“Mahendra Singh Dhoni was a shy kid,” said Prakash Poddar. “Jyaada baat cheet nahi karta tha. He was after all from Jharkhand, not a cricketing power in domestic cricket, and he wasn’t from a rich family either. He kept to himself.”
That was Dhoni, India’s most successful skipper and one of the most influential people in the world in 2010 according to Time magazine, before luck and Poddar found him.
On this non-descript day in 2003, he was an unknown and Poddar was the BCCI’s Talent Research Development Officer (TRDO). A former Bengal skipper, Poddar, wasn’t expecting much that day. He was there simply because he had been assigned to watch an under-19 match in Jamshedpur.
No one had tipped him about any exceptional talent and when he took the train from Kolkata to Jamshedpur, he wasn’t expecting anything other than a routine game.
Normally the TRDOs would go to grounds and fill out a form in which they would mention whether the batsman was right-handed or left-handed, if he bowled – pace, spin, swing. Right at the bottom of the form was an empty box called recommendations. For most players, this box remained empty.
Indeed, for most of the scouts, even turning up for the game was futile. They would be in their rooms, call up the umpires and ask them how or in some cases what the players did. It was a boring job and if you’ve ever watched that age-group cricket you’ll know that most matches could put you to sleep very easily.
But luckily Poddar was awake when Dhoni came in to bat.
“He scored 35 runs but even in that age kya maarta tha ball ko. He had raw power and I felt that if we could guide him well, he could become a good one-day cricketer,” said Poddar. “But who knew he was destined for such greatness.”
When he was filling the form for Dhoni, he remembered to note down all his observations in the recommendations box. It read thus: “Good striker of the ball; has a lot of power but needs to work on his wicket-keeping. Technically not very good. Is very good at running between wickets.”
Even then there were some things about Dhoni that were very obvious. His love for milk was one of them and the other was his power.
“I felt that if we could regularize the way he used his power, then he would be of some value to Indian cricket,” said Poddar. “And that is why I recommended him to the National Cricket Academy.”
The TRDOs were part of the now defunct Talent Research Development Wing that was headed by former India skipper Dilip Vengsarkar.
“Once a player was recommended, I would go and watch him. It was a lot of matches and a lot of hard work but we were all driven by just one thing: to discover talent that was capable of shining on the international scene,” said Vengsarkar.
“There was a lot of talent out there and much of it was flashy. But the deciding factor for me was temperament. If you have that, you will continue to improve,” Vengsarkar, who went on to become chairman of India’s national selection panel, added.
The improvements in Dhoni’s case came in one swift torrent. He was not stupid enough to believe that just luck would carry him through – he knew that hard work was a prerequisite too.
By 2003-04, Dhoni had made it to India’s A team for the tour of Zimbabwe and Kenya. A successful run in another series against Pakistan A and Kenya, saw him attract the attention of Sourav Ganguly and Ravi Shastri. Another superb knock, 102 off 96 balls, during the Challenger Trophy in Mumbai saw him getting called up for India. And he hasn't looked back since.
The thing with cricketers in India is that there are so many of them, that unless you get spotted, you are just as likely to fade into the background as the person standing next to you. If by some quirk of fate, you get picked, then you have to make it count. Dhoni managed to do that in more ways than one.
When Poddar watches Dhoni on television these days lifting trophy after trophy, he smiles and thinks about the day when he first saw the stocky young chap from Jharkhand.
“Today, he is, to my mind, the greatest player India has ever seen. When we consider where he is coming from and where he has reached, there is no one else who compares,” said Poddar. “Even now he seems extremely humble and I am happy that I could play a part – as small as it was.”
“But you can see how hard he has worked. His wicket-keeping is now very solid. Then his footwork behind the wickets wasn’t as good but now, he knows exactly what he is doing. And his batting – what can I say – it has turned out to be even better than I could imagine.”
But while Dhoni went from strength to strength, Poddar saw his career with the BCCI come to an abrupt end. He was in TRDO for just one year, after that the BCCI never came calling. The man who discovered Dhoni now spends his time shuttling between Kolkata and Pune, where his son resides. Ask him if he is sad to have been shunted out the way he was, and he breaks into the sordid laugh that old-timers reserve for such moments.
“Well, at least I managed to give Indian cricket Dhoni. That’s something and that’s my salvation.”
Updated Date: May 31, 2011 15:17 PM