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MSD: Steady Keeper of the People’s Faith

As he waked out for the toss, clad in the bright yellow of his franchise with ‘7’ emblazoned boldly on the back of his jersey, they broke out into spontaneous and prolonged chants of his name.
As he called right and opted to field, they went bananas, screaming and shouting and threatening to bring the roof down.

As he walked out to bat with his team in strife, and unleashed a stunning assault that hauled his team to the brink of victory, pandemonium reigned. And when he fell just short of pulling off a miracle, they gasped in stunned disappointment even though the home team had pulled off a narrow victory.

That’s the effect Mahendra Singh Dhoni has on the masses. Royal Challengers Bangalore were the home team, but you wouldn’t have guessed it the other night at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, awash in a sea of yellow and lapping up everything ‘MS’ had to offer.

In this season of the Indian Premier League, like most seasons preceding it, it’s as if Chennai Super Kings have no away games. No other franchise has such dedicated and frenzied following outside of their home base, no one else enjoys a similar kind of patronage across the length and the breadth of the country. All that is entirely down to one unassuming man who simply does not know what it is to back down.

The clamour for tickets for every match involving the three-time champions of the IPL is a direct reflection of the magnetic pulling power of Captain Cool. Dhoni can’t be unaware of the effect he has on his vast legion of fans, but the manner in which he handles that adoring attention is a crucial lesson that his colleagues will do well to emulate. Without playing to the gallery, he has the teeming millions eating out of his hands. How do you do that, MS?

In Bangalore, where life generally begins and ends with Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers during the IPL season, it would have been considered blasphemous in the past to wildly celebrate the dismissal of these two adopted sons. Not anymore, not when they are playing against CSK. Against Dhoni. Against the cult hero who is perhaps the closest match to Sachin Tendulkar in terms of popularity and reverence.

The night before the match at the Chinnaswamy, some 200 fans had somehow slipped through the heavy security cordon to watch CSK practice. Their faces fell when Dhoni, nursing a back injury, didn’t arrive with the first batch of players, but they didn’t lose heart.

Soon enough, their perseverance was rewarded when Dhoni strode through the tunnel and on to the field, triggering squeals of excited delight from men and women grown and young. A casual wave of the hand made their evening. They had stories to tell for a lifetime, some of them certain to be embellished with dollops of make-believe with the passage of time.

Dhoni has always flirted with the top rung in the popularity stakes since his international debut in late 2004, as a muscular, powerful, raw 23-year-old with a distinct, distinctive mane of hair that had even then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in thrall.

His metamorphosis from boy wonder to the man for all seasons was gradual if arresting. For someone from the cricketing outpost of Ranchi to not just shatter the established order in Indian cricket but ascend the ladder of leadership of a team that included Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan was awe inspiring.

As he piloted the team to glorious heights, staring adversity in the face and forcing it to blink first, the image of Dhoni was seared in the hearts of the Indian cricket follower. In keeping with his propensity to shock, he walked away from Test cricket with nary a hint in late 2014, and quietly stepped down from the limited-overs captaincy at the start of 2017. He may no longer be the captain, but Dhoni is still clearly the leader. The undisputed one, at that.

Before the start of IPL 2018, dwindling returns with the bat at unDhoni-like strike-rates had catalysed whispers over his continued influence in Kohli’s scheme of things.

In typical Dhoni fashion, with his bat as a weapon of destruction, he silenced those whispers in spectacular fashion, driving CSK to a third title on their return to the competition after a two-year suspension. They named him ‘thala’ in Chennai a long time back; obviously, they knew what they were doing.

All things considered, though, Dhoni’s popularity hasn’t even been higher than it is now. Not when he unexpectedly steered India to the inaugural World T20 title in South Africa in 2007, not when he took the side to No. 1 in the Test rankings for the first time in 2009, not even when he slammed Nuwan Kulasekara over long-on to formalise India’s conquest of the World Cup in 2011.

Perhaps, it’s because the fans feel that the sands of time are running out on them. That they may not be able to watch their hero in flesh and blood for too long now. That soon, Dhoni’s heroics can only be relived through old videos. That the man with the Midas touch might call it a day at the end of the World Cup this July. Or, perhaps, they just love to love him. That’s a good enough explanation too, right?

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 16:42:39 IST