A day before the India-West Indies game during the 2019 ODI World Cup, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was among the last Indian players to walk off from the nets. At the exit, about 25 journalists (mostly Indian) waited for him.
“Wow, what a gathering… it is not my retirement press conference!” quipped Dhoni, in his inimitable style, making his way towards the Old Trafford pavilion.
Thirteen days later in Manchester, Dhoni’s run-out signalled the end of India’s campaign against New Zealand in the first semi-final. He walked back writhing in pain, physical and mental, head bowed as the dressing room and support staff applauded him.
It was the last time we saw him in Blue. Did he know it in his heart? Did the rest of the Indian team know? Surely, those on the outside didn’t know.
Come to think of it, more than a year later since that anguish-filled day, maybe, everyone knew.
Sitting at home, twiddling thumbs, waiting for sport to resume or more postponements and rescheduling, it has been a rather long wait. During these past five months, almost every week, someone or the other gave their ‘expert’ opinion on when, not if, Dhoni should call it a day. Some even ascertained that he was already done with playing for India.
There will always be this school of thought wondering if Dhoni hoped for the 2020 T20 World Cup to be his swansong. Prepping for the Indian Premier League, and then moving ahead with his form and fitness from there, he aspired to be on that plane to Australia. The coronavirus pandemic put paid to that.
Bottom-line is, no one knew. Like in December 2014, when he inconspicuously announced Test retirement, Dhoni was always going to walk away when we least expected it. And he did, right before an impending IPL season.
Also Read: MS Dhoni finishes it off, in his own style
Rain had halted any cricket in Southampton, as if on cue. I was studying a new recipe to experiment with; maybe you were fixing dinner too. Some others were busy partying at home, or changing channels on television until football came on, or even furiously scrolling through Netflix. A muted Independence Day: check. Another drab Saturday: check. And then, everything changed.
No fuss, no public celebration, as of 19.29 hours on August 15, 2020, Dhoni ceased to be an international cricketer.
The surprising bit being it was all, oh so, unsurprising.
The mind goes back to 2013, when Dhoni was addressing the pre-match press conference ahead of Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement Test in Mumbai, and an excited reporter asked if he wanted a similar farewell similarly loud and celebratory.
Dhoni smiled, everyone laughed, and then he laughed as well. There was no answer given; no answer was needed, it now seems.
One could write a book on Dhoni’s press conferences. During the 2011 World Cup, he compared the journey to all the parts of a motorcycle functioning together. Once, during the 2014 T20 World Cup (in Bangladesh), he had to answer how his pairing with Yuvraj Singh was like Ram-Laxman (Ramayana). After the semi-final loss to West Indies in the 2016 T20 World Cup, he cross-questioned an Australian journalist about his retirement plans after calling him on stage.
Dhoni’s answers were never precise – round and round he went, an overdose of the word ‘process’, and you had to search for meaningful quotes. Even in the most uncomfortable circumstances, he rarely backed down. In 2015, he explained not flying back for his daughter’s birth whilst on World Cup duty. In 2014, after losing 3-1 to England, he replied with only a ‘Yes’ when this correspondent asked if his time as Test captain was over.
Once in Australia, on the subject of DRS, he acknowledged another journalist’s right to question and, stunningly, ascertained his right to not answer. “You can question me, yes, but I am free not to answer,” he had said.
Press conferences were a facade for him, at best. Even if he wasn’t successful in shielding the dressing room, Dhoni managed to hide his true persona behind a smokescreen.
It wasn’t always so – prior to 2010, he was quite open and frank with media personnel. Once, away from the microphone, Dhoni narrated an incident to traveling journalists about his first tour of Australia (2007-08), when he first played at the MCG. “On Boxing Day, it was so intimidating and over powering, I asked Sachin paaji to hold my hand as we walked onto the ground,” he told us.
Somewhere, in the hunt for TRPs, this relationship changed forever.
It remained a unique narrative for the major part of his 16-year-long international career. Which other Indian legend, past or present, can boast of such a veiled journey?
An older generation amongst us lapped up every second of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. With the advent of network television, we woke up to Sachin Tendulkar every day and slept after he either won the game or got out cheaply. As Harsha Bhogle once said, Tendulkar was a habit for us.
From there onwards, we assimilated the auras of Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan into ourselves. Each of us found a mannerism in all of these heroes, and identified with them, as if we had known them for ages. And now, onto the social media generation, that chasm between an average fan and his heroes – the Virat Kohlis, the Rohit Sharmas, and the Jasprit Bumrahs – is ever narrowing down.
Yet, can anyone of us – a billion cricket-mad people – say anything remotely similar about Dhoni? No. Think again; the answer is still no.
Detachment, then, is the word that comes to mind. Dhoni’s greatest quality was obscurity, and it took over his cricketer’s persona the moment a match was done. It was the mental oblivion from the sport – just a game after all – and he was always happy to have a life beyond it.
Perhaps, it was the small-town mentality. Life has more meaning there, and growing up away from cricket circles in Delhi and Mumbai, or Chennai and Bengaluru, he was able to see things from a different prism since the very beginning. And maybe, it also allowed Dhoni to be a keen student of the game – someone who we thought was very intuitive, but instead, he was always more calculative.
From day one, he knew how to bat in different gears, whether at number three or five. From the first day of captaincy, he knew how to use different players, coax them into believing in their strengths.
From Yusuf Pathan and Joginder Sharma in the 2007 T20 World Cup, to Munaf Patel and Suresh Raina in the 2011 World Cup, to Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin in the 2017 Champions Trophy, to backing Rohit Sharma along the way, to stepping back and helping the Test team’s transition in 2012-13, Dhoni always had a keen pulse of the moment.
Give him two spinners, a low, slow turner, and 250-odd to defend in an ODI (or 140 in a T20), and watch the magic unfold. A last-ball, one-handed run-out against Bangladesh, or an awe-inducing partnership with Kohli against Australia, Dhoni read the game equally from behind or in front of the stumps. Greatest white-ball captain, you say? Dhoni is arguably the most intelligent cricketer ever.
In his truest form, with a bat in hand, the art of finishing brought out the superhuman streak in Dhoni, elevating him to the immortal levels of Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Dev.
Even so, Dhoni was distinctly human. After all, taking that chance is what mortals do, isn’t it?
Fighting that hard fight until the end, the match see-sawing every delivery, him at the crease with an icy-cool demeanour while we were enthralled, on the edge of our seats, each second. You can count on one hand the few times he failed. Mostly, Dhoni succeeded, hitting that ball into the stand every last over, sending our entire nation into a rapture, time and again.
That patchy technique, but with a mix of risk awareness and boldness defying every mathematical probability – it was this trait we identified with most. If only we could touch him, and get hold of the secret. Then again, Dhoni always seemed far away from grasp, forever an endearing enigma.
Indian cricket fans, worshipped a God-like entity for 25 years. For the better part of last two decades, we have also been unabashedly in love with a very human, albeit flawed, genius.
How could we not? Well, of course!