Mahendra Singh Dhoni (Photo:AFP)
Dhoni was, quite disarmingly, very much his own man for a considerable part of his career.
The eyes of history, which have been upon him for a decade and a half, will judge him kindly. This great adopted son of Chennai was not just a successful and celebrated sportsman. His rise from the railway platforms and trains he worked on as a ticket examiner to India’s most recognisable celebrity, at one time, was a story of the opportunity that cricket, the great leveller, provides. In quite no other field could a young man have catapulted to fame on the sheer strength of his skills and talent.
The story of Mahendra Singh Dhoni is quite remarkable. He had no godfather on his way to stardom but had plenty who recognised his talent and catapulted him to the captaincy in selfless ways while declining the honour themselves. Such success stories are usually heard of only in the field of education when the children of the disadvantaged make it to the top institutes and literally moving up from the street to board rooms, but that would normally take years.
Sport is a meritocracy that recognises nothing but skills and performances. The callow youth with long hair seemed somewhat unusual as cricket’s disciplined young force were never likely to seem non-conformist in any way when they are on the way up. But this youngster showed he was a natural who did not fear to be himself even after he was stepping up the ladder right into the international game.
Dhoni was, quite disarmingly, very much his own man for a considerable part of his career. Carrying no baggage is usually a privilege of the new, but Dhoni was unusual in that he held no demonstrable reverence for former champions of the sport. In fact, he seemed so content to be with his team mates and work on and play his game that a very senior establishment figure had to send a subtle message to him to at least recognise former star cricketers lest they mistake his aloofness for arrogance.
The manner in which he handled his success was another lesson in a cricket crazy country where fame, adulation and endorsements tend to throw the young and restless off their focus. India lost many talented players after they had established themselves in the national team in the 1980s because they could not cope with the success. They were so distracted they forgot the fundamental skills that had brought them that far.
It is quite amazing that Dhoni’s leadership skills were recognised and recommended by Sachin Tendulkar who believed T20 cricket was for young blood and that the man from Ranchi would be the best one to lead India in the new-fangled format. The iconic cricketers had given up on captaincy long ago and yet was tempted to take another dab at it by the circumstances in which Indian cricket found itself in. Sachin’s unselfish decision in asking the country to move on led to a historic turn not only for India but for the game itself.
India’s sensational triumph in a format it did not want to play in led to a revolution in terms of popularising the T20 game.
If had not won the T20 world championship in 2007, the IPL would not have been born a year later. Let us just say that Dhoni’s cool hand at the finish, when he made one of his preposterous and yet very instinctive decision to bowl the unknown Joginder Sharma at the death, had changed the course of cricket history itself.
Cricket changed, so too public taste even more quickly as the IPL soared and little leagues were created all around the cricketing world to cash in on the new cricket-industry-celebrity, a troika of success that somehow defined Dhoni’s life also. Dhoni became something of an endorsement industry as his management firm took him on a steep visibility path. He cashed in on the popularity of cricket and the love for celebrities India had picked up in the digital age.
Statistically, there is no comparison to Dhoni as he is the only international captain to have won three ICC events – World T20, World Cup and Champion’s Trophy. He also led the top-ranked Test team for a clear three years before the bottom seemed to fall out in the disastrous year of 2012 and the 8-0 defeats at the hands of England and Australia. That he rebuilt the team, avowedly in the extreme home atmosphere of designer pitches, is his great achievement, so too regaining the Champions Trophy with yet another unpredictable final overs choice in Ishant sharma when England were cantering to the target.
Under pressure, Dhoni retained his instinctive handling of strategy in the white ball game. His reading of Test matches may not have been the best and he tended to let the team drift a bit. It was the fast-paced limited-overs game which drew the best out of him as he took ‘cool’ decisions in the heat of stress. The tag of ‘Captain Cool’ sat well on him. It defined the man too. He would sometimes be so oblivious of his cell phone that the BCCI would have trouble reaching him.
It may be dawning on everyone that DHoni may not play in India colours again unless he makes it to the World T20 in Australia. His legion of fans will be happy to see him in the bright canary yellow of the Chennai Super Kings. This is the city in which he has been most comfortable – his late night superbike rides with a young actress on the pillion (in his bachelor days, of course) were legendary.
History will record that the social phenomenon Dhoni became thanks to cricket was, perhaps, the greatest facet of his railway platform to riches story.
— The author is the Resident Editor of the Chennai & Tamil Nadu editions of this newspaper