“Mahi is a footballer-turned-cricketer and I was a cricketer-turned-footballer,” says Narendra Singh Dhoni, around 10 years older than Mahendra Singh Dhoni (MSD), about his famous sibling.
“Perhaps Mahi, who was very young at that time, does not know about my cricket. Later, I played for the school team as a football goalkeeper in several National-level events but followed international cricket keenly.”
Narendra is spot on in his analysis of the two World titles India won under his brother’s captaincy. “For me, Mahi’s contribution in the two finals is the biggest — as a captain, in placing a fielder at short fine-leg to take Pakistan’s last wicket in the final, in 2007 (World T20) and as a batsman, coming up the order in the final, in 2011 (ICC World Cup).
“This time, his role is different but very important,” says Narendra, admitting his ‘generation gap’ with MSD and the lack of cricket talk with his brother.
Jaykumar Sinha, a former Ranchi University coach and the convenor of the Jharkhand State Cricket Association, follows MSD’s moves closely. “Dhoni has got everything in life and he does not need to do what he is doing (for the World Cup). He is great as he is doing this for the team,” says Sinha.
Sinha, who has seen MSD evolve from a youngster to a World champion, decodes the entertainer’s game. “There is no one to replace him. This is a great opportunity for the Indian side. It has a batsman who can bat both ways (as per the situation) at No. 4.”
Dhoni promoted himself ahead of Yuvraj and Raina, a gamble that paid off. – Getty Images
No one can match MSD’s adaptability. One of his sports teachers, Moti Prasad, speaks about the instance of MSD opening the batting for his school, while Chanchal Bhattacharya — who also played a crucial role in shaping the champion’s career — pulls out a Vinoo Mankad Trophy match score-sheet showing MSD as a No. 10 batsman.
One of his closest friends and team-mates in the Bihar and Railways’ sides, Satya Prakash — he was instrumental in getting MSD a Railways job in Kharagpur — speaks about MSD’s ability to adapt. “We used to call him atankwadi (terrorist). He used to hit 40-50 runs in 20 balls. But he became a saint when he played for the country and changed his approach. He is a good learner.”
Narendra makes an interesting observation. “I am not sure whether anybody has scored 10,000 runs (in ODIs) batting at Nos. 5, 6 and 7.”
Satya Prakash, who has known MSD for the last 18 years, has no qualms in admitting that he grossly underestimated the champion’s capability. “He rarely captained in the past, but see how he became the captain of some all-time great players. He always spoke in Hindi, but now he speaks fluently in English. We friends never really gauged his potential,” says Satya Prakash, now playing in the inaugural Kharagpur Premier League (KPL).
Kaushik Chakraborty, who captained South Eastern Railway (SER), saw something special in MSD. “We knew he was special. His thinking and our thinking never matched,” says Chakraborty.
Rahul Sen, who now dons the wicket-keeper’s gloves for SER, is a big fan of MSD the Thinking Cricketer. “I feel proud to have taken his place and follow him closely. But I don’t want to be like him because his thinking and approach are different,” says Sen, who grew up watching MSD in Kharagpur.
Deepak Singh, MSD’s batch-mate and room-mate in SER, has some fond memories — like the two slipping off a motorcycle and getting completely muddied and making a fellow player dress like a ghost to play pranks on Kharagpur streets at midnight — and reflects on MSD’s virtues.
“In 2003, we were watching the India-Australia World Cup final on TV. By that time Sahara had announced villas for the Indian players. In that team (Rahul) Dravid was ’keeping and Parthiv (Patel) was the reserve ’keeper. I told Mahi, who had fractured his left hand, ‘Parthiv, who also belongs to a middle class family, has become a man of crores. When will you play for India?’ He said, ‘My luck maybe bad, but it is not so bad that I cannot play for India ever.’ That was his confidence,” says Deepak.
Since the cricketers were appointed as train ticket examiners, they had to do their duty (in one of the three shifts) apart from managing their daily practice. They also had to get special leave during the cricket season. Dhoni and his friends went through that toil.
Besides, MSD had to cook his own food in a small and dingy two-room accommodation on the stadium premises. Moving around on borrowed bikes, watching television at a friend’s place, spending time at shops such as Thomas chaiwala or Kamal chowmeinwala were the favourite pastimes of MSD during his Kharagpur days.
Dhoni, a foodie at heart, is very strict about his food habits to stay fit for the World Cup. – PTI
One may feel that having been used to his father’s tiny flat in Mecon Colony in Ranchi, Dhoni might not have made a big adjustment in his lifestyle then, but might find it difficult now. Especially, when he has been used to the good life of five-star hotels or his sprawling bungalow at Kathal More on the Ring Road or his previous house on Harmu Road in Ranchi.
However, Satya Prakash dispels the doubt. “Dhoni says one doesn’t need five-star (hotel) to satiate one’s hunger or get some good sleep.”
MSD’s practical approach has been his biggest asset. “The difference between other players and Dhoni is that he does not have sentiments. In 2003, we were playing football and his mother called on his mobile. When he was informed, he said, ‘Let the phone ring’ and focused on the game. Much later I realised why he did that — he was already in the high intensity mode and did not want to break it,” says Satya Prakash.
Deepak echoes this… “Dhoni lives in the present. He remains focused on whatever he does — whether he is playing or meeting friends.”
Ashish Kumar Dhal, who doubles up as a groundsman and gym assistant at the South Eastern Railway Sports Association (SERSA) Stadium in Kharagpur, remembers MSD’s dedication. “Once some higher-up officials did not give him permission to play a tournament in Jharsuguda. But he did not care about the danger of losing the job and played the tournament. When he returned with the trophy, none complained.”
MSD’s craze to play in tournaments took him to the remotest places. One such was Tillo in Bhadrak district of Odisha.
Lucky Swain, the main organiser of the 27-year-old Pradip memorial tournament — which has featured international stars like Venugopal Rao, Saurabh Tiwary, Mohammed Nabi (Afghanistan) and Mehdi Hasan (Bangladesh) — reminisces his Dhoni moments.
“In those times, facilities were much lesser. The SERSA team used to come in a packed Trekker and stay in an ordinary non-air-conditioned hotel to play here. They used to eat normal food, drink water from a tube-well, sit under a tent but played good cricket.
“Dhoni played here in 2002 and 2003 and he was so popular for his big hitting that cricket loving families used to invite him for lunch and dinner,” says Swain.
Whatever be the sport, MSD’s killer instinct to compete and win gives him the kick. It has not changed over the years.
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“He learnt snooker very fast and now he wants to beat me. Not just snooker, whenever he plays — badminton or tennis — he wants to win,” notes Sinha, a regular snooker partner for MSD in Ranchi.
“Very few know that Dhoni practices for seven hours a day. Hardly anyone knows that he has played the under-19 state badminton championship. He has been a competitor who is always willing to do hard work. His fitness, eyesight and presence of mind are the reasons behind his lightning stumpings. Such things do not happen without hours of practice.
“He is a good reader of the game, but is never reluctant to admit his mistake and does not consider himself a superstar,” says Bhattacharya.
Satya Prakash has an anecdote about MSD’s superb game sense and astounding confidence. “During a match, someone teased him, ‘It’s your day and you score whatever you can, but tomorrow you will play with us.’ MSD replied, ‘Whatever you score, we will win in 15 overs.’ And they reached the target of 148 in 14.4 overs!”
Test cricketer Pranab Roy, who was the East Zone selector when Dhoni was picked for the Indian side, says, “He is a born fighter and does not care about the opponent. He always concentrates on his job.
“At first, it was difficult for me to convince the fellow-selectors and captain Sourav Ganguly. But Dhoni proved himself. I remember my conversation with the then coach Greg Chappell, who had predicted that Dhoni would lead India,” says Roy.
From friends to coaches to selectors, MSD has a habit of leaving an impact on people who come across him. Coach M. P. Singh, who had sent the National Stadium Coaching Centre team with Vivek Razdan to Bihar, had asked one of his acquaintances to find a local wicket-keeper. When M. P. enquired about the ’keeper after the end of the day’s play, Razdan said, “Leave alone keeping, he has struck 123. Some of the sixes were off ankle high deliveries!”
M.P., who helped MSD play Hot Weather Cricket and organised special practice sessions for him at the National Stadium in Delhi, still admires his dedication.
MSD’s presence is thus invaluable for the Indian team in the World Cup.
“If Hardik and Dhoni get out (in a similar situation), then Dhoni will get more blame as he has set a high standard for himself. He has maintained it because of his discipline,” says Sinha.
Bhattacharya adds, “Dhoni’s experience will help Virat (Kohli). No one studies the game like him. He thinks like a chess player.”
Deepak is amazed at the foodie Dhoni’s resolve to remain fit for the World Cup. “From 2012 he has not touched sweets. Earlier, he used to eat a lot of fast food, but now he is very strict about his food habits to stay fit (for the World Cup).”
Srinivas Rao, a close friend and now in charge of the SERSA Stadium, wishes MSD the best. “We are all very proud that one of us has reached so far. Hope he wins the cup again,” says Rao, who has made a lot of effort to put in place the M. S. Dhoni Museum, situated next door to where he used to live, on the stadium complex.
Some kids practising at the Jawahar Vidya Mandir (earlier DAV Shyamali) nets in Ranchi feel proud to be studying at ‘Dhoni’s school,’ which features a picture of the legend on the wall of its indoor hall having his favourite badminton court.
The school that Dhoni studied in Ranchi, DAV Shyamali then and Jawahar Vidya Mandir now. – Manob Chowdhury
“We all look up to him and want him to bag the World Cup,” says Harshvardhan Pradhan, the school captain.
Elsewhere, 55 km from Ranchi, some smiling faces are waiting for another meeting with MSD. The iconic player, who has made the ancient Dewri temple at remote Tamar a famous tourist attraction, is expected to visit the shrine any time before leaving for the World Cup.
Dhoni has immense faith in the Goddess at the Rewari temple, some 55 kms from Ranchi. – PTI
“Prior to the 2011 World Cup, he had performed a yajna here and went on to win the cup. He has great faith in the Goddess and comes here with his family and friends whenever he is in Ranchi. However, we don’t know whether he has donated any money for the development of the temple. That, anyway, is a secret,” says Gopal Bhattacharya, a servitor at the temple.
“Dhoni has always come across as a down-to-earth person. He doesn’t say ‘No’ when someone asks him to pose for a photograph,” adds Krishna Panda, another servitor.
When Dhoni — who was written off after the 2015 World Cup and was one of the first players to be chosen for the 2019 squad — sets off for England after seeking the blessings of Goddess Dewri, billions of Indian fans — including Narendra — will expect the charismatic player to help the country regain the coveted trophy in what is likely to be his swansong World Cup.