His was a grand entrance, delayed and poised. And, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni walked into the nets at the Old Trafford ground, there was a buzz in the air and a flurry of activity around; the scribes came rushing and the lensmen took their positions while a handful of spectators watched in glee. On his part, Dhoni, his face covered by shades, was remarkably unruffled as he went on to have a ‘hit’ for the next half-an-hour.
After he finished, there were several requests from journalists and photographers for a picture. He obliged all of them, even exchanged pleasantries with some. There was this young journalist who told him that the next match would be his 100th and Dhoni autographed a small bat for him along with a message greeting him on his achievement.
As he was about to leave, two other female scribes came rushing for pics and Dhoni stopped in his strides to grant them their wish. On the field too, Dhoni has been using different bats which is perhaps his way of thanking those who helped him early in his career.
All good things must come to an end and there’s this feeling that Dhoni might well be on his last lap. And knowing Dhoni, the kind of person he is, there may not be an official announcement of one of India’s most popular and successful captains walking into the sunset.
On Sunday, the team celebrated its friend, philosopher and guide’s birthday. Dhoni cut a few cakes through the day and one chocolate cake was delightfully spread all over his face. Even as the team rejoiced, Dhoni had actually grown one year older.
At 38, he is well and truly in the evening of his career. They say, in the life of every athlete there comes a time when there are signs that the end is near.
There is a loss of concentration and even the body complains. For once, even for a supremely fit Dhoni, those signs are clearly visible. His keeping hasn’t been without faults; the byes seem to come every game and an odd edge too finds its way past him. As for his batting, every time he has walked out to bat in this World Cup, he seemed to be playing from memory.
Indeed, a day after Dhoni’s birthday, Indian skipper Virat Kohli put things in the right perspective when he paid glowing tributes to his former captain.
“When a person has done so much for the team, you have to appreciate and acknowledge what he’s done for Indian cricket and taken the respect for Indian cricket so high all over the world,” said Kohli.
“We are all very grateful for what he’s done for Indian cricket and for us cricketers. And he’s always been in a very happy, jovial mood all the time whenever we see him and yesterday again was a very happy moment for him, for the whole team, to see a smile on his face and he’s in a very comfortable, very happy space at the moment.”
Indeed, Dhoni has always been a man at peace with himself. At the height of his success, he was firmly grounded. He is someone who has never allowed all his fame and fortune to control his life. He likes to keep things simple. And, as they say, Simple is Beautiful.
True to himself, the man may well say goodbye far away from the razzmatazz of a packed audience at a World Cup venue and much after the dust settles down on the World Cup. No sea of emotions in the stands. No guard of honour from his colleagues. And no lap of honour from the man himself!
This silent exit may well be a style so typical of the man; just like the way he gave up Test captaincy and later even the limited overs captaincy. For someone who follows his own wisdom, and wears his humility on his sleeves, Dhoni has been a man who isn’t given to display his emotions openly.
After he had made up his mind to give up limited overs captaincy, the only hint he gave to this writer in Nagpur—where he was mentoring the Jharkhand team during their Ranji Trophy semi-finals against Gujarat—was by saying, smilingly, “A time bomb will explode in a day or two.” It surely did.
Five years ago, when Dhoni shocked everyone by announcing his retirement from Test cricket, with the final Test of the series in Sydney just days away, it reminded me of a conversation I had with him a few years back. That was the time when Dhoni was almost certain to be named the Indian Test captain following Rahul Dravid declining to be in the ‘hot seat’.
The Indian team was then in Chandigarh in the middle of a one-day series (2007) against Pakistan. Dhoni’s elevation as Test captain seemed to be a foregone conclusion. In fact, a day before the announcement, two of the five-men selection committee actually came to Dhoni’s room to congratulate him.
As things unfolded in the next 24-hours, the Dilip Vengsarkar-led selection committee pulled a rabbit out of a hat by naming Anil Kumble, who was in the evening of his career, as the new Test captain.
Dhoni took the decision with usual calm. That evening he told me, “I never thought I will play for India. Likewise, I never dreamt of becoming the Indian captain. If I’m good, and lucky enough, that will happen sooner or later. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Get that right.”
Given Dhoni’s stature, and much like Sachin Tendulkar, he has earned the right to keep playing as long as he wants to. And, all along in the last couple of years, the ongoing 2019 World Cup looked a realistic target.
All along, there has been an understated grace in which Dhoni conducted himself. As a captain, he rose above petty politics and was fair to all concerned. For him, it was always ‘The Country Comes First’.
He was a captain who backed his instincts and also the players he picked. In turn, he won the trust and respect of his teammates. Throughout his fairytale journey in international cricket, he remains a street-smart cricketer, one whose cricketing skills are as original as Tribal Art.
A product of his own enthusiasm and drive, ‘Mahi’—as he is affectionately called—has come up through the ranks without a Godfather. He has survived the hard grind of international cricket for 15 eventful years living, and playing, on his own terms.
All along, he never forgot his roots. And his humility took him to greatness.
I distinctly remember, despite his phenomenal success in One-day cricket, during his early days in Test cricket, he would often tell me, “I must be the worst number seven batsmen in the world as far as technique is concerned.”
But then, there was a method to his madness. Rather than following the chosen path of a coaching manual, there was a carefree spirit in which he played his cricket. The blueprint of his batting came not from the routine coaching manual, but it was backed by the instincts of an adventurous mind. As luck would have it, within three years of playing for India, Dhoni was first named limited overs captain in the year 2007. Then, a year later, in 2008, he was named the Test captain as well.
Of course, the degree of difficulty of having to lead a team full of high profile seniors, and former captains like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh can be very daunting. However, it’s a credit to Dhoni’s man-management skills that he not only managed to get the best of these ‘larger than life’ superstars but also took the team to the No 1 spot in Test cricket.
Dhoni’s leadership also needs to be praised for the manner in which he presided over the transformation of the entire team----old guards giving way to new young Team India.
And here, Dhoni displayed great courage of conviction in backing players like Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, K.L. Rahul, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohd Shami, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ravichandra Ashwin. And each one of them, most notably Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, have duly acknowledged how big a role Dhoni played in shaping their career.
“My thinking is simple. I give my players a decent run to prove themselves so that they shouldn’t feel that they didn’t get enough chances,” Dhoni would say. The amazing success of Kohli and Rohit Sharma vindicated Dhoni’s line of thinking.
Leaders are born, not made. Besides, Dhoni was blessed with an inbuilt ability to mask his emotions. With experience, he began to hear more and speak less. Which is also why, his words of wisdom came at a premium. He would pass on his wealth of experience to his colleagues being deceptively casual. “I have learnt more about my game by playing the game, not by watching the game,” he says as a matter of fact.
Then again, Dhoni not only knew what to say and when to say. But also, how much to say. To his colleagues, he was always the ‘Commoner’, never the ‘King’. To others who were lucky to know him closely, he is always like that boy from the neighbourhood, one who enjoys doing simple things. Like playing video games, watching football and going out for movies. He is also someone who, when introduced to your parents, wouldn’t mind respectfully touching their feet. “I never thought I would play for India. I never dreamt of meeting Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan. And I never thought I would become the captain. I never yearned for any of these. I’m just blessed that I could do all of this and, most importantly, play for the country.”
Right from the time he made his debut for India, he saw a certain Sachin Tendulkar occupy the first seat on the team bus. And for someone who is happy to be in the background, Dhoni prefers the last row seat till date. Sachin was always the first to get out of the bus, Dhoni was the last. Similarly, while travelling by a car, Dhoni always takes the seat next to the driver.
This humility, this ability to remain in the background, was very much evident every time Dhoni’s team won a major tournament, be it the T20 World Cup, the Champions Trophy or the 2011 World Cup at home.
Who can forget those magical moments at the Wankhede Stadium, when Dhoni’s Team India brought the country to a standstill? Yet, even in his crowning glory moment, you hardly saw Dhoni going overboard or hanging on to the most cherished trophy in the world.
True to his nature, he was a captain who took the blame when the team lost and credited the entire team when he won. Like a true Statesman, he would say “I” when he lost and “We” when he won.
Then again, Dhoni would rarely come for the customary press conference every time India won. However, every time India lost, he would definitely turn up and face the heat from the media.
He was someone who always put India first. Indeed, he is an Ornament to the Game.