Today, MS Dhoni, a cricketer who many of the game’s younger fans now share a love-hate relationship with, a man who has been the epitome of calm (and stubborn) for most of his playing career, turns 35 years old. He may look far older, but the wise old man of Indian cricket is still in the colored jersey – refusing to yield, yet.
The first time I watched Mahendra Singh Dhoni live in a stadium was back in 2005, during Sri Lanka’s tour of India, back when the two teams didn’t play each other in their sleep. The venue was Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad in November – a stadium at which I had watched most of my international games till then. It was the fifth ODI out of seven, and India had already won the series 4-0, looking to win seven out of seven. This was the year Greg Chappell had taken charge after much controversy, and the year in which Sourav Ganguly – India’s most successful captain till then – had been dropped unceremoniously from international cricket. Rahul Dravid captained this side, and Sachin Tendulkar was again in glorious form.
But it wasn’t any of them I – and many of my childhood friends – had gone to watch. The name on everybody’s lips was “Mahi”. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India’s new ‘rockstar’ – the long-haired young wicket-keeper from Ranchi – had made his ODI debut less than a year ago. But in April, 2015, he shot to instant superstardom during Pakistan’s tour of India. He had scored a 148 out of nowhere, back in the time when numbers like 148 were seldom scored by anybody other than a Tendulkar or a Ganguly. And here was this 24-year old small-town kid, a former ticket collector, who batted with a stance and technique that had no business existing on the world stage, muscular and stringy, belting Pakistan’s best bowlers around the park to make the world take notice. Finally, after a long list of short-lasting wicket-keepers post the Nayan Mongia era, soon after Parthiv Patel faded away after being groomed too early, MS Dhoni arrived – and made sure that Team India would never have to look for a wicket-keeper for another decade.
As he walked out to bat at the fall of Tendulkar, the crowd roared as if the Little Master was walking back in. The noise was unbelievable, considering the fact that the two other centurions of the innings, Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid, were given little attention by the fans. This was the beginning of the Dhoni era, and the deafening cheers reminded me of the song, ‘Wild Thing’. Hair swaying, fat pads and strong forearms, he walked out to the centre, bumped gloves with Dravid, and took stance to Muttiah Muralitharan. A ball later, he was walking back to the pavilion, trapped in front of the wicket and out for a first-ball duck. Yet, the crowd roared even louder as he approached the dressing room. They loved the way he moved, the aura he emitted, his swagger, and his long hair. They loved what he represented, and the story he was part of. Five days ago, he had scored a swashbuckling gravity-defying 183 and made a mockery of Lanka’s bowlers with 10 sixes – a shocking feat before the advent of T20 cricket. Here, in Dhoni, India had a superstar it badly needed to take the weight off Tendulkar, and for guys like Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and others to go about their jobs without more pressure. India’s “Golden 4” could do their work in Tests only because a youngster like Dhoni had stepped up to fuel the country’s imagination. It was perhaps the most exciting first-ball duck an Indian cricket fan ever had the pleasure of watching live. Many suspected that this was also the birth of one of India’s greatest-ever ODI batsmen. But not many knew that, in Dhoni, they would find India’s greatest-ever captain, a man who was born just a day before the fallen leader he succeeded. Dhoni had barely captained any of the sides he had played in up to then, but in the wake of a disastrous 2007 ODI World Cup, the BCCI made perhaps their wisest cricketing decision so far: They turned desperately to the one man who was to take the next generation forward, even though Dhoni was only 25 back then.
Today, MS Dhoni is at the crossroads, much like Sourav Ganguly was back in 2004. But Ganguly made one of the great comebacks of the game, and played for another two years, and went out on his own terms. Dhoni, who quit test cricket in 2015, celebrated his 34th birthday last year as a first-time father. He has specks of grey in his beard, and looks rightly like a man who has borne the brunt of Indian cricket for well over a decade. Many would argue that though his career is winding down in 11 years, only half that of Tendulkar’s, he has internalized far more stress, pressure, avalanches, controversies, crests and troughs than any other cricketer alive today.
Being captain, and staying captain, of an Asian cricket team, for almost a decade is no mean feat – especially coming out of India’s post World Cup hangover and disastrous period of two years from 2011 to 2013, where they literally lost everything possible, and remained World Champions in a very empty manner. Many, including this writer, continue to call for Dhoni’s head. But perhaps him continuing to lead India on in the limited-overs format is a plan to let the youngsters ease in – now under Anil Kumble as coach too – under the stewardship of experienced souls. His recent leadership on India’s tour to Zimbabwe, of a squad that had all sorts of debutants, was a necessary evil: one that showed Dhoni’s decline as a batsman again, but one that perhaps even created the next Dhoni. Only, we don’t know it yet.
At 35, many of us may just begin to live life at our peak: with a flourishing career, new family, traveling, friends and the works. In our minds, it’s just the beginning of a 20-year period in which we will experience life and accumulate physical and mental wealth for a long time. Retirement seems like a lifetime away. But here is MS Dhoni, who, by 35, has won India an ODI World Cup, a T20 World Cup, captained a test no. 1 team for two years, won a Champion’s trophy, a couple of Asia Cups, two domestic T20 titles, two Champion’s League trophies, become perhaps the game’s greatest ever T20 captain, and one of India’s great and most reliable (till 2015) finishers – with a multi-million dollar biopic, helmed by one of India’s biggest directors (Neeraj Pandey), on the way this year. And he has only “started” his life.
And he’s still at the crease, determined to take the last over of his career down to the very last ball, till the equation is just between the bowler (and the rest of the world) versus him.
He will, I suspect, go out on his own terms – a wiser, richer and better man, for having made all of us the same.