dhoni’s greatness, his story, much like the bigger story of Indian cricket, will be told in the shadow of the IPL betting and corruption allegations that have dominated the conversation in the past year or more. The first whisper of controversy began when it was revealed that Dhoni held a share in Rhiti Sports—the management firm started by his closest friend and manager Arun Pandey. But there was never a shred of evidence to indicate Dhoni had favoured any of the players signed by Rhiti in his capacity as Team India captain or as captain of the Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise.
His connections with N. Srinivasan, India Cements and his role in the Super Kings is well documented. Because of these connections he became a key figure in the Mudgal Committee investigation. Dhoni’s aloofness, in this context, became frustrating. When asked how he would clean up Indian cricket, Dhoni ridiculously suggested trying a laundry. It was an attempt to trivialise a question that dealt with the integrity of the sport that had made him the fifth most commercially valuable athlete in the world (according to Forbes, behind Roger Federer but ahead of Rafael Nadal). His 20 endorsement deals are topped only by Shah Rukh Khan, who has 21. And yet, instead of taking a strong stance on corruption in cricket, Dhoni chose to go down the path he had travelled on all along. It seemed like he almost didn’t care. In the context of a sport that hundreds of millions in India consider sacred, this aloofness was unacceptable. It would have been meaningful to have the strongest captain in the nation’s history stand up and say that he put his full weight behind those trying to clean up the game. That he was hurt at the fact that the image of the sport he loves, and the country he loves, had been tarnished by those who do not even take to the field. That he wanted the integrity of cricket to be above board.
Yet, such is his rakish charm, that he the highest individual taxpayer in the Red state of Jharkhand remains a quintessential people’s hero. Where Tendulkar was the dream that millions of middle-class Indians had aspired to, Dhoni represented the hopes of a new generation of Indians enjoying education, exposure and money for the first time. If Virat Kohli talks about owning 35 motorcycles, he is likely to be deconstructed as a typical rich brat from West Delhi—used to blowing up big money on boys’ toys. With Dhoni, it is talked about as his passion. So much so, that there is even a racing team he lends his name to.
Dhoni’s is a remarkable story. It is a tale of quite confidence and imperturbable fortitude. There is also an underlying intelligence that has made Dhoni not just a sporting success, but a commercial super hit. He has the mass appeal of Salman Khan and yet, as he gets on his bike in his dungarees and dark glasses and gets ready to ride into the sunset, he maintains an effortless cool that hipsters and yuppies both adore.
Perhaps one of the reasons Dhoni has skirted around the issue of corruption in the IPL is that he holds his T20 legacy closest to his heart. His phenomenal rise through the ranks was accelerated by the World T20 win in South Africa, the second star above the crest on the Indian shirt. When the IPL happened, Dhoni read that situation—like most he has been faced with—very well. He knew it would make cricket a viable career for many more talented youngsters than ever before. He also knew that India, with its love for tamasha and Bollywood, would lap it up. Dhoni retired from Test cricket after 90 games. He is, by far, the longest-serving and most successful wicketkeeper-captain in the history of Test cricket. Yet, his Test legacy is never something that concerned Dhoni. “Cricket is cricket,” he told Sports Illustrated India’s Vimal Kumar. The underlying sentiment was that he did not value one form of the game over another. That might not be entirely true.
From 2008-14, Dhoni’s India grew from strength to strength. He never had a potent, scary bowling attack to pin the opposition down. But he worked with what he had and was a master at grooming talent. Rohit Sharma’s inclusion in the squad for the 2015 World Cup is, in no small measure, thanks to the fact that Dhoni promoted him to the opener’s spot in early 2013. The move changed Rohit’s fortunes and he went from a heavily under performing asset to the first batsman to score two double hundreds in ODIs. Dhoni will always be Rohit’s captain.
In a new motorcycle ad, Dhoni shows the ability to laugh at himself and not take it all too seriously. The ad talks about the “new star”, a veiled reference to the Kohli-Dhoni equation. In a sequel to that ad, Dhoni calls Kohli and tell him that there is a new star on the block, making the junior batsman anxious. The ad is brilliant because it tells those of us watching so many things. It tells us not to invent stories of discord between Kohli and Dhoni. Even that Dhoni sees Kohli as the logical successor to his place as the face of Indian cricket. It also plays on the fickleness of the Indian fan and an athlete’s constant battle to stay loved; stay relevant.
Dhoni took a team of boys and moulded them into a squad of world-beaters. Along the way he managed to win everything. India topped the ICC Test rankings and Dhoni led his teams to victory in the Champions Trophy, World Cups in both formats, the IPL and even the altogether unnecessary Champions League. And he did it without the fearsome bowling that Clive Lloyd had at his disposal when he rebuilt the West Indies. For Dhoni, there is nothing left to win. But watching his boys fulfill their potential will be icing on the cake. Oh, and another World Cup won’t hurt either.