Mahendra Singh Dhoni's bildungsroman: Long-haired iconoclast to elder statesman in blink of an eye
Nearly 24 years ago, a 16-year-old kid with a squeaky voice arrived at a hostile place to face, in Wasim Akram, Imran Khan, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir, one of the most hostile bowling attacks to have ever been assembled in cricket history.
In a few years’ time, this 16-year old boy grew manifolds in stature and at the tender age of 23, he became the embodiment of a nation’s hope- a nation that had a population of nearly a billion. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar captured the imagination of millions of Indians and surpassed them.
For Indian cricket fans of the mid-90s till the early 2000s, Sachin Tendulkar could do virtually anything that could be done on the cricket field with a cricket bat. No, Sachin Tendulkar just had to do virtually everything that could be done on the cricket field with a cricket bat. The entire nation found achievement in his achievements, felt despair in his failures, clung on to all kinds of hope in his presence, and simply resigned themselves to their fates in his absence.
Sachin Tendulkar came from the Bombay school of cricket as it was referred to in those days. Even before playing a single international match, Sachin Tendulkar had earned quite a reputation for himself. With the world record partnership along with his childhood friend and later, India teammate Vinod Kambli, and a century each in his Ranji Trophy, Irani Trophy and Duleep Trophy debuts, Sachin Tendulkar was already a known figure, at least in Mumbai cricket circles.
He was expected to do wonders even at the age of 16. That it took him almost two years to play his first significant innings and the fact that he too started realizing his true genius only after having played nearly five years of international cricket is testimony to the rather ignored fact that he too, like all of us, is after all human.
But, Sachin Tendulkar was the biggest thing to have ever happened to Indian cricket. He made millions hope that India could be a super power in cricket, and more often than not, delivered on those hopes, thus providing immense pleasure to millions. He transformed the way Indian cricket was viewed and, more importantly, the way Indian cricket was played.
India became a mediocre side of the early 1990s to, at least in home conditions, the dominant side of the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Even in overseas conditions, but for the mediocrity of his team mates, Sachin Tendulkar would have transformed India’s fate.
After India embarked on a golden era in cricket, largely on the back of the presence of some of the finest cricketers to have ever graced the game in Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble to partner Sachin Tendulkar, the most natural and inevitable of phenomena-change struck Indian cricket.
Sourav Ganguly was the first to wane, followed by arguably India’s greatest match-winner in Tests, Anil Kumble, who was also the first to retire in November 2008, immediately followed by Sourav Ganguly. Although Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman continued for a few more years, their involvement gradually started diminishing, especially in the One-Day version of the game. VVS Laxman in fact played his last ODI in 2006.
Under such uncertain circumstances, a young, and relatively inexperienced man from a state that was never known to produce great cricketers was handed the reins of the Indian T20 and ODI sides.
Coming from Ranchi from the Indian state of Jharkhand, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was seen as the man to carry Indian cricket forward, at least in the shorter formats. Unlike Tendulkar, Dhoni was never seen as a great cricketer at any stage of his early career. In fact, his inclusion in the team came about more as a result of lack of better alternatives than his own exceptional performances.
In his early days as an Indian cricketer, the most defining aspect of Dhoni was his long locks that made the most definitive statement from among all of his attributes. But it was a statement nevertheless, and as Tendulkar had done 15 years earlier, Dhoni influenced the Indian cricket viewer.
Like Tendulkar, Dhoni changed the way Indian cricket was viewed. He represented a largely globalised, outspoken, fearless and aspirational society that was bubbling with energy and wanted an opportunity to show itself off.
Never before had the Indian cricket fan seen a cricketer who could compete with the international stars of football in terms of style and fashion. Never before had there been an Indian cricketer whose interests outside cricket lay in riding powerful bikes and flying planes.
In that sense, Dhoni was unique and much like Tendulkar, captured the imagination of the Indian fan. His batting was less talked about, his wicket-keeping was still less talked about. All that was talked about when it came to Dhoni, were his bikes and his hair. For a population that only had the Bollywood heroes to copy styles from, here was a cricketer who, with his carefree attitude and swagger presented himself as a more than decent alternative to ape from.