India loves Mahendra Singh Dhoni. For his flamboyant batting, for his hair, his winning smile, his free spirit.
The other evening, Dhoni flashed his famous grin when the visually impaired India Disability League Live Band chose him for a special tribute over the other superstars in attendance. The band rephrased ‘Sayyoni’, the hit single by Pakistani group Junoon, to ‘Dhoni…’. In response, India’s heartthrob thanked each member of the band.
On Tuesday, the 25-year-old wicket-keeper batsman from Jharkhand spoke exclusively with HT during the camp in Bangalore on a host of subjects, revealing the perceptive, philosophical sides of his personality.
Entering your second full season in international cricket, how do you plan to maintain — or raise —the level that you have set yourself?
If I can maintain my level, nothing like it. It is tough, but I do not always know my batting position. So, I cannot say I will score 1400 or 1500 runs in the coming season. In any case, I don’t believe in setting goals too far ahead.
Being unsure of your position, how do you prepare yourself for the innings?
It comes instinctively to me. I have batted in many positions in Ranji Trophy. I might be one of the few batsmen to have batted in all positions, number one to eight, in the last 18-20 months. I am used to adapting myself. That is one important aspect in ODIs, being able to adapt to the condition of the pitch and the team situation.
Do you plan your innings just before entering the ground?
Yes, from the dressing room to the boundary rope, that’s when I set my target. Sometimes, I am asked to pad up and go in at the fall of the previous wicket. As I said earlier, I set my targets according to what stage the match is at. But the main aim is to stick to the crease till the end. I believe I am one of the few good sloggers in the team who can innovate and come up with big shots. That helps the team.
After a season in international cricket, bowlers must have read your game. How tough is it to face bowlers who know your weaknesses?
Quite difficult. They bowl to you in your uncomfortable zones. They study your game and know the areas you are weak in. At the same time, I too have my game plan. In such an equation, it’s how well you master the art of counterattack that makes the difference.
Your state association has run into trouble with the Board of Control for Cricket in India for affiliation. Does that disturb you?
It’s up to the Board. I have no clue what’s happening in Jharkhand. I am in touch with the players there but do not know whether the association has got affiliation, whether it is being dissolved or if Bihar will get affiliation. What I know is there is a committee that is deciding the fate of the Jharkhand State Cricket Association.
Any plans to switch alliances?
Not so far. Somebody might get affiliation, be it Jharkhand or Bihar or some other unit in Bihar or Jharkhand.
What does sledging mean to you?
I do not know what sledging is, to be frank. Perhaps, it is something that provokes, something that is meant to disturb your concentration and deviate you from your target. And some of the things that are said out there can get personal.
If provoked, how would you react?
I’d rather stay calm and do what is required, and that is batting. Sometimes, you are bound to get angry. But you should be controlled. Your anger should not reflect on your batting.
Smile while being sledged, is that your way of answering back?
I don’t think there is any point yelling at the bowler. If he gets you out, you don’t have anything to say. The best thing is to stay cool and make runs. There can be no better answer than runs. That’s my motto. That’s what I tell teammates and youngsters too.
Was there sledging in your formative years in Bihar/Jharkhand?
I didn’t encounter sledging when I started playing under-19 or even Ranji Trophy. I myself was very quiet behind the stumps. Mainly, the wicket-keepers are the ones who nag batsmen. I was one of the few who never said anything to the batsman. Most of the things that I said would never reach the batsman. So, when I went in to bat, most of the guys never said anything to me. It was give and take.
Have you become tougher after your a full season in international cricket?
I don’t think I have become tougher or that I wasn’t tough enough before. I have grown in experience and have seen situations that have been quite tough. I can read the game well now and adapt to the situations. I’d say I was tough when I started but lacked the experience. Now, having played 47 ODIs (besides 13 Tests), I have experience as well.
How do you stay calm in tense situations?
It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s a tough thing to do. The pressure is so much that sometimes it makes you contemplate strokes you wouldn’t when you are composed. I can’t explain how I stay calm. All I know is that I am able to do it right now and I’d like to continue doing that in the future. Consistently being composed is a real test of talent.
With all the adulation, how do you keep your feet on the ground?
I divide life into three lines. One is the praise line, the second the criticism line and the third the straight line. I stay on the straight line. People appreciate and criticise you. Neither should the praise go to your head nor the criticism bring you down. Just take the middle lane.
Do you make an effort to remain humble or does it come naturally to you?
I am a modest person. And there are examples before me. I get up in the morning and go for yoga sessions, I see icons like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid there, being so humble. It is always on your mind that you have to be like these guys, how they are off the field. On the field, most of the guys have the talent. But it is how they are off the field that really matters.
I believe in being modest and if possible try and talk to all the people I come across. Having said that, it is tough to do that every time. If you are at a social event, almost everyone comes and talks to you. Sometimes you need to take time off and say ‘’not now, we are going to have dinner” or “excuse us for an hour”. For example, we don’t like being photographed while eating. So I have made it a point to tell people that I do not like it.
Why do you think people like you?
I believe it’s the sixes and fours. My batting style is different from most cricketers. Spectators love people who can hit big shots frequently. Of course, being consistent is another part. It is a tough job. If you are a big hitter, if you have a strike rate of more than 100 (Dhoni’s strike rate is 100.96), a good average (48.90 in 47 ODIs), you have a lot of things to maintain.
As I said before, I don’t know what spot I am batting at. So it is when I go in to bat that I set my target score. If I am batting at number seven, it means that I would be going in around the 45th over. In that case I do not aim for a 50. A 30-odd in 25 balls would be reasonable in that situation. I am a realistic thinker. I don’t set big targets. Perhaps people like that.