Dhoni was no saint, no God, and fairly enough, never pretended to be one. For all the insanely public lives Indian cricketers live, he succeeded in creating an island for himself and his family, and in the process, secured his legacy in the annals of India's rich cricketing history.
And so it ended, in an instant, with a bunch of cold, calculated, uncluttered words of defining finality. The innocently amateurish montage of memories compiled on Instagram speaking of a middle-aged man not completely at ease with the app; the inimitable tag-team of Mukesh and Sahir Ludhianvi floating its prose in pristine glory, stirring emotions, swirling memories – it was too simplistic, too definite. The farewell note that was penned in his head one muggy day in Manchester by the rasping arm of Martin Guptill was eventually read 14 months later in 16 unadulterated words. No press release, no videos, no voice notes. This was it.
Reams have been written about Mahendra Singh Dhoni's humble beginnings, him hailing from a non-metro city, clamouring for opportunities, trying to go where very few, if any, from his background had ventured, although it must be noted that the likes of Harbhajan Singh, Shiv Sunder Das, Debashish Mohanty, and Zaheer Khan, all of who debuted before him, came from relatively small towns too.
It is customary to gloat on this endearing facet, and truth be told, it was one hell of an underdog story, but Dhoni was more than the sum of these parts. He endured and moved on. He changed perceptions without meaning to, and before he would have known, the heartlessness that big cities typify and euphemise as practicality made way for boundless love bordering on the cult. It is of little surprise then that towards the back end of his career, it became increasingly impossible to objectively analyse his performances without inviting the wrath of his fans online – the same lot that stoned his house in Ranchi and burnt his posters after a dismal World Cup campaign in 2007.
It is widely believed that watching a fickle-minded country hell-bent on tearing his young life apart changed Dhoni. Something flipped. Even his farewell montage has two shots of that ill-fated World Cup that defined India's campaign – him getting out for a golden duck to Muttiah Muralitharan and the effigy-burning that followed. He stopped talking to the press, his inner circle shrank, he developed an aloofness just enough to keep people intrigued as well as away, and probably came to realise that life is more than being a prisoner to the image one ends up cultivating. The aristocratic aura and the dreamy demeanour were the by-products of this distance.
On the field, he kept finishing matches in style, taking the game deep, creating one-on-one scenarios with the bowlers, hitting last-over sixes, and coolly walking off, standing at the corner of group photos, handing over his trophies to juniors. One remembers a largely-forgotten shot of a bare-chested Dhoni handing over his India jersey to a kid after winning the inaugural T20 World Cup in South Africa months after the gnawing humiliation in the West Indies. It was an extension of a template he had steadily built a little over a year ago: Winning India tricky run chases, walking away with Man of the Match bikes, and taking them for a spin inside the stadium, often with two pillion riders, and almost always without a helmet. How cool was that? How different from his picture-perfect predecessors, how fresh and how natural. A nation fell in love.
In a career spanning 15 years and 8 months and bookended by run-outs, he was many things: A long-haired marauder, a reluctant enforcer, an ice-cold leader of men, an honorary Lieutenant Colonel, an ordinary man at ease with his greatness, but one suspects the characteristic that helped him become what he did was the kind of quiet confidence that comes with a tight embrace of one's strengths as well as limitations. Can't drive through covers? Cool, I'll lift them over covers instead. Too much bottom hand? No worries, I'll swing it out of the ground. No traditional wicketkeeping technique? Thanks, but I'll write my own rulebook. No express bowlers? I'll make do with Praveen Kumar.
He inherited a team brimming with legends, and while it helped that they also happened to be thorough gentlemen, to manage their egos, spaces and moods would have made most men nervous. Whether Dhoni demurred, we'll probably never know, but what we do know is he took India to the pinnacle of Test rankings, something that the legends he led could not do during their time at the helm. When time came, he cracked the whip too, irking an idol-worshipping nation but setting the template for the World Cup win.
Murmurs emerged of his unhappiness with selectors' reluctance to drop seniors, but Dhoni held on. The World Cup was won on home soil with a shot that etched his name in cricketing folklore and later made Sunil Gavaskar declare it as his dying wish. Then came the stretch of his career that divides opinions to this day. It is a part of his cricketing life that his biopic adroitly skips and his die-hard fans refuse to acknowledge. Soon after the World Cup high, he led India to twin whitewashes in England and Australia, and quite inexplicably, retained his job, thanks to then BCCI president N Srinivasan's (in)famous veto.
Next year, the IPL spot-fixing scandal broke and a protracted probe culminated in a Supreme Court-appointed panel suspending Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings for two years. It says a lot that while noone questioned Rahul Dravid's intent, captain of the erring Royals, there were enough uncomfortable utterings about his CSK counterpart and his links with Srinivasan, whose India Cements owned the Chennai-based franchise.
There were allegations that he lied to the Justice Mukul Mudgal-led panel, famously shielding Srinivasan's son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan, calling him a "cricket enthusiast" even as the investigation confirmed him to be a team official. Then, there's a small matter of the 13 names submitted to the apex court by Justice Mudgal in a sealed envelope that the cricket-loving public seems to have forgotten about.
Soon after the spot-fixing scandal, Dhoni fronted up to the media in a pre-departure presser ahead of the Champions Trophy. Despite customary gags, some journalists did question Dhoni on the controversial role of CSK in the sordid episode, but all the Indian captain did was smile sardonically. The most influential man in Indian cricket reduced to a sitting, smiling duck, squirming for the ordeal to end. In a script that mortals could only dream of, he returned with the trophy, silencing all inquest on his – and CSK's – role in the darkest phase of Indian cricket since the match-fixing scandal rocked the country in 2000.
A few years later, after India scrapped to a one-run win over Bangladesh in World T20, Dhoni's "nothing to add" endorsement of an Amitabh Bachchan tweet criticising commentator Harsha Bhogle for talking up Bangladesh led to BCCI dropping their ace commentator from their panel.
A couple of matches later, when India crashed out of the event with a stunning loss to West Indies in the semis, Dhoni invited an Australian journalist on the dais and put on a show. Mind you, it was not a good-natured banter. It was the world cricket's most powerful player's way of telling the press to back off. Understanding why he chose the most petulant way to do it is an exercise in itself. It is natural for a man who was unfairly hounded by TV media – albeit nine years back – to not open up, but to humiliate a journalist for doing his job didn't suit the man of his stature. The BCCI, as is their wont, chose to do nothing about it.
MS Dhoni, one would like to believe, is more than what he made himself out to be, especially in his moments of weakness. Relinquishing captaincy ought to have given his career a free-flowing second wind, but that was not to be. He accumulated runs, but the match-turning innings seemed reserved for CSK.
Last year's World Cup did a thorough examination of his tried and tested methods of innings-building, and one suspected that a defining failure was only a few innings away. Sadly for him and India, it arrived in the semi-finals against New Zealand. He scored a laboured half-century, but the lasting image will be of him leaving deliveries outside off-stump and inadvertently choking the run chase. That was to be his final appearance on the cricket field; an anti-climactic end to a career built on enterprise, courage, and conviction.
There cannot, and should not be any regrets though. For a generation of Indian cricket fans, Dhoni was among the final links to the golden generation – the one connecting the refined correctness of Tendulkars and Dravids with the raffish indifference of Kohlis and Rohits. He was no saint, no God, and fairly enough, never pretended to be one. For all the insanely public lives Indian cricketers live, he succeeded in creating an island for himself and his family, and in the process, secured his legacy in the annals of India's rich cricketing history.
As Dhoni calls time on a memorable career, vignettes remain, of a muscled-up tyro hitting sixes for fun, of him handing the ball to Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over of the World T20 final, of the Wankhede six, of the inscrutable smile that said little, of those blank, brooding eyes that showed nothing. Choose whatever you like, they all belong to the enigma that launched a million middle-class dreams.
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