To describe Mahendra Singh Dhoni as a reticent man would be wrong. He just happens to open up to a small and trusted circle of people. And he also warms up to dogs, bikes and computer games, probably in that order. Last on the list, and this again is an educated guess, are journalists. One experienced that while waiting at the immigration of New York's John F Kennedy Airport two years ago.
India had just won the tri-series final in the West Indies. Dhoni had switched to vacation mode. It was clearly not the time to talk cricket, until it was discovered that biryani was something he was more than willing to discuss once he knew this correspondent is from Kolkata, also his wife Sakshi's hometown. "I love the aloo in the biryani of Kolkata, makes it taste better," said Dhoni. He then rattled off names of his favourite biryani joints, rating each one purely on the basis of the potato in the dish.Dhoni likes to keep it simple, like one-day cricket. Set him a target and the odds are he would chase it down. Test cricket is more complicated and he often looked burdened. But his sudden decision to retire took even his friends by surprise. "I talk to him every other day but I had no inkling. Nobody knew he was retiring," said childhood friend, Seemant Lohani.
The decision only strengthened the impression that Dhoni is not one for sentiment, or leaving it in someone else's hands. With another World Cup upon us, the anticipation is that Dhoni could have one last act up his sleeve.Dhoni has had a bittersweet relationship with the World Cup. His first senior coach, Chanchal Bhattacharya, recalls how not getting a call-up to the India camp for the 2000 U-19 World Cup lit a fuse in Dhoni, prompting him to take batting more seriously.
The early exit in the 2007 World Cup was another blow. "That was a huge disappointment. His home was attacked, a boundary wall at the house under construction was demolished. Dhoni was upset and angry," he says. The same year, Dhoni was given the chance to make amends at the World Twenty20. "He called me after reaching Johannesburg, saying the lead story of a local newspaper was about India being the underdogs at the WT20. I said 'Tu maar ke dikha de unko' (you hit and show them). Of course, he didn't need me to say that," says Bhattacharya.
The 2011 World Cup win firmly installed Dhoni the cricketer and captain atop his game. Has it changed him as a person? Lohani feels it's often difficult to read Dhoni's mind. "When he came back to Ranchi for the first time after the World Cup, there was so much excitement around him but he wasn't expressive at all. To him it was a job that had to be done," says Lohani.
"He has become more suave. It might look like he is being indifferent, but he is always there for his friends and family. And he loves Ranchi," says Bhattacharya.
What the 2011 win did was allow Dhoni to pursue his other interests - as a gun-slinging honorary lieutenant colonel, a bike fanatic who co-owns the Mahi Racing team, an erstwhile school team goalkeeper now co-owning the Indian Super League team Chennaiyin FC, a hockey franchise (Ranchi Rays) and a fragrance line called 7, after his date of birth. With Dhoni, there is always a story.
Like getting into the army. So influenced was Dhoni by the army he got himself a personalised backpack with camouflage patterns.
It has got a fair bit of attention, like at the Trinidad airport in 2013 where a security woman insisted on checking the contents of the backpack though it had cleared the scan. Dhoni couldn't help grinning all the while.But as is always the case with Dhoni, no one knows whether he will retire immediately after the World Cup. As people in Ranchi put it, he is 'apni marzi ka malik'.