The truth about great sportsmen is that sometimes what they do in practice, in front of a handful of gazing eyes, is way better than what the millions watching on television get to see on game day. What would you give to watch Tiger Woods at the driving range? Or find a bootlegged video on YouTube of Diego Maradona at training?
Tuesday in Cardiff was one of those days. The quiet of the quaint Sophia Gardens ground, with its lovely parks on either side of the serene River Taff, was intermittently halted by the thud of a five-and-a-half ounce white Kookaburra turf ball clattering into the steel structure of the National Cricket Centre housing the stadium's indoor nets.
Or, the thumps of the ball landing on the plastic of the seats at the North stand. Or, the clunk of the ball landing on the carbon fibre body of a white Hyundai i40, the car one of the ICC's sponsors are presenting to the player of the tournament.
Watching MS Dhoni hit sixes is a visual delight that touches a chord at a primeval level. It's instinctive, it's visceral. He's only 5'8, not built like a giant, but his wrists and forearms reveal the source of the brute strength he generates. His technique involves a strong bottom-hand and an astonishing, whiplash bat swing.
On Tuesday, as an optional training day was ending, Dhoni came out of the Really Welsh Pavilion (that's actually the name of the pavilion here), with a gladiatorial aura. He had his helmet, pads, gloves and thigh pad on. He walked down the stairs to the net that was set up closest to the pavilion, on the extreme left of what would be the normal pitch.
The two bowlers who were bowling to him were C Dhananjai, the team's video analyst, and R Ashwin. Dhananjai usually bowls seam up from about 18 yards. He has a penchant for bouncers that forces coach Duncan Fletcher, standing behind the net, to make a humourous wide signal. Ashwin is giving the ball air as this is primarily a throwdown for Dhoni to work on his six-hitting.
Ashwin gives one some loop, Dhoni shimmies down, gets on one leg, sending one soaring into the roof of the triple-storeyed, brick-walled, North Stand. Minutes later, you see one of the security personnel searching for the ball from your vantage point, on the fire-exit of the media centre. A few minutes later, you see the same guard still stationed there. He's there for the duration of the hitting session. Dhoni puts him to use by carting a further three deliveries into the roof.
Over the next 200-odd balls, Dhoni belts over 70% of them into what would be the stands of most grounds. He mistimes a few. Sometimes, Ashwin bowls his off-spinner, Dhoni uses a standing sweep. He shuffles out of the line of the ball and paddles it down the leg-side. Midway through the hitting spree, Dhoni dances down the track and defends a ball. A quiet chuckle, from the bowlers, Fletcher and Dhoni circles in the air. By now, Dhananjai has switched to spin. Dhoni's still hitting it straight back over his head. Finally, Ashwin and Co signal the end. Dhoni checks, and gestures before he walks off. The bowlers sit down and replenish their fluids. Dhoni strides on, swatting away a water battle with the bat.
Now when you reminisce about the six that won India the World Cup or drool over the helicopter shot Dhoni has made his own, just remember — he's spent more time in the nets working on his sixes than you have spent time in the nets!