A young wicketkeeper-batsman stood rather shyly amid a row of players being introduced to the chief guest on the opening day of a match of the JP Atray Memorial Cricket Tournament in Chandigarh in September 2004. His countenance and demeanour reflected a deferential attitude, that of one eager to learn. As luck would have it, at the end of that match, when he was to receive the man of the match award for having blasted several sixes and fours while hitting a tornado like century, the announcer forgot his name. Being a bit more aware of players on the fringes of the Indian cricket team, I whispered into the elderly gentleman’s ear, “Mahendra Singh Dhoni”.
The fact that Dhoni shone like a beacon and blazed a glittering trail of success which had few parallels in the years to come is well known. But what is perhaps little known is the human being behind the megastar persona which was visible to all. By recounting a couple of other encounters that I had with ‘Mahi’, I will try to give some insight.
On the sidelines of an IPL match several years later, I had occasion to visit Dhoni in his room along with the wide eyed kids of a colleague, who wanted pictures with him. Having obliged the youngsters with his trademark nonchalance, Dhoni returned to watching Lord Hanuman’s animated story on television, which is what he had been doing before we had barged in. The sheer childlike joy with which he lapped up the details of the delightful film, as we sat watching it with him, was clearly reflective of his utterly uncomplicated mindset.
An even more telling encounter took place in October 2007, when Dhoni led India to an eight run victory over the mighty Australians in a One Day International at the picturesque Sector 16 Stadium in Chandigarh. I was to facilitate the press conference with the captain and the man of the match, and I rushed onto the ground to meet the skipper at the conclusion of the proceedings. “Come, MS, we will go this way!” I said, and began to escort him towards the hall, while simultaneously asking a team official: “Where’s the man of the match?” Dhoni could see the lighter side of the matter and knew that I had missed the announcement. “Sir, I did all the hard work and now you are asking about the man of the match!”
Needless to say, I grinned sheepishly to realise that “Captain Marvellous” was also the player of the match! Many a chuckle followed, as we made our way to the presser.
Dhoni’s greatest asset was his ability to control his emotions, as he himself put it many a time during the course of his captaincy stint for India. His cool as a cucumber visage would seldom be replaced by a worried look. Even when India did well or when he himself sparkled with the bat or gloves, he would never demonstrate uncontrollable glee. A substantial smile which swept across the breadth of his handsome face would be his only celebratory gesture.
So level headed was he that even when he was hitting ferocious sixes early in his career, he knew the value of playing a long innings. He even began to try, at one point in his career, to score 16 runs with singles off his first 16 deliveries that he faced in ODIs. Only then would he pull out the sledgehammer blows, including the inimitable ‘helicopter shot’ which he had patented and perfected, much to the chagrin of bowlers.
His technique as a keeper was not a purist’s delight but he never missed catches or stumpings. And his unorthodox manner at the batting crease meant that bowlers could never quite figure out his next move. Dhoni’s greatest moment came in the 2011 World Cup final when he led a star-studded team from the front and hit that memorable TV perfect six out of the Wankhede Stadium.
So much had India fallen in love with Dhoni that his tragic run out in the World Cup semi final last year at Manchester broke our hearts. He will be sorely missed, but what will remain with us forever is his super coolness, nonpareil.