“It’s been 13 years but somehow I still remember this. It was April 5 2005 and it was raining heavily in my city so I, a very young cricket fan, was stuck in traffic and was listening to the score updates on the radio. The Radio Jockey summed up the score of the Indian innings and said that Mahendra Singh Dhoni had top scored with a 148*. I looked at my Dad and asked him “Dad, who is Dhoni?”
My father didn’t know the answer to my question. But when somebody feels the need to ask who you are, that’s when you know you have announced yourself. Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
No wonder I hadn’t heard of the man before his Vishakhapatnam blaze. He had been run out on a duck and followed it with some pretty low scores.
But this young man was going to change the face of Indian cricket forever. He was a revelation. A storm might have struck Pakistan that day but little did anyone know that it was this Ranchi boy’s calm that was going to envelop Indian cricket for the years to follow.
– the name itself is a tangible presence. Ravindra Jadeja has said, “If you want to learn to bat, bat with MS Dhoni”. “I’do go on a war with MS Dhoni by my side”, said a certain Gary Kirsten.
“You don’t play for the crowd, you play for the country”, is what MSD preached and lived by. He didn’t see his daughter and didn’t even carry a phone to know that he was now a father when he was on ‘national duty’ during the 2015 World Cup.
India had a lot of captains, batsmen and wicketkeepers but India had never had this.
An uncluttered mind in possession of a fit body and a humble nature is what makes MSD the athlete he is. A captain that didn’t believe in statistics is statically the most successful Indian captain. A man who sneered at history while playing rewrote it innumerable times during his fabled career.
He has been avant-garde, to say the least, right from a boy who played soccer and was directed to wicketkeeping by his coach. His wicketkeeping techniques were rusty. People would turn their noses away from his techniques if they could.
His appalling stance while defending the ball or his unattractive sweeps in Test cricket, Dhoni has never pleased the people who hold the cricket textbook above everything.
But 14 years on, he has the most stumpings to his name in limited overs cricket, he stayed in the top 10 of the batting charts for as long as anybody and more than most.
Come to the situation when India was reeling at 29/5 in just 10 overs against Pakistan in 2012 and in came the composed Dhoni seeing India through with a 113-ball 125.
In 2005, Sachin Tendulkar walks back after nicking one off Chaminda Vaas. This time, an unflinching Dhoni comes in to bat and smashes an 85-ball 100 and eventually breaks the record of the highest score by a wicketkeeper by reaching a monumental 183.
Dhoni is the lovechild of fire and ice. A laconic man, taking bullets for his team, being his cheeky self in press conferences, never being a narcissist in his post-match presentations. A 10-year tenure as a captain of the world’s most cricket-crazy country is not a task for the feeble hearted.
Couple that with the weight of wicketkeeping and being the most reputed finisher in his time. You have to dare to be Dhoni.
His wicketkeeping is majestic. If he had a superhero alter ego, it would be The Flash. There hasn’t been anyone who has graced that area behind the stumps like Dhoni has.
The hands keep close to the stumps and the speed at which he whips off bails make you think you are watching the game in fast forward. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
MSD is so good at his job that he almost nearly affects stumpings and runouts at a success rate of 90% without even looking at the target. And mind you, the man doesn’t even practise keeping now.
With Dhoni behind, gone are the days when the batsman needs to have danced down the track to get stumped. A little wiggle of the back foot and the LED behind will light up.
There he is, sticking out one leg to stop the ball, beating a certain Mushfiqur Rahim in a race to the stumps, fooling Mitchell Marsh that the throw isn’t going to come at his end, hitting stumps blindsided, running 25 yards faster than batsmen trying to complete the 22 yards length, defying the laws which should apply to a body of a 35+ year old.
And boy, his own coaches were dismissive of his keeping at first. But he has ripped open conventionalism in cricket.
There is no method to Dhoni, the captain. There is no winning formula. It is all instinctive, the magic of a cricketing brain so sharp it is mistaken for luck.
Luck eventually runs out but your brainpower doesn’t. The former skipper is still seen setting fields, constantly being in the ear of Captain Kohli and talking to bowlers like he always has.
Kohli calls MSD “My captain forever”. He is learning at the helm of a genius. The transition from Dhoni to Kohli has been a smooth one.
Most teams tend to lose a few ranking points, a few matches, a few series when the side is changed but it hasn’t been the case with India. Dhoni built up a good team and left the reigns in the hands of an energetic Kohli to make it a great one.
The first time we saw Dhoni, the captain was in 2007 T20 WC. The man held the ropes of a team without its experienced players.
A team that was sent to South Africa in the aftermath of the disastrous 2007 WC. No one batted an eye for Dhoni's India until that bowl out against Pakistan.
Dhoni was the only captain who made his bowlers practise bowl outs in the nets. Like we already established, an instinctive mind.
The last T20 tournament he won was with the Chennai Super Kings. CSK were disregarded right from the time they named their retained players and still through the auctions, for the average age of the team was 34.
But the man with the Midas touch did again what he had done with the young Indian lads 11 years ago. No winning formula. Just instinct.
There is equanimity in victories and losses. The process still more important than the result. A pragmatic approach still in place even after living in a fairytale.
No regard for what people might say when he puts his rotation policy in place or marks his players based on performance and not reputation.
For Dhoni, it was always cricket and nothing beyond it. Only guts and the glory that he never asked for that came as a result.
Today, Dhoni celebrates his 37th birthday. Dhoni is still orchestrating murders of the world’s best bowling attacks, still plundering mammoth sixes, still bringing the calm into chaos and chaos into calm and still serving his country even after retiring as a captain.
Just yesterday, he finished the Indian innings with a couple of fours to get India to a competitive total against England at Cardiff.
He walked away from Test cricket in the middle of a series against Australia. There wasn’t a farewell match and not even a post-match conference. It was a moment he only shared with his teammates.
He retired as a captain and only got a game with the India A team for us to admire the greatest ever Indian captain leading his team into the ground for that one last time.
We won’t talk about retirements for Dhoni as he is still the fittest ever, outrunning Dwayne Bravo in friendly races post a cricket game.
For now, we just cherish what the man is giving us on the field. We admire him, we applaud him and we let him be.
Because when the time comes he would walk in the shadows with a smile just like he does after winning a trophy and this time, it would be even harder to locate him.
Thank you for the life lessons as much as the World Cups, Mahi. Thank you for being the youth icon in my adolescence as much as for being my idol in the latter years. Thank you for the stump mic talks as much as the press conferences. Thank you for imitating people on the field and thank you for lying on the cricket pitch like a three-year-old. Happy Birthday, legend.