By Somshuvra Laha

Captain Cool embodied the great Indian dream of the small-town boy who went on to become the world’s best finisher and the richest cricketer

That Mahendra Singh Dhoni chose Independence Day, “1929 hrs” to be exact, to call time on his international career would probably be never lost on anyone who equated him with a world beyond cricket. Dhoni won India two World Cups, a Champions Trophy, and chaperoned the team to the pinnacle of Test cricket. But he also embodies the great Indian dream of the small-town boy who went on to become the world’s best finisher and richest cricketer. Ranchi’s boy, Chennai’s thala, India’s most successful captain, Lieutenant Colonel of the Territorial Army — there has really been no one like Dhoni. And there probably will never be.

Dhoni is also an enigma, a contradiction, a complicated recluse who hates to overcomplicate the game that gave him fame and money. He wasn’t a prodigy cherry-picked from the masses and put through an accelerated system. Dhoni came from the cricketing backwaters of India, made to slog at the state level while fighting off a well-entrenched culture of being a yes-man for the security of a government job. That made him even more determined. Dhoni entered the fray prepared, assured of his ability but unburdened of the baggage that can impede even the most talented cricketers. Rough around the edges but extremely canny, Dhoni wasn’t healing sore eyes creaming boundaries through cover but winning matches by taking them to the wire till he knew he could finish it in a few blows. He could rebuild, he could graft and grind till he switched gears so masterfully it would catch bowlers unawares. Dhoni was the ultimate crisis man.

Armed with a liberating approach towards one-day batting, Dhoni stormed international cricket with a 123-ball 148 against Pakistan in April 2005, four months after being run out without facing a ball on debut. Eight months later, when he poleaxed Sri Lanka’s bowling to score 183 in a chase of 303, the world sat up and took notice. Dhoni’s career-defining moment however came in the 2007 World Cup in a format widely doubted by cricket purists. Dhoni felt at home though, riding pluck and some luck to snatch a win that triggered a T20 revolution.

ODI captaincy was bestowed on him by an autocracy that knew only Dhoni could bring home the World Cup that mattered. He did. On a muggy April night at the Wankhede Stadium, Dhoni unleashed a rejuvenated cricketing nation with a six followed by a now-fabled twirl of the bat, assuredly calm throughout the arc of the shot that made India a world champion after 28 years. Dhoni was always a different captain, infusing a sense of indifference to the day-to-day results but living in the moment while building on his image of the finisher world cricket hadn’t seen since Michael Bevan. Scratch that. He was arguably the best finisher the game has ever witnessed. Last-over wins at the CB Series final in 2012, the tri-series final in Port of Spain in 2013, and probably a dozen more for Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, quickly built a legend that Dhoni was unstoppable in chases. It took a stupendous direct hit from Martin Guptill in the 2019 World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand to finally end that legend. Dhoni never played for India after that.

Dhoni’s fan following needs to be seen to be believed.

When he started out as captain, Dhoni didn’t respect reputations but was also mindful of not spoiling his personal relationships. But after the 2012 home Test series loss to England, India’s first in eight years, he put his foot down and set about building a new culture with an uncompromising attitude, especially in fitness. “If you are not 100% fit and not at your best, it’s cheating.” Dhoni famously said. Under him, India transformed into a phenomenal white-ball cricket team, consistently winning away from home while adding the Champions Trophy in 2013. He was never quite the astute leader in Tests, evidently bored with the defensive aspect of the game although he himself often resorted to the most boring tactics to ensure draws. Losses came in clusters, the heaviest of them in the form of clean sweeps in England and Australia. But Dhoni was unfazed. “You die, you die. You don’t see which is the better way to die.”

Did Dhoni not care? He probably did. But he also did a great job of hiding his emotions. Very early into his career, Dhoni was taken aback by the backlash in Ranchi after India’s early exit from the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. “That was a big blow to him. His home was attacked, a boundary wall at the house that was under construction was demolished. Dhoni was angry,” Chanchal Bhattacharya, Dhoni’s first club coach, told HT in an interview. And then the World T20 happened. “He called me after reaching Johannesburg, saying the lead story of a local newspaper was about India being underdogs. ‘Sir. Yeh sab bol rahe hai idhar,’ he said. I told him ‘Tu maar ke dikha de unko.’ He was raring to win it,” said Bhattacharya.

Dhoni let the “noise” affect him, till he outgrew it. With time, especially after the IPL scandal broke in 2013, Dhoni had shut out the world. He wouldn’t let any criticism touch him. And if by any chance someone asked Dhoni about his future, he would call the reporter on the dais and ask him if he considered Dhoni to be fit to play. Of course Dhoni was fit. But the implication was for everyone to see: I am MS Dhoni. And as long as I am fit and capable of pulling last-over heists, I will play. He never really cared for what the world thought about him. If he thought he was right, he would do it. So when a Hyderabad hotel didn’t allow biryani sent by Ambati Rayudu’s mother as per protocol, Dhoni checked out with the entire team. He had also no qualms marching into the ground to make a point with the umpire if he thought his team was wronged. It didn’t matter how the world perceived it.

By then we had gotten used to Dhoni having his say in every facet of Indian cricket. Slow seniors pulling down the team? Quietly see them out. Pitches becoming too sporting? Prepare square turners. As long as the results were coming, Dhoni didn’t bother. And he hated explaining himself. He loathed talking about cricket once the game had finished. But if it was about the army, guns, bikes and biryani, Dhoni could go on for hours. He despised farewells because of its emotional quotient and hence never cared for them. But Dhoni always took us by surprise. Like after the Boxing Day Test in 2014. Or from the confines of an IPL bio-bubble in 2020. No fuss, no drama, typically Dhoni.