Indian cricket's ultimate outsider is a contradictory, complex figure, obscured from view by his own choice. The only thing we know about MS Dhoni for sure is that he will likely always be unknowable
Days in Ranchi have the feel of one long afternoon. Though a state capital, the city fulfils the description "khali bore dopahar" (empty boring afternoon) that the poet Gulzar used in a song about escape from a small town into the bigger world.
The commerce of the city is centred on one road, called Main Road, in shops handed down from one generation to the next. In one of these shops you can find the stories of MS Dhoni's empty boring afternoons before his journey into the big world.
Paramjit Singh, one of many Sikh businessmen on Main Road, owns this shop. He wears a turban and a beard, but his jokes are Bihari, his diction is Bihari, and his sensibility is Bihari. He has a Bihari nickname too, Chhotu bhaiyya. "Chhotu" means kid, "bhaiyya" means older brother.
Chhotu bhaiyya runs Prime Sports, a small sports goods store. It is more than just that, though. Chhotu bhaiyya's friends treat it as an adda, a place to sit and shoot the breeze. Nobody smokes but endless rounds of tea are ordered, with dhuskas (a local fried snack made of rice and chickpea flour) and shinghadas (the Bengali version of samosas). If you need a railway ticket urgently, chances are someone here will make a call to a friend who is a friend of a booking clerk. If a kid comes to buy cricket equipment, chances are Chhotu bhaiyya knows which tournament he played last week, and will ask how he did before going ahead with the sale. You can spend hours here without drinking tea or eating snacks, just listening to stories.
Dhoni was one of the kids whose performances Chhotu bhaiyya took an interest in. Mahi they called him, not Maahi as people do now. Paramjit and Dhoni played for the same club. Mahi was the shy boy who bicycled to practice with his kitbag tied to the handlebar. By the time he was 17 or 18, his heavy hitting had become famous in Ranchi and he was earning a cricketing stipend from Central Coalfields Limited. Cricket had only just begun to look like a career option. Until then, according to Keshab Ranjan Banerjee, his school coach, who encouraged Dhoni to move from goalkeeping to wicketkeeping, Dhoni saw cricket just as a means of getting into Delhi University or a college elsewhere.
Cricket, basketball, badminton and football - Dhoni didn't play to become popular. You couldn't tell from his quiet demeanour in high school that he was the best sportsman around. Nor was he consumed by sport. He hardly watched cricket on TV. He didn't sleep with a bat beside him, didn't want to emulate anyone. Cricket just happened to him one fine day, when Banerjee asked if he would like to keep wicket. Cricket season was four months away. Four months later Banerjee had forgotten about the conversation but Dhoni was there on time. "Sir, I want to practise keeping."
For a son of a pump operator at Metallurgical and Engineering Consultants, cricket - and batting - was an expensive pursuit. However, once his hitting began to get noticed, those around him realised he was too good to not be afforded bigger opportunities. Chhotu bhaiyya knew a thing or two about Punjabi persuasiveness and got him a basic contract with a Jalandhar manufacturing company, BAS, for equipment.
You couldn't tell from Dhoni's quiet demeanour in high school that he was the best sportsman around. He hardly watched cricket on TV. He didn't sleep with a bat beside him, didn't want to emulate anyone
Early in 2001, Dhoni was selected to represent East Zone in the Duleep Trophy. He had been looking forward to playing it because Sachin Tendulkar was available for the tournament. Except, nobody knew Dhoni had been selected. The Bihar Cricket Association (BCA) had not forwarded the selection letter to Dhoni. Everyone who knows Dhoni is convinced it was deliberate: for no reason save that, as they like to say at Prime Sports, "If one Indian crab tries to climb out of the jar, nine others will pull it down." Dhoni would not have found out about his selection had a friend of Paramjit's in Kolkata not phoned with congratulations after reading a brief in the papers. The call came at 8pm the night before the team was to fly from Kolkata to Agartala. The day's Kolkata-bound trains had left Ranchi by then.
Chhotu bhaiyya was stonewalled by the BCA, which refused to loan him a car. He raised money from a few friends - one of them, Gautam Gupta, would go on to marry Dhoni's sister - hired a taxi, and rushed Dhoni to Kolkata. The car broke down on the way, Dhoni missed his flight, and Deep Dasgupta played in Agartala. However, Dhoni did travel to Pune for the team's next match, as 12th man, and watched Tendulkar lead West Zone to a big win.
Steady progress over the next three years earned Dhoni a spot in the India A side that played in Kenya. The tri-series was televised, and Chhotu bhaiyya recorded it on his old VCR so that they could watch when Dhoni came back. He has clippings of every article Dhoni was mentioned in, from a brief to a feature, Hindi and English. The collection, though, ends when Dhoni became an India player. It's almost as if a chapter of Dhoni's life ends there.
Chhotu bhaiyya, Banerjee and others don't know Dhoni anymore. They can't tell you what makes him laugh, what concerns him, what his political views or favourite movies are, who his friends or enemies are, what his business interests are. If they don't read the newspapers, they won't know when Dhoni is in town. Chhotu bhaiyya and Dhoni have not spoken in years. Once, in 2008, Dhoni came to the store, but was mobbed and had to seek refuge in the loft - three-feet high - with his tea and shinghadas.
As wild as he got: Dhoni in his long-haired youth
© Associated Press
As wild as he got: Dhoni in his long-haired youth © Associated Press
There is no animosity, no break-up. Just that, in a way, Dhoni has outgrown Ranchi. The only thing he does freely there now is ride one of his 17 Yamaha 350Ds, anonymous under a helmet, with a sling bag carrying his licensed gun.
Greg Chappell, Dhoni's second coach in the Indian team, tells a remarkable story. Dhoni was only a few matches old when Chappell took the job from John Wright in 2005 and set about achieving his vision - which brought him into instant collision with the incumbent captain Sourav Ganguly - of building the team around young players. Along with Suresh Raina and Irfan Pathan, Dhoni, whose fifth ODI innings produced a 123-ball 148, was central to this vision. In Chappell's first series on Indian soil, Sri Lanka were beaten 6-1, and Dhoni was the top scorer with 346 runs at a strike rate of nearly 120. During one match when India were chasing, Dhoni told Chappell that if he could see out the first 13 balls, he would win the match.
"I don't know how he came to that number," Chappell recalls, "And I didn't ask him. But he had the air of a man who knew he could do the job."
This is not an isolated case of Dhoni's certainty about random numbers. He used to tell his close friend, confidant, and later manager, Arun Pandey, that if his bank balance reached Rs 63 lakh (about $105,000 now), it would be enough for him to retire on. No one knew how he calculated those numbers, but his self-assurance was palpable.
"He knew his responsibilities, he knew what he had to do," says Rahul Dravid, his captain back then. "He didn't need to be told what to do. He had the maturity that other kids didn't have."
Once, around then, Chappell organised a team exercise where every player was asked to tell the camera a bit about his background. Chappell remembers being impressed by Dhoni's introduction.
"It was just remarkable how at each stage he had to improve," Chappell says. "At school he was invited to come to their cricket, having been noticed at a playground after school. Then he succeeded there and was invited to play for a club, and then higher and higher tournaments.
"He talked about how he felt he had to prove himself at each level, and he had to do it frequently because of the dramatic progress he made. He was modest, but it was an honest appraisal of how he moved through the game. It was remarkable in a country where you didn't see so many young people with such self-confidence. They had decisions made for them by parents or schoolteachers or coaches or older people. Dhoni obviously built that confidence from having made his own decisions."
The reclusive, cagey and cryptic Dhoni of today is unrecognisable from the accessible, forthright and plain-speaking man I interviewed in 2006 and 2008.
The first interview, in Islamabad, was two months after his Test debut. What struck me through the 45 minutes was his remarkable poise - rare among newbies in the Indian team. He kept his responses short and didn't say things like "control the controllables" and "all about the process" - trendy catchphrases during the Chappell-Dravid years.
The next interview - and probably the last time he spoke at length to a print publication - was after India's historic CB Series victory in Australia. Dhoni, who was accused of axing Ganguly and Dravid from the one-day side, and for sticking with Yuvraj Singh despite his rough patch, had prevailed. "I was pretty clear about the players that I wanted in the side," he said. "That's what I said to the selectors as well."
Many themes emerged during the chat, which lasted more than an hour, but what was remarkable was his clarity of thought and his openness - a trait that has rarely made an appearance in the years since. Some excerpts:
On the CB Series victory
"One of the best achievements from the victory was the dressing-room atmosphere. It was very calm and cool throughout. If your dressing-room atmosphere is great then most of the time you'll get a favourable result. That was very important and I was actually marking it."
On cricketers from small towns
"If you are from a smaller place, where the cricket infrastructure is not good, you have to struggle a lot. You don't get good practice facilities, you don't play too many games on turf wickets, and even to get into your home side you have to struggle a lot. All of these things do have an impact on the guy's playing style, or the way he thinks of cricket. It's not like the guys from the big cities are not good enough or mentally tough: the guys from smaller states or smaller cities, they struggle a bit more."
On preparing for a match
"I don't really sit in front of a laptop and analyse everything. I attend the bowlers' meetings and all, and most things get into my head. I don't have to push anything into my head. Reading and getting anything into the mind is tough for me. If I visualise something or if I see something, it gets more quickly into my head. Instead of wasting four hours reading something, I would rather see something in clips and get output out of it."
On his instinctive on-field decisions
"At times even if the bowlers are going for runs, if the batsmen are clearing the infield and there are no catching opportunities, I would rather have one slip and a floater instead of having a catcher at midwicket or a catching cover. Because ultimately the batsmen are trying to go over the top, hitting sixes and one-bounce fours. It's a bit different, but that's what I do. Some of the guys come up to me and say, "Remove the slip", but I say, "What's the need? Even if I remove the slip, the batsmen are hitting sixes. You can have as many fielders but if they're going for a six it will still be a six."
On beating Australia in Australia
"I've always felt that if you're playing against an aggressive side you have to play an aggressive game. Especially against Australia. You can't just look to play and win - it's batting, bowling, fielding, aggression, everything. Fortunately, this side has got a few players who can speak and do well at the same time and won't get disturbed by it. I'm fortunate to have those players in the side, rather than having to ask those who are not comfortable doing it to do so. If you have a guy who is able to do it and who should do it, I make it a point that he does it."
By Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
That Dhoni was different from the average newcomer was evident in the team environment too. "In a team meeting if the senior players didn't speak, the juniors didn't speak either," Chappell remembers. "Dhoni was no different in this regard, but in a group he moved quite easily between the senior players and the junior players. Whilst he had great respect for the senior players, he didn't appear to feel out of place. I noticed others who were conscious of being positioned in the team. He wasn't disrespectful in any way, but he wasn't going to be a junior player and sit in a corner and keep quiet. Quite happy to initiate a conversation with Sachin or other senior players. He didn't feel the need to be invited to participate, unlike others."
It was apparent to Chappell at that stage that Dhoni would, or should, lead inevitably. Decision-making and the ability to absorb the consequences of his decisions were fostered in him when he was growing up. His father let him do whatever he wished, as long as he didn't fail his exams. As batsman, keeper and captain, Dhoni has been his own man, be it bowling Joginder Sharma in the last over of the World Twenty20 final, promoting himself in the World Cup final four years later, backing Ravindra Jadeja as a Test player, or at times letting Tests drift.
And there was his acceptance of responsibility too. During a Champions Trophy match in 2006, India were chasing only 126, but in going for a big hit Dhoni exposed Raina, who had been going through a rough patch that had been made rougher by a duck. As he saw Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh complete a nervous chase, Dhoni absorbed a vital lesson that would shape his ODI batting: finish the job, never leave it for the next man.
Those who know Dhoni closely vouch that being given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Territorial Army in 2011, months after he had led India to a World Cup win, counts among the proudest moments in his life. He wouldn't take the uniform off," Pandey says. "He didn't sleep that night."
No one knows precisely how and when - Pandey's guess is it was during the Kargil war in 1999 - Dhoni's fixation with the army began, but it is now a major theme in his life. He travels in camouflage pants, with camouflage luggage. His wicketkeeping gloves are a tribute to the armed forces, made to order in Meerut.
An army acquaintance rates Dhoni's knowledge of fighter aircraft nine on ten, and of the army, seven. Give him a firearm and he will first understand it, without any outside help; then he can hit a bulls-eye from 25m every time. He enjoys improvising with targets, not just paper ones. He likes simulated situations, and he experiments - right hand, left hand. Glenn McGrath is known for his skill at skeet shooting. Dhoni has beaten him in a face-off.
He takes his gun along during Test matches in India and on off days tries to visit the nearest firing range. He makes sure he shoots on January 1, no matter which part of the world he is in. This year the team came home from South Africa on the night of January 1, and he rushed off to the National Security Guard range in Mumbai to complete the ritual.
Dhoni prides himself on being a survivor and a resourceful, self-sufficient person. He likes to be put in situations where he has to innovate to survive. He owns daggers too. "He likes all that commando stuff, living-off-the-land stuff," says one of his army friends. "Once, in a hotel room he needed a pin but he didn't let me call room service. Began to improvise to find a sharp object. He said they all get a welcome letter from the hotel's general manager whenever they check in, and that envelope is sure to have a stapler pin."
When food is ordered in his hotel room, Dhoni makes sure everybody orders only a first round. No food should be wasted. It is a commando thing: they have to often make do with little at their posts. Surely there is an analogy here about having to make do with India's thin bowling resources?
And perhaps from this fascination for the army, he derives his respect for authority. It is well known that he doesn't enjoy training much - all his fitness work comes from cricketing activities - but when Gary Kirsten, a coach he respected immensely, called for a swimming-pool session, Dhoni would be there on time though he hated the activity.
"You can sense he respects achievement," Dravid says, "He will not say that overtly, he won't fawn, he won't call you Rahulji, Rahul sirji. You can sense he is a free-minded thinker, but he likes that army- like structure."
There is a lot of the army man in Dhoni the captain. In the lack of sentiment; in expecting his charges to toughen up; in doing the job without fuss; in being a stickler for punctuality (though he is one of the captains most frequently penalised for slow over rates).
Two events within the space of a few months in 2007 left a lasting impact on Dhoni the captain and player. In April, he had to stay put in Delhi because his home was being attacked by angry "fans" after India's ignominious exit from the World Cup in the West Indies. A few months later when he came back from South Africa having won the World T20, it was the adulation, the mobbing, that kept him away. He tells his friends that he realised then that he couldn't afford to take what happened on the field seriously and be defined by it.
The ultimate outsider of Indian cricket is also the ultimate insider
In the years to come Dhoni would become so obsessed with not showing any emotion that it sometimes made you wonder if it was artificial. Chappell remembers him as an emotionally expressive man. "We were in Jaipur, or possibly in Nagpur, and a friend of the family, a young woman, died, and I was touched by the way he reacted to that. He was quite emotional, and not scared to show it."
Now he rations the time he gives to Indian cricket. Dravid, who captained him, played under him and has now observed him as an outsider, hints at a deliberate detachment. "I almost get the impression that he feels that if he thinks and plans too much, his mind will get cluttered," Dravid says. "I think he doesn't want to understand the full weight of being the India captain. He doesn't want to delve into those things. He doesn't want to be bogged down."
Dravid admits captaincy was a 24/7 job for him, and the most worrisome part of captaining India was being responsible for so many different kinds of players. "Previous captains were tense," says a player who has played under Ganguly, Dravid and Dhoni. "You could sense the pressure they were under, and you could feel the same pressure. But with Mahi it is relaxed, and that makes you relaxed."
Pandey confirms the deliberate nature of it. "He makes sure he doesn't think about the game in advance at all," Pandey says. "Two hours before the match, a switch comes on and he gets into his game mode. I might have spent the whole day with him until then, but now there is no place for me there. It is a sight to behold, the transformation. Even before a big tour, he starts thinking of it only two days before it. He just doesn't want to waste his energies thinking about the game when he can't do anything about it."
After the game is over, it doesn't take Dhoni long to switch off. An acquaintance who spent an hour with him immediately after the Champions Trophy win in England last year remembers not a single word spoken about cricket in those 60 minutes. And this was one of India's more emotional victories. Just before departing for England, Dhoni had addressed a press conference without being able to answer a single question because they were all about the scandal surrounding his IPL team.
Pandey remembers the atmosphere around the team on the night of their departure was marked by fear, insecurity, caginess. "What will happen now"?
"He asked me, 'Have you done anything wrong?'
"I said no.
"'Have I done anything wrong?'
"'Then why should we worry?'
"Five days later, when I reached England, he had worked his magic on the rest of the boys too."
Dhoni has been obsessed with keeping things simple, with getting his team to do what it knows best - as opposed to them trying to become something else. One of his first moves as captain was to get rid of blazers and ties from India's off-field uniform. He said that when some of them can't even carry off formal trousers properly, they shouldn't be made to wear ties. Dhoni's cricketing version of polo shirts and jeans is short and sharp team meetings. Sometimes they last as long as it takes to say "good luck".
Not everything is straightforward, though. It's not just the media - which Dhoni has eliminated entirely as a source of pressure by not consuming it, not engaging with it (and replying in an ambiguous and self-contradictory manner when he needs to) - and fans who don't know what's going on in his mind. Those seen as his friends can't say much more than "He is Captain Cool" when asked for a comment. RP Singh, a known "friend", once had to ask other senior players why he was being dropped.
Dhoni's obsession with keeping things simple, not planning too far ahead, not taking complete charge because it brings extra pressure with it, has worked extremely well in limited-overs cricket, but such an attitude limits your ambition in Test cricket, a format that is by definition limitless.
Protesters deface a poster after India's early exit in the 2007 World Cup. Dhoni said that was when he realised he couldn't afford to be defined by what happened on the field
© Associated Press
Protesters deface a poster after India's early exit in the 2007 World Cup. Dhoni said that was when he realised he couldn't afford to be defined by what happened on the field © Associated Press
In 2009 and 2014, he went to New Zealand with the ambition of winning the series, but didn't go all out to win the final Tests both times, despite India having bossed the two matches. New Zealand players from that 2009 Test in Wellington still joke about being set 617 in the fourth innings, which let them escape with a draw. An Indian player on both those tours says winning the series was the only target.
The army analogy doesn't extend to when the team starts losing Tests. On the 0-4 tour of Australia in 2011-12, not only did India play the same failing top six in each Test, they batted in the same order, except when a nightwatchman made a superficial alteration. Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma spent the tour giving throwdowns to each other in a corner while the big boys did their thing with Duncan Fletcher and Dhoni watching. The message to the selectors was clear: "If you give me these players in the XV, I will have to play them in the XI. I am not going to complicate my personal relationships with them."
When Venkatesh Prasad, the bowling coach under whom Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma bowled best in tandem, was sacked without reason, he did not hear from Dhoni. "I know such decisions are not made without a captain's approval," says Prasad, who too has praise for Dhoni's calm leadership. "It's okay if he didn't fight for me or if he suggested I be removed, but he could have at least explained the decision to me." VVS Laxman famously failed to get through to Dhoni to inform him of his retirement. Every player knows Dhoni doesn't answer his phone.
Even in keeping his distance, Dhoni confounds. Handholding might have helped a player like Sreesanth, a difficult character, and the only one Dhoni ever openly criticised. But there are occasions when he reaches out, though not always directly. Last year he passed on a message to Irfan Pathan through a journalist. The gist was: "I am not doubting you but you are gaining a reputation for being fit during the IPL and not during the Ranji Trophy. If you get fit, I need you in England, but you have to play first-class matches before that."
For a man committed to simplicity, there is a bit of grandstanding here. Dhoni's counter is that his hotel suite - the captain gets a suite - is always open. You don't even need to knock: if the morning newspaper is outside, it means Dhoni hasn't woken up yet; if you don't see the newspaper, it is open house.
"All that is fine," says a player, "but what if Pandeyji is there all day?"
Pandey, a portly 35-year-old who once played for Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is probably Dhoni's closest friend. If Dhoni absorbs the pressure so his team can express itself, Pandey is Dhoni's buffer against the outside world, managing everything around him.
Dhoni repeatedly said Gary Kirsten's appointment as India coach was "one of the greatest things to have happened to Indian cricket"
Dhoni repeatedly said Gary Kirsten's appointment as India coach was "one of the greatest things to have happened to Indian cricket" © AFP
A resourceful man, Pandey realised early enough that he wouldn't be able to make a proper career in cricket. He dabbled in various activities before merging his friendship and his career. He worked with T-Series, a popular and controversial music label, where, he says, he had the power to tell the biggest singers in the country if they were out of tune. He says he learned many of his business tricks there: how to talk to people, how to carry out deals. His brother-in-law is the famous Bhojpuri actor and politician Manoj Tiwari, for whom Pandey has canvassed in the badlands of Gorakhpur, a city on the India-Nepal border infamous for its gang wars and for providing safe passage out of the country for wanted criminals.
Pandey's rise in the world of business has been about as meteoric as Dhoni's in cricket. The two met when Pandey used to coordinate nets at the National Stadium in Delhi. Dhoni practised there once. His hitting left an impression on Pandey. When Dhoni came to Delhi to play, he would stay in Pandey's rented barsati (a basic room on a roof), like other cricketers from UP and Bihar often did. Pandey says Dhoni was the only one who would come back with food and drink for him when he went out. The friendship grew and Pandey became Dhoni's third manager; the previous two were dropped without ceremony.
Pandey is a friendly, jovial man. Observers say Dhoni's trust in Pandey is so complete he doesn't undertake any background checks on the brands he endorses. Before Dhoni, the unwritten advertising rule for India's cricketers was: endorse no more than six or seven brands, and be conscious of the images of the ones you sign with. Dhoni has broken the rule. He is not apologetic about making money in the window he has as an active cricketer. Yet he wears simple clothes and doesn't seem to care about his looks. You won't find anyone who has been around him describe him as vain or money-obsessed.
After India won the 2011 World Cup, sponors Amrapali Group increased the value of his contract. Everybody's price, they said, had gone up after the victory. "So if we hadn't won, would you have reduced it?" Dhoni is supposed to have said. "You have done a lot for me when I was a nobody. I am not going to take more now that we have won the Cup."
Yet Dhoni has turned a blind eye to, or at best unwittingly walked into, an uncomfortable situation to do with his commercial interests. The year after Pandey signed Dhoni, his company, Rhiti Sports, won a marketing contract with Chennai Super Kings - a team captained by Dhoni and owned by N Srinivasan's India Cements. Dhoni may or may not have had an actual stake in Rhiti Sports, or he may have pulled out if he did, but it has placed him in the position of being seen to be taking to an extreme his obsession with not wanting to acknowledge the full weight of being India captain.
Dhoni's greatest press-conference analogy hits
On reaching Napier only 18 hours before a Test once
"When it comes to the mind it depends on what you're feeding into the mind. You come and say, 'This is Napier' and it believes it's Napier. If you see, it's an abstract. When people say 'He's in form", nobody has seen form. It's a state of mind where you are confident and you think very positively and everything you think about, you think it's very achievable. It's about how you treat the mind."
On what hurt more - the whitewash in England or the one in Australia
"You die, you die. You don't see which is the better way to die."
On the DRS
"If I am going to buy a life jacket which does not come with a warranty, that's a bit of a hassle for me. Especially with the huge amount of money you have to spend for the DRS. I would prefer some kind of warranty for it. The moment it comes, I will be happy."
On the Australian weather
"I was sitting at home and watching television. More often than not, you watch some really strong advertisements in the lead-up to an India-Australia series. The advertisement said: 'It is winter out there, and summer out here, so get ready to feel the heat Down Under.' I took it very seriously. I didn't pack a single jacket, only to realise it is pretty cold here."
On how extra pressure doesn't matter
"It's like having 100kg put over you. After that even if you put a mountain, it will not make a difference."
On the lack of a break between the 2010 IPL and the World T20
"If you look at it, the two-hour bus ride from the airport was more tiring and difficult for us than the last few weeks of the IPL."
On the transition from Test veterans to ODI youngsters during the tour of Australia in 2011-12
"From Kishore Kumar, we have gone to Sean Paul."
On India's batting problems in Australia and why they were not to do with the conditions
"You won't see a Sreesanth batting like a Don Bradman just because he wants to bat like one."
On the eve of the 2011 World Cup final
"Till the full stop doesn't come the sentence is not complete."
Pandey scoffs at the term "conflict of interest", seeming to suggest it is another Indian-crab story. A share in a 20% commission earned off some players is a pittance compared to what Dhoni earns. He won't go through unfair means to make that money, it is said.
Pandey's defence of the situation is based on an ambiguous honour code. Soon after Ravindra Jadeja was bought by CSK in the 2012 auction - for $2 million, plus an undisclosed amount paid to the IPL - it emerged that Rhiti Sports had signed him. Pandey insists Dhoni has no idea about his business, and didn't know Jadeja had been signed until it became public knowledge. He also says he is barred from talking cricket in front of Dhoni. "Once I told MS, during a casual conversation, that he bats too low, and he shot back, 'Aaj toh bol diye ho, aage se mat bolna.' [This is the last time you are going to speak to me about my cricket or the team.]"
Dhoni's admirers will grant him the benefit of the doubt, but to many it is staggering that he is either indifferent to, or ignorant of, the notion that when it comes to those in high office, perceptions do, and should, matter.
In a panel discussion on Dhoni's captaincy, Harsha Bhogle, not one for hurried assessments, said, "You never know what he is thinking. To that extent he might also be a political animal… You have no idea what his thoughts on Tendulkar going to South Africa are. No idea at all. [Tendulkar eventually retired before the 2013-14 South Africa tour]. You don't know which card he is playing when."
Pandey probably knows him best, but even he admits to not knowing him well. "He, as a person, is on a different, higher, plane," Pandey says. "He has risen above sentiments. Mother, father, brother, sister, friends, relatives, he is above all of that. He talks to them once a month or something. I have known him for so long, but only now I have begun to actually know him. He is not emotionally attached to many things. Except for his bikes and weapons, he doesn't desire any material things. Nowadays, when I am in a tough situation, I think in terms of what would MS do in this situation and then do that."
Chappell offers a more concise, a more poetic, explanation. "He's an old soul. He has been here before."
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Srinivasan, Dhoni's boss at CSK and at the BCCI, gave him a special phone to serve as a private hotline, but that Srinivasan still has to call Raina if he needs to talk to his captain, because Dhoni makes no exceptions when it comes to not answering the phone.
Srinivasan's name evokes fear and awe and contempt in many quarters, but for Dhoni the man who has emerged as the most powerful in world cricket reserves, by all accounts, a mixture of faith, affection and borderline reverence.
In matters of cricket, Dhoni has Srinivasan's implicit trust. It is now well known that Srinivasan's aversion to the Decision Review System is, at least partly, rooted in Dhoni's mistrust. Srinivasan's opposition to the two-new-balls regulation is also guided by Dhoni's belief that it limits the role of the spinner, and thus is discriminatory towards teams from the subcontinent. When the selectors, however misguidedly, decided to sack Dhoni from the ODI captaincy following India Test debacles in 2011-12, Srinivasan made unprecedented use of his power of veto as the board president to overturn the decision.
Dhoni can plead he had no choice in these matters. He didn't seek to be bought by CSK at the first IPL auction. By most accounts he only involves himself in the franchise's cricket matters. He has never attended an auction, and is not known to make express demands. He gives the owners two or three alternatives for each slot in the side, and if they are not successful in buying any of those players, he doesn't really mind.
Still, no other cricketer has been so umbilically tied to an IPL franchise as Dhoni has been to CSK. Sachin Tendulkar stayed with Mumbai Indians through his IPL career and he continues to have a presence in their camp as their symbolic icon, but he doesn't personify the franchise the way Dhoni does CSK. Perceptive observers haven't failed to notice that on the rare occasions Dhoni has expressed emotions, hurt or delight, at post-match interactions, it has invariably been when in the CSK yellow.
Wheeler dealer: Motorbikes and the army have been among Dhoni's few constant off-field passions
© Getty Images
Wheeler dealer: Motorbikes and the army have been among Dhoni's few constant off-field passions © Getty Images
And his silence over the recent match-fixing and betting controversies, in which Gurunath Meiyappan, Srinivasan's son-in-law and a permanent presence in the CSK camp till his suspension, is a central character, is disquieting to many. While Dhoni's wariness about commenting on matters under investigation is comprehensible, his all-conquering no-comments policy, even to general questions, on match-fixing can appear jarring.
Those close to him claim this has been a source of further indignation towards the press, because some of the questions had the ring of interrogating an accused. But the counterpoint is that it was reasonable to expect an expression of hurt or condemnation of match-fixing in general from a man who also leads the Indian team.
Dhoni was one of the many witnesses interviewed by the Mudgal Commission, which was appointed to investigate the allegations. He was later accused by the lawyer representing the petitioner who challenged Srinivasan's right to head the BCCI of having been untruthful about Meiyappan. The BCCI counsel challenged this, clarifying that Dhoni had merely maintained that Meiyappan had no role in CSK's cricket affairs.
To quote the Mudgal Commission report: "Mr. M.S. Dhoni, Mr. N. Srinivasan and officials of India Cements took the stand that Mr. Meiyappan had nothing to do with the cricketing affairs of Chennai Super Kings and was a mere cricket enthusiast supporting CSK."
During the panel discussion referred to above, Sanjay Manjrekar, a supporter of Dhoni's leadership, made this observation: "He likes the position of being the India captain. He enjoys it. If he feels that there is something that is going to make that position slightly rocky or fragile as captain, he might not actually want to do that thing... [but] that's a guess from afar."
"He is very smart with people," Bhogle said on the panel. "There is a political being inside him who knows what to say where, at the moment he is in, whether he should say it or not say it. He knows what to do in what situation. He is not naïve."
MS Dhoni is the biggest outsider Indian cricket has known - "known" is a bit of a stretch, for he is the captain we have known the least. But the ultimate outsider of Indian cricket is also the ultimate insider, obsessed with holding everyone at an arm's length. In keeping with the two titles for the Albert Camus book, Dhoni is also a stranger.
As if to feed the mystery, or because he might have too much to lose, Dhoni doesn't protest or deny or discuss speculation about him. He gives no interviews. In press conferences he always contradicts himself in response to contentious questions so that he can't seriously be quoted either way, and often resorts to weird analogies (see sidebar above).
"My circle keeps getting smaller every day," he recently told an acquaintance, pointing out mainly the invasiveness of the media and what he no doubt sees as an unnecessary controversy over his IPL team and his business decisions. The man who has freed Indian cricket of many a dogma by keeping things almost pathologically simple has spun around himself a web of complications.
Dhoni is a contradictory sort of hero, detached yet entrenched, not available yet available, but not quite, a complex man obsessed with keeping things simple, instinctive in one form of the game and stubborn in another, the most successful Indian captain ever, yet the most helpless when losing. For someone who has brought immense excitement to Indian cricket, Dhoni's story is not overly dramatic. Heroes and villains don't roll off the pages. Which makes it more compelling. The story is grander than simple drama: small-town boy becomes India captain, the best ODI batsman, the richest cricketer in the world, the most powerful too, and, always, beyond our reach.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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