Small-town Boy, Big-time Player

With four Test wins out of five as India’s new captain MS Dhoni has the world at his feet and, as Rahul Bhattacharya reports, those feet are on the ground

There is this remarkable photograph of a police jeep. You cannot see all of it. You can see the roof and the windshield but the rest is buried in people. Some 2,000 of them have surrounded the vehicle. They have clambered on to the balconies of adjoining buildings. Seen black-and-white in the newspaper, the photo – the futile bereted policemen with lathis, the hundreds of black-haired heads in animation – has the feel of a riot.

In fact, it was that Mahendra Singh Dhoni, sensation of India, had been at a salon for a haircut in his hometown of Ranchi in Jharkhand. Word spread. There was a girls’ college nearby. After four hours he had to be extricated by the police.

There is another telling photograph in which you can actually see Dhoni. He is batting in the India blue, in his first season. Both feet are off the ground by at least 10 inches. His body faces cover. The bat has finished across his body, parallel to the ground. The shot might perhaps be described as a flying swat. Whatever it is, it is not cricket as the rest of the world plays it. It is the shot of a sensation.

The frames are remarkable for what they tell you not just of the cricketer but of his evolution in the public imagination. The early Dhoni was seen as the wild-haired mace-wielder. He could dig out yorkers for six. He could make straight forehands with more topspin than Rafael Nadal. But nobody saw him as captain of India until he was actually appointed. Indeed, since Dhoni’s debut there had been five vice-captains and as recently as mid-2008 his place in the Test side was under media scrutiny.

Yet, playing his fourth season now, Dhoni stands an undisputed leader. He has won a World Twenty20, a 50-over triangular in Australia and four of five Tests in which he was captain. At the first IPL auction he fetched the highest price in the world. The bidders were not looking for a match-turner; they were looking for a leader.

He is an interesting captain because he does not come from one school or the other. He could not have: he had never captained a team before India. Just when commentators had become comfortable casting him as the archetype ‘aggressive’ captain he employed extreme attrition in three consecutive Tests. Likewise there is no clear pattern to the kind of player he prefers, as with his predecessors – gamebreakers for Sourav Ganguly, hardworkers for Rahul Dravid, Mumbaikars for Sachin Tendulkar – and he has never spoken of building a team, preferring to back horses for courses.

Cricket is a game to Dhoni, not in the sense that he knows its place – though one suspects he does – rather that he is energised by those aspects of cricket that make it a game as much as a sport. There is action and there are tactics and, as with his favourite PlayStation games of guns and missions, the two must unsentimentally converge to the need of the moment.

His view on sledging, for instance, is explicitly tactical. He has neither condemned the practice nor attempted to claim honour by cloaking it in euphemism. Instead he has said that it is an art and that art is of not getting caught.
His own body language is so anti-dramatic that it is a kind of hamming of its own. After a victorious match contemporaries prance about all around him, pull faces, emit yells, perform jigs. The gloved one stands coolly among them, then walks his quick, deliberate semi-swaggering walk towards the boundary ropes: calmness as style statement.

He has an instinctive appreciation of the symbolic gesture in India. When he returned home with the World Twenty20 it was to a packed Wankhede Stadium, hijacked by politicians and administrators. The local politicians spoke in the local Marathi. The MC addressed Dhoni in English. He replied: “We’ve done English and Marathi, so let us speak in Hindi now.”

A year on, belying his image as one not duly respectful to the team ‘seniors’, he bade farewell to Anil Kumble by hoisting him on to his shoulders at the end of his last match and to Ganguly, whose last Test was the following match, by inviting him to captain the side in the final overs.

To observe all this about Dhoni is not to catalogue him but to appreciate how a bright but unprodigious talent from a modest background in the eastern state of Jharkhand could so effectively rise to the varied demands of one of sport’s hardest jobs. It is to appreciate that Dhoni is a fine, thrilling cricketer, but, more, an extraordinary Indian.

Bear in mind that till a few years ago there was no Jharkhand: the region was the southern part of the populous and under-developed state of Bihar, from where no cricketer of consequence had ever emerged. South Biharis saw their region as the more advanced, the seat of industry, and also the more beautiful, with vast forest land where the state’s large tribal population lived. But Jharkhandi identity was subsumed in the Bihari identity and, even when the entity was created in 2000, in popular consciousness it registered as an unimportant tribal patch. Jharkhand was a new state with no new heroes. There was nobody to put it on the map.

That changed on April 5, 2005 at the precise moment when Dhoni, playing his fifth match, crossed fifty in the course of a mad, muscular century against Pakistan. As soon as the half-century came up, media poured into the Dhoni home in such numbers that people had to climb on to the bed to see the television. The residence was the humble quarters of his father, Paan Singh, who did an electrical maintenance job on the plumbing systems of a nationalised engineering company. Soon afterwards he was granted a large bungalow meant for the highest-ranking company officers.

Dhoni’s early stories are not so much of Middle India struggle as small-town carefreeness. He says he did not watch much cricket growing up, stopping only for Tendulkar. Tests did not impress him. Middle overs of one-dayers bored him. It was simply that he enjoyed playing and the sporting life was more exciting than the office life. He was driven not in the manner of a champion but an adventurer.

In school he played football and was a goalkeeper till the sports master needed someone to keep wicket in the cricket team. He had skill, of course, making it to the state and zonal under-19 teams, but his ambitions were never grand.

He did not, for instance, think of moving to a stronger state to give himself a better shot at the Indian team. He did not care for modern training methods and still does not. His ancestors came from Kumaon in the eastern Himalayas and he knows he is fit in the way of the hill people with those unyielding legs and iron lungs.

His father, who was a daily-wages worker when he started, was not keen that Dhoni neglect his studies. It was only after Dhoni was selected for the Ranji Trophy that he felt perhaps the boy could make a life for himself by playing cricket.

And so Dhoni kept playing. He played club cricket in the Delhi hot-weather tournaments. He took a position as a railway-platform ticket checker at Kharagpur in Bengal to play in the competitive semi-professional tennis-ball tournaments. His friends from those days speak of laughter in the shared tenement and long bike rides to matches.

After four years on the domestic circuit Dhoni was selected for an India A team. At 23 he was about three years older than youngsters earmarked for the national team are when they are drafted in. A year later came that century against Pakistan.

His childhood fascinations for guns, speed and movies remain. The difference is that he can now pop into the army ranges and fire the finest rifles when he wants to, he has a stable of half a dozen bikes, Harley 1500cc included, and friends who once teased him for not showing enough interest in the opposite sex envy his admirers among Bollywood actresses.

The latest debate in Ranchi was over a Dhoni temple proposed by his official fan club. Mr and Mrs Paan Singh were not taken with the idea, arguing that there must be a balance to everything and after all not even Tendulkar had a temple. The fan club mulled over the objection. They decided instead to set up a Dhoni gallery: a five-foot statue has been commissioned.

Ideally it would be of him playing the levitated swat, but statues cannot hang in the air. Besides, Dhoni’s feet are firmly grounded.

Rahul Bhattacharya is author of the acclaimed book Pundits from Pakistan, the story of India’s tour to Pakistan in 2003-04

Tests (all)    35    1807    148    36.14    1    14    62.89
as captain    5    385    92    55.00    0    5    64.48
ODIs (all)    125    3935    183*    46.84    4    25    90.89
ODIs (capt)    41    1458    109*    52.07    1    11    83.02

20 Seconds with Dhoni

Where did you learn to captain? I did not learn to captain. I just go by my instincts. Till now things have fallen in place.
What kind of captain do you feel you are? I am an aggressive captain.
How do you deal with the external pressures of being captain? There is obvious pressure and I know if I can’t deal with it I will not be able to perform. I don’t usually care about what others think. I try to go by my instincts and test myself.
Do you wish you could lead a quiet life? Oh, I wish I could. That’s why I will never shift from Ranchi.
Do you feel captaincy makes you more aware of life outside cricket, such as politics? There is politics anywhere you go. So captaincy just might make you a politician. In my case I try to stay out of politics.
Do you feel India now are the No.1 side in the world? Well, South Africa and Australia are world-class teams. When we start beating these teams consistently we can call ourselves No.1. Till then we are just a good team.
Who do you think the new stars of cricket will be in the next five years? Not sure. I feel that the star should be the team and not an individual player.
Why did you cut off your hair? Just to change my hairstyle. Also it was tough managing long hair and I really wanted a change.

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi

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