From cult hero to legend: MS Dhoni's astonishing journey
Sachin Tendulkar mastered a craft for a period of time with an air of divinity that seemed on the verge of attaining nirvana if it ever came to the thought of emulation, Rahul Dravid's serenity and graft measured beyond most of the mortals, the quintessential hero of Yuvraj Singh flirted with inconceivable greatness and damnable troughs, while Saurav Ganguly's magically maniacal demeanour was not for the faint-hearted, Virat Kohli's invocation of emotions bordered on overwhelming.
In modern cricket, an Indian kid had an array of people to look up to, but among cricketers with traits likened with unachievable traits of the famed Marvel Cinematic Universe, if there was one he could identify with, one he felt an inexpressible bond with, it was the 24-year-old unassuming lad from Ranchi, Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
"But wasn't he just one of the many up and coming attacking cricketers who took the thumbnail file created by the likes of Shahid Afridi and Sanath Jayasuriya and created a full-blown JPEG out of it?
"Wasn't he just another cricketer who walked in the footsteps of Adam Gilchrist," you ask.
No, and here is why. MS Dhoni went on to become a personification of the joy of cricket. He reminded you of the time you first discovered the sweet sound of the ball hitting the middle of the bat and sailing away, unhindered, unstoppable, an unheralded evoking towards the calling of cricket as a pursuit.
In a team of world beaters, Dhoni stood out with his tantalizing charisma. His flowing mane was antithetical to the rather idealized bunch of players he played alongside. His high grip on the bat, aided by a lower arm strength and swiftness, was a sight so phenomenal that it would have enamoured Homer into reserving a string of recurring adverbs and adjectives of sterling glory as a subtitle to his character.
Dhoni has been around for a while. Almost a decade another half. The astonishing part is that he has managed to retain the charm of old, not with just his mannerisms, but his style of play seems to go along with every mini-era. Even as a rookie in the international scenario, his relatability made him an instant hero. Good lord, he would've made the greatest mascot of all time if his timeline aligned with that of Verghese Kurien.
In the good ol' days when scorebooks from India-Pakistan bilateral series were not confined to the History Section of libraries when all "Indo-Pak" matches howsoever frenzied, almost seemed to play out with the same sub-plots. That's when Dhoni walked out at three, a rather surprising promotion for someone struggling to buy a run even at seven, and said a gleeful "Thank You!" to the team management (the crowd at Vishakhapatnam being an unintended beneficiary) as he orchestrated a blitzkrieg of 148 runs off 123 balls.
Nobody had seen it coming and fans across the world were taken aback, just as much as Mohammad Sami and Shahid Afridi. Although he celebrated with that gun-shot manoeuvre (I apologize for the nostalgia that just got triggered), that innings was more of a pillow-smother than the fire of a rifle in the calm yet belligerent ways it unfolded. We did not even know that we were witnessing the making of one of the calmest heads in cricket.
Just when it seemed that Dhoni might have reached the heights too early, he scaled them even further. Years before the Rajasthan Royals would go on to label the Sawai Man Singh Stadium in Jaipur as their "fortress", Dhoni made it his castle by hitting the Sri Lankan bowling attack to all parts of the ground en route to his unbeaten 183.
That legendary innings was the beginning of the era where not a single match-day has passed without the name "Dhoni" uttered in every household. Over years, it has been spat in a cursing tone as he holed out for a scratchy duck in the Champions Trophy 2013 final, spoken in hushed whispers lest not they jinx India's last hope in the match when he slowly inched his team towards an unlikely win in the tri-series final in West Indies the same year, chanted in unison when he turned back the clock on his way to the epic double ton against Australia in Chennai, ah Chennai and Thala! Now the addressing of him is much more sedate, almost as in reverence of a great man to whose services we are indebted for the thrill and exhilaration they brought upon us.
Over the years, MS has truly encapsulated and put on exhibitions that are reminiscent of why we love this game. He was never driven by a determination to be the best, instead, he has always kept his wits about him even in adversity because he knew that at the end of the day, it was just a game.
That was perhaps the ideology that made him one of the humblest people among celebrities in a nation of a multi-billion population despite having seen blinding success as a leader and a batsman. To put things in perspective, I found it hard to stay grounded after scoring a quick-fire forty-odd (in cricketing circuits always round off your 34 to forty-odd) at the top of the order in an intra-class six-over-a-side match, played on concrete, with a tennis ball, that most 10-year-olds in my opposition threw in form of long hops mostly.
Lastly, what makes him such a valuable cricketer is his identification with cricket all around the world. He has been such a diverse cricketer that he can easily be identified as one of the greatest worldwide ambassadors of the sport. You can almost imagine the tenth of a million at the Melbourne Cricket Ground cheering for him as he walks out to bat, donning the baggy green, you can visualize him single-handedly rousing the distinguished gentry at Lord's with a brutal yet measured ton with his back against the walls, he somehow seems to go well with the unorthodox mantra Pakistan and Sri Lanka have stamped for themselves and unbelievably has the spirit to emerge victorious in face of odds stacked against him like a true Kiwi.
At 37, he admittedly stands upon the last phase of his career. He might call curtains after the 2019 showpiece event in England, or he might retire after the current ODI series against England. With Dhoni, you never know. Nobody ever does, that's part of what has transcended him from the folk hero 'Mahi' to a global legend of the game and the son and idol of a proud frenetic nation.
And that's the story of how I saw Dhoni transform from the cricketer I loved to hate, to the cricketer I now hate to love. Such is his persuasion.