Dhoni: The first hero of ‘real India’
This story has been told before, towards the start of Mahendra Singh Dhoni (MSD)’s international career; so it is perhaps fitting that it’s told again, now that we are at the end of it.
In April 2005, in the middle of a hot and hectic one-day series against Pakistan, the cricket carnival shuffled into Visakhapatnam. It was an Indian team that featured a bunch of fresh players, and among them was a wicketkeeper-batsman who wore the same long hair that I did at the time (don’t ask; we were all young and foolish once).
As a travelling cricket writer then, this similarity in manes led to a series of interesting encounters. I was greeted at the airport with chants of “Dhoni, Dhoni” by a large group of fans waiting for the Indian team to arrive; crushed by autograph-seekers at the hotel where both the team and I were staying; and cheered in the hotel balcony by another throng that assembled on the beachfront across the road. I must confess that I waved back, relishing this misdirected attention.
The following morning, things changed forever.
MSD, 23, exploded into national consciousness with an imperious 148 — 123 deliveries, 15 fours, four sixes; scaling the roof of the new stadium at least twice (the jury is still out whether it was three times).
He would not be confused for anyone ever again, long hair or not; and would go on to become India’s most influential public figure of the next decade-and-a-half.
Right through this journey, which effectively began that morning in Visakhapatnam, Dhoni was a complicated figure that India really could not get a handle on. His is a story of many contrasts — a subject of both intrigue and fascination, radiating both charm and abrasiveness, reacting with both passion and disengagement, providing moments of both unconfined joy and unadulterated anguish, and donning the role of both rebel and dictator. Not surprising then, that his cricketing legacy is both illustrious and problematic.
It’s not easy to capture what MS Dhoni means to cricket — he was not the greatest of batsmen, but could be the most effective; he wasn’t the safest of wicketkeepers, but came up with game-changing dismissals; nor was he, despite his phenomenal success, the most talismanic of captains. There are enough contenders in each of those categories — both in India and abroad — against whom Dhoni would not be able to hold his own.
It’s perhaps even harder to capture what he means to India, and why he transcended sport to become a public figure. He went far beyond the confines of the boundary line on the cricket field, or for that matter, any other boundaries that society could have enclosed him in.
He was never meant to succeed in the manner that he did. A boy from Ranchi, ticket-collector by profession, and wicketkeeper-batsman by hobby — the fact that he played in the state Ranji team was a good enough end to the script. Nothing more was needed. But somehow his story didn’t stop there: He made it to the Indian side, led it, won two World Cups, and then fashioned an entire generation of dreamers in the same manner that Sachin Tendulkar had done in the previous decade.
Tendulkar, whose career started around the same time India was being liberalised, became the talisman of a nation starting to exhale. His was the face that launched a million brands, each feeding on his power and drawing from his excellence. He was the perfect fit for that time — a boy from a literary, respected, yet financially modest family — encompassing the dreams and hopes that India had from new opportunities that would come with opening its doors to the world.
Dhoni, though we did not realise it at the time, was the perfect fit to carry Tendulkar’s baton. He took flight at a time, 15 years after liberalisation, when small-town India was just getting ready to soar. Dhoni’s rise was a physical manifestation of the aspirations of hitherto neglected non-city slickers, and the first proof of their ability to achieve whatever they set their hearts on. He was, in many ways, the first hero of “real India”.
It was in the wake of Dhoni that others from this “real India” started breaking out. And — though not directly linked to him, but a reflection of the times — that real-estate prices began rising in B-towns, shopping malls starting dotting their landscape, and stories about life in these places started being told in Hindi cinema, which was until then enthralled by rich romances in foreign locations.
Dhoni’s public life, of course, went through several pit stops — not all of them welcome. On the field, he triumphed as a skipper in the 2007 T20 World Cup, won the 2011 World Cup final off his own bat, and bid farewell (not always graciously) to a generation of greats he shared the dressing-room with. Off the field, he backed the players he believed in, even though they did not always meet the approval of experts, was accused of effectively setting up a player agency that went against all conflict-of-interest tenets, and developed a too-close bond with former cricket board chief N Srinivasan, even after he was mired in a myriad controversies.
These highs and lows notwithstanding, the importance of Dhoni, the phenomenon, far outweighed that of Dhoni, the cricketer. He means something extraordinary to cricket, and to India, even though we may not be able to fully capture what that is.
The views expressed are personal