Kolkata: With nothing left to prove and the 2020 T20 World Cup, scheduled for October-November taken off the calendar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni closed his innings as a game-changing icon.
No farewell match, no fanfare. So typical of Dhoni to convey what he had to sans any tamasha. However, that he informed the public through social media, with a touching Mukesh song to drive home the message, came as somewhat of a surprise.
Dhoni was not exactly a fan of social media in the years gone by.
But, then, Dhoni has had the penchant to surprise. Remember, he chose not to inform even many friends about his impending marriage to Sakshi, with whom he had been going steady, in July 2010.
For Dhoni, it has been living and playing on his terms, without bothering too much about what X or Y may say.
The media is an important arm of sport, but apparently distressed by the hounding of his family after India’s first-round exit in the 2007 World Cup, Dhoni decided to largely take questions at press conferences only.
Dhoni respected the few of us who stood by him, but otherwise, couldn’t care less. A section of the media made it a habit to gun for him, but he stayed unflustered.
Not just surprises, Dhoni scripted shocks as well.
For example, in December 2014, with one Test in the series versus Australia remaining, Dhoni announced he was retiring from the longest format.
When I asked Dhoni why, he explained: “My body was giving up. I had to choose and realised the five-day game will take a bigger toll. Plus, Virat (Kohli) was ready to captain, it’s not that hamare pas koi kaptaan nahin tha.”
To continue playing for CSK
While Dhoni will still play for the Chennai Super Kings (CSK), he is through with ODIs and T20Is. He was already done with Test cricket.
Dhoni’s Independence Day announcement did not come as a shock as he had not played for over 13 months and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had insensitively dropped the 39-year-old from the list of contracted players.
Clearly, the disruption caused by the lethal pandemic, which led to this year’s IPL being postponed and also forced the International Cricket Council’s hands with regard to the T20 World Cup, seems to have affected Dhoni’s plans too.
Had the IPL begun on schedule, in the latter part of March, there’s every chance that a strong performance from Dhoni in the CSK colours would have brought him into reckoning for the T20 World Cup.
That was not to be.
Many of us present at Old Trafford, during the India vs New Zealand semi-final in the 2019 World Cup, sensed that Dhoni had made the last of his 538 appearances for India. Yet, one wanted to believe the champion still had fire in his belly.
It is ironic that Dhoni, otherwise exceptional between wickets, got run out in what became his last innings for India.
Weeks after the World Cup, Dhoni (an honorary Lt Colonel in the Territorial Army) decided to serve with his battalion in Jammu & Kashmir. He was in the Valley for a fortnight and assigned patrolling and guard duties.
That Dhoni chose to wear the uniform while still an active cricketer suggested that, after the huge disappointment of the World Cup, he was actually looking at charting a course away from the battles over the 22 yards.
What a cricketer he’s been: Tendulkar
Is it easy to call time on one’s international career?
“It wasn’t hard for me, as I felt within that it was getting over. It wasn’t a sad day when I made the announcement, as I had two Tests remaining and was to complete 24 years at the international level before bowing out…
“Basically, it’s an individual thing and Dhoni must have thought hard before taking the decision. The individual alone is best placed to take the call. What a cricketer he’s been,” legend Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, who served as an inspiration to Dhoni, told ThePrint.
Asked if Dhoni’s decision left him shocked, Tendulkar replied: “No. My reaction would have been different had Dhoni been 33 or 34. He’s in his 40th year.”
According to Tendulkar, that Dhoni “inspired so many to take to cricket” will remain his enduring legacy. “I’m sure, some years down the line, Dhoni will sit back and smile with satisfaction at having been such an inspiration pan India,” he added.
As for the one Dhoni performance which stands out, Tendulkar said: “Hmmm… That six to win the 2011 World Cup is there, but my favourite memory is of Dhoni hooking a Shoaib Akhtar bouncer for six in the Faisalabad Test (2005-’06). I was the non-striker and it was wow.”
It was on the same tour that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then the President of Pakistan, advised Dhoni to ignore a placard which asked him to have a hair cut! “You look good in this hair cut,” was Musharraf’s headline-grabbing compliment.
Unusual for a Head of State to make such a comment with a live TV audience of millions, but Musharraf had been charmed by Dhoni the cricketer and person.
Dhoni, his Ranchi & Amitabh Choudhary
Until Dhoni began making an impact at the international level, Ranchi had been best known for a medical facility. In sport, it was more about hockey not cricket. Dhoni recast that image, giving Jharkhand’s capital and the newly-born state itself an identity.
Dhoni is Ranchi, though many in Chennai swear that he is one of their own — thanks to the difference he has made to CSK from the inception of the IPL, in 2008.
Like Kapil Dev Nikhanj in the late 1970s, Dhoni smashed a stereotype and cricket was no longer a monopoly of Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and (to a lesser degree) Chennai and Kolkata.
One recalls Amitabh Choudhary, then president of the Jharkhand State Cricket Association, pitching for Dhoni with the argument that the youngster possessed the much-needed X factor.
“Dhoni won’t let you down. He just needs that break,” Choudhary, who eventually took premature retirement from the IPS, kept insisting.
Indeed, before the India squad for the 2004-’05 tour of Bangladesh was selected, Choudhary approached me to “put in a word” in the quarters which mattered. Specifically, captain Sourav Ganguly and coach John Wright. Possibly Pranab Roy, the selector from East, as well.
I couldn’t speak to Ganguly, but recall a lengthy conversation with Wright at the Taj Bengal in Kolkata. The latter had, in any case, been aware of Dhoni’s stunning batting on an A tour of Kenya and it helped that Ganguly (now the BCCI president) did not oppose his selection.
Dhoni’s talent and exceptional work ethic ensured a memorable career, but he nevertheless owes Choudhary “Sir” a thank you. Not many administrators would have taken the Choudhary route.
Powerful hitter, awesome finisher, brilliant between wickets and efficient behind the stumps. That was Dhoni before the world saw him quickly grow into a leader.
Captain, a leader
All captains are not leaders. Dhoni definitely was. His captaincy in Test cricket did get questioned, but he was the emperor where the two white-ball formats were concerned.
Dhoni set the benchmark by playing fair and making sure there was no unpleasantness with the opposition. That earned him tonnes of respect.
Besides winning all the ICC events — the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, the 2011 World Cup and the 2013 Champions Trophy — Dhoni took India to No.1 in the Test rankings in 2009.
Try matching that.
Dhoni got the white-ball captaincy a full year before he succeeded Anil Radhakrishna Kumble as the Test captain. Dhoni had big shoes to fill, but if he felt the heat, he never gave anything away.
Few have succeeded in embracing pressure in the manner Dhoni did. Sunil Gavaskar, Tendulkar and now Kohli sit in the same category, but Dhoni did it his way. Kamaal ka cricketer.
The calmness of Dhoni, which led some to compare him with Buddha, stood out. To a large extent, it was infectious.
What stood out more is the manner in which Dhoni nursed bowlers and groomed Kohli, who succeeded him first as the Test captain and across the three formats in January 2017.
Even after Dhoni left the captaincy in ODIs and T20Is, he was at hand to guide Kohli, who was anything but calm by nature. It is because of their respect for each other that Dhoni and Kohli shared an excellent rapport with no semblance of ego butting in.
Three India cricketers may feel hard done in by Dhoni at different stages in their respective careers, but he had fierce loyalists too. Which, to an extent, explains why shishya Suresh Raina (in any case out of favour with the selectors) took the same path as Dhoni, his retirement made public soon afterwards.
Dhoni’s India career is over, but his brand is bound to keep growing. Expect him to be a most sought-after speaker on leadership and a possible mentor across different fields.
The emerging generation of cricketers have much to learn from Dhoni, a man of many parts with a fascination for motorbikes, interest in wildlife and an immense love of canines.
Naturally, cricketers from across the globe have saluted Dhoni. Wasim Akram put it beautifully: “He was someone who came, played and conquered.” Akhtar was spot on as well: “The story of cricket will never be complete without him.”