Whenever there was a cricket match, Paan Singh would be glued to his transistor set, hanging on to every word of the commentary. When he had to go out on his cycle, en route his job as a pump operator inside the Mecon Colony, the transistor would be in a cotton handbag that would be hanging on the handle bar as he enjoyed the blaring cricket commentary.
This was before his youngest son Mahendra Singh Dhoni had ever held a bat. The passion for cricket runs deep in the Dhoni clan. His elder brother Narendra reveals that the first TV in the house was purchased to watch cricket. Like millions of Indian homes, the Dhoni family also could not resist the temptation of Channel Nine’s superb telecast of the World Championship of Cricket in 1985. “I remember telling papa to get a TV and we bought our first black and white Oscar set,” reveals Narendra who’s ten years older to his famous sibling.
An effort to discover Mahi’s roots proves one thing -- he is a natural, self-made cricketer. It is remarkable that this smalltown boy stormed his way to the pinnacle of Indian cricket on the strength of just two things — a playground next door and the good fortune to have his colony friends at any time of the day to play.
PASSION FOR THE GAME
“Ek junoon tha usme, bas uske dum pe aage nikal gya woh (he had that passion, and he rose to the top on account of it),” Narendra says. He is neither the product of a veteran coach or an academy. The turning point came when the DAV school’s games teacher
Keshav Ranjan Banerjee thought of trying out the football goalkeeper as wicketkeeper.
Getting Mahi, then in eighth standard, to cricket practice was not easy though. “He was very reluctant. His sister was my
classmate and she would tell me her brother was a good player and that I should give him a chance. We called him many
times but he just wouldn’t show up,” says his school cricket captain Sanjeev Kumar, two years senior to Mahi.
“I clearly remember the first time he reluctantly walked in for practice. He came straight from the football field and was in his football kit, wearing a purple jersey. “Banerjee sir told our regular ‘keeper to give his gloves to Mahi and I made him stand at the other end of the concrete platform in our school ground. To check his movement and gathering, I threw some balls at him on the concrete surface. He was a natural,” Sanjeev recalls.
The first year in the school team was spent improving his wicket keeping. Ninth standard onwards, he was a regular in the playing eleven. “He would ask for batting in the first year, but I would tell him to first figure out ’keeping,” Banerjee says.
Formal coaching for Mahi was restricted to tips from senior local coach, Chanchal Bhattacharya.
“He was very eager to open the batting and go after the new ball. As our bus would start to leave for school matches, he would begin ‘Aaj humein opener bhejo please (send me in to open today)’. He would be unrelenting,” Sanjeev remembers.
Usually, Mahi pleaded unsuccessfully, but once he managed to convince his games teacher. “I told him, I will send him as opener if he promised no one else would be required to pad up. Mahi hit an unbeaten double hundred while his opening partner Shabbir got an unbeaten hundred,” Banerjee says.
THE RIGHT MOVE
After completing school, Mahi and Sanjeev joined the local team, R&D SAIL on stipend. Mahi’s career-changing move
was the switch to the Central Coalfields Limited (CCL) team in 1997. “Dewal Sahay was the director personnel there. He was not the kind to easily approach a player but he picked Mahi from his home to sign for CCL. They played him as an opener with a simple brief: ‘Jao, lagao!’ (go after the bowlers), Sanjeev says.
“Mahi thrived in the opener’s role for us. His confidence was amazing even when he played against international bowlers T Kumaran and Debasish Mohanty in the Sheesh Mahal Tournament. He scored around 1,500 runs, getting a century
almost every second match that season (1998-99),” said then CCL captain Adille Hussein.
He joined Railways at Kharagpur as TTE in 2001. “His cricket kind of stalled there. A lot of time was spent in training
for the job and he would say there wouldn’t be any energy left for cricket. His career took off after he started playing again in Ranchi. He got one break after the other — Ranji Trophy, East Zone and then India A, and never looked back,” Sanjeev says.
NAME TO RECKON WITH
Mahi by then had gained a fearsome reputation in the local circuit. Remembers a local fast bowler Ram Vineet Saran, who played against Mahi in a tournament at Jamshedpur in that period (1999-2000). “I played in a day-night limited overs (35-per-side) matting tournament at Patna against him and he hit around 180. It was said about him, ‘Yeh rahega to phod dalega’ (if he stays, he will tear you apart). “He was a very powerful boy from the age of 10-11. He was a good listener but developed his own style,” says Subash Chatterjee, a Bihar Ranji player who followed Mahi’s rise.
“Honestly, from a place like Ranchi, none of us ever imagined he could play for India. But, one remarkable thing about
Dhoni was his confidence. Once he gave an interview to a sports channel at my nets at Mecon Stadium. Not known for big talk, that day Dhoni stunned me when he declared, ‘I’m confident I’m soon going to play for India’. One could sense it. There was a different, determined look in his eyes. It was a statement that was against his basic easy-going nature,” remembers Chatterjee.