In Qualifier 1 of the 2015 Indian Premier League, Chennai Super Kings were facing Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium. As I made my way towards my seat, I realised I’ll be sitting smack in the middle of a sea of yellow. A few overs into the game, I asked the man seated next to me if he was part of a fan group travelling with the CSK team. He replied in the negative and said he was a Mumbaikar who had come along with his wife. He said it didn’t matter to them which team won, they were just there to support Mahendra Singh Dhoni. I then asked the man sitting behind me the same question. He too replied that he was there for one man alone.
When cricketers announce their retirement, the immediate focus is usually on their performances on the field over a career. The number of runs they scored or the wickets they took, their memorable knocks or spells, and their overall stats in general.
But with MS Dhoni, it’s been different.
Sure, all the trophies he won will remain a big part of his legacy. But the individual numbers he stacked up as a cricketer haven’t been the center of attention. He has a staggering record, but it isn’t the main storyline.
Since the moment he called time on his international career, the tributes have focused largely on Dhoni, the person. He did such great things with his craft, yet people can’t help but highlight his character, his decisions, his comments, his silences, the raw emotions he triggered among people.
So, what is it about MSD? Why is he admired intrinsically by so many people? The simple answer is probably this: he is different, but in a good way.
Dhoni came as a breath of fresh air in Indian cricket. Instantly, there was so much to like about him. The fact that he was a natural ball-striker, he was fearless, he provided the batting lineup an edge and of course, the confidence with which he carried his long locks.
Most importantly, though, what resonated with masses was the success story of a small-town kid. Dhoni worked his way to the top, with his swagger intact, despite hailing from Ranchi, a city in a state that hardly had any footing in Indian cricket back then. He was worth rooting for right away.
The successes came thick and fast for Dhoni, both as a player and captain. He also played a crucial role in what was a transitional phase for Indian cricket. Not only was India getting used to being a global powerhouse, but it was also seeing the old guard make way for the new one.
Stalwarts like Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble were on their way out, with a new batch of stars taking up the baton. And Dhoni was at the center of it all. It was a tricky proposition – managing the seniors and inspiring the youngsters at the same time – but he did it seamlessly.
His achievements as a batsman, wicketkeeper and leader were enough to establish him as a bonafide superstar. But there was another thing about him that further cemented his place in fans’ hearts – the fact that he was just so... different.
We were used to seeing captains bask in the glory by placing themselves at the center of celebrations, it was Dhoni who made standing in the side, just like any other player, a thing. We were used to seeing captains bare their emotions on the field, it was Dhoni who made stoicism look cool. We were used to seeing captains bungle up their reviews, it was Dhoni who made DRS his own. It was Dhoni who brought wicketkeepers in vogue with his speed and ingenuity. It was Dhoni who got Indians used to being on the right side of close finishes.
Add to all of this, there was one other thing that truly set him apart. This, perhaps, was the most important aspect of his personality: his lack of thirst for attention. It wasn’t just about detachment from success and failure, he simply didn’t care to be in the news. They say for celebrities, indifference is the worst-case scenario. Dhoni is an exception to this norm.
Take any popular athlete in the world – Messi, Ronaldo, Williams, Federer, Nadal, Biles, Bolt, James, Woods – each one uses social media for promotion. They put in an effort to engage with fans, maintain their brand and remain relevant. And it goes a few steps further when it comes to Indian sportspersons. Anything that makes news – be it a birthday, a death, a calamity – Indian athletes will have something to post. Not a single opportunity is missed to remind the public of their existence.
Dhoni, however, doesn’t play by these rules. Of course, he cashes in on his popularity and sells a zillion products. But he doesn’t sell himself. He rarely does interviews when he’s not playing, he doesn’t often show up at public gatherings, and he doesn’t flood your timeline with his own photographs. In fact, his last post on Instagram before announcing his retirement was six months ago.
When he’s away from cricket, he really is away. In this regard, he’s a glitch in the matrix… he’s the answer to “that’s just the way it goes”.
No matter how detached he remains, though, it doesn’t stop him from being arguably the biggest draw on the web when it comes to sportspersons. You really need to see his popularity online to believe just how extreme it is. Take just the past five months, for instance. During the coronavirus-forced lockdown, he has been at his home in Ranchi. He hasn’t had a word to say… no interviews, no video chats, nothing.
However, anyone else from the cricketing fraternity who has given an interview during this period has made it a point to say something about Dhoni. The interaction could be pegged on anything under the sun, but there has to be a mention of MSD too. And the reason for that is obvious – people want to know more about him. The interviewer knows that, as does the interviewee. Put Dhoni’s name and be rest assured, you will attract eyeballs.
It truly is a paradox. We live in a world where differences aren’t celebrated. We tend to look with skepticism at anything new. Tolerance and accommodation of others doesn’t come naturally. Yet, here is a guy who has been different every step of the way but his popularity cuts across demographics and regions. Dhoni is a comforting reminder that as long as you’re sincere with what you do, it’s okay to be you. The bells and whistles don’t matter.
It’s impossible for me to say if all the people wearing yellow during that 2015 IPL game at Wankhede were really supporting CSK. But the dramatic rise and fall in decibel levels as Dhoni walked to the crease and got out for a first-ball duck was telling. He is not the first person to be adored by fans around the world and yet, Indian cricket has never seen anyone quite like MSD.