The Dhoni I know; and the boy Greg Chappell had muttered in my ears in Africa

16th August 2020

16th August 2020

Mahendra Singh Dhoni with his wife Sakshi and daughter Ziva.

I was a pro by the time Indian cricket team toured Zimbabwe for a two-Test and a triangular one-day series in 2005. Quite big actually, at least to my own eyes, having been in the circuit for over 10 years, covering cricket world over for media outlets and had an audience of tens of millions through Press Trust of India (PTI), India’s national news agency.

The tour began with a trip to Mutare, a little over two-hour drive from capital Harare, a trip visitors can’t forget for in a mid-way café, you could carry your snack to a shed where an ageing lion was separated from you by an apology of a fence. The fence was unlikely to survive if those on the two sides of it, once excited, gave it as little as a shove from their ends. Visitors stood with gaping mouths; and lion, with his open in a yawn with boredom. It was the tour opener, a three-day game against Zimbabwe Board Eleven against the tourist Indians, where we were headed.

Australian Test legend Greg Chappell had been appointed the coach of Indian team just a few months ago. Both he and I had the chance to be together on our jobs in Sri Lanka for a triangular series in July which was of course followed by this trip to Zimbabwe.  We had grown close, of course aware of the importance we both held for each other.  Now in Mutare, in a lovely open field which is routine for an English cricket spectator but a paradise for those from the sub-continent, we settled down with our set of men, literally a few feet apart from tossed players’ kits and our own writing desks.

The first morning, lunch break, Chappell sauntered out of his tent and approached me. We both took a round of the ground beyond the ropes, then one more, and talked cricket and family. I knew captain Sourav Ganguly was already well-disposed towards me having been under my eye from his first first class game. And with Chappell by my side, I would be flooded with scoops which in business terms, is millions invested in your mid-sized firm by an angel investor.

India had a young team and Chappell volunteered to ask who do I think would go on to serve Indian cricket at least for next one decade. Off hand, I couldn’t think of any. There were Mohammad Kaif, Venugopal Rao, Balaji etc but none had caught me eye. Chappell paused, stopped and holding my shoulder faced me: “Look at that boy strumming fingers on the desk. He would be your superstar.” He was Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Dhoni, by then, had caught the nation’s attention. He had hit a blistering 148 against arch rivals Pakistan in a one-day game in Visakhapatnam. Unfortunately, both Chappell and I had missed the moment. Chappell was still not in India; and by choice I didn’t cover cricket within India. Our first acquaintance with rather burly young cricketer with wild hair was in Sri Lanka, where he had done little of note, and now it was Zimbabwe.  Yet Chappell reckoned this young kid from India’s hinterland was India’s next superstar.

The next few years I toured and Dhoni donned India’s colours and we both were thrown together within and outside the field of play. I remember how he was admonished by his team-mates for walking out to a disputed catch at the boundary in the Caribbean, which TV replays showed they were right, and he walked back laughing all the way again, much to that snarl of rival captain Brian Lara who was known for his dirty looks when displeased. Lara’s lips would curl up and his eyes would have that blood-shot look of a killer you wouldn’t like to be in room alone.

Anyway, there is no point in reliving the glory he earned over next decade and a half. Most know it. His coach Ravi Shastri has little doubt he was a superstar like few in Indian cricket. He could bat, he could keep, and he could captain but above all he knew how to put media and journalists in their place.  

Dhoni was never media's best mate

I remember India’s Under-19 team had reached the finals of the World Cup in Kuala Lumpur and we were in Sydney in 2008. He was asked if he would like to wish young Virat Kohli and his team on the eve of the final. His acerbic comment, said with a laughing face—he always wore the best expression while using tough words—was: “If I have to wish them, I would do personally. Where does media come into it.”

But for one or two early interviews, Dhoni almost never gave a one-to-one to journos, unless he was obliged by his sponsors, team owners, or Indian cricket board. He had the same devil-may-care attitude towards bigger names than him be it in cricket, politics or filmdom. If he didn’t feel like inviting Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid to his marriage, he didn’t. If he didn’t feel like taking Padmashri in person, a great civilian honour by the Indian state, he didn’t. If he didn’t feel like picking phone of megastar Amitabh Bachchan, he didn’t. If he didn’t feel like warming up to his board president (Sharad Pawar) on a public platform, he didn’t. If Indian selectors kept looking for him for days before a team selection and couldn’t trace him, he didn’t mind.

It’s not to say he was arrogant. Dhoni just knew how he wanted to live his life. The song he has chosen on his retirement “Mai pal to pal ka shayar hoon”—I am only here for a blink of an eye--shows how he treated those great imposters of life: Riches, power and glory. He chose a common girl when a few of his former captains, for instance, were enamoured by Bollywood goddesses. If he had to rub the seniors the wrong way—he dropped Ganguly and Dravid from his ODI schemes—he did it. If he sensed that a few of them were unhappy with him—possibly Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh—he couldn’t care less.

Look at how he has chosen to announce his retirement. Did anybody have an inkling? NO. Did anyone know that he would leave Test captaincy in the middle of a series and that too in Australia? NO. Does anybody, outside the field of play, know that he could use foul language in the field (he did). NO.

Only a man who is supremely confident in his skills would even venture to such a life-on-the-edge on his own terms. When every minute of yours is open to public scrutiny and cynicism, you rather hedge your bets. But Dhoni didn’t. Let’s also not discount that Indian Premier League (IPL) began in 2008 and he took the colours of Chennai Super Kings from Day One and thus came under the patronage of its owner N. Srinivasan who remains a heavyweight in Indian cricket.  His association with the team, and its owner, looks one for the life.

Dhoni is a legend. In India and elsewhere. It’s been a career which young eyes could dream but be wise enough to know its’ elusive. A lot could happen. Your skills could decline; wolves could hunt down a lion; and oh, that perennial threat to a sportsman, injuries, which like a shadow lengthens with every step you take on the sporting highway. But till his last visit to international field, Dhoni could hit sixes, run like mad and my god, those stumpings and run-outs which alone are worth watching for hours as if it was a clip from a gaming app.

You would be missed, champ.

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