It was 16 years ago that I first encountered Mahendra Singh Dhoni, virtually. Before then, the name had been mentioned in selection meetings for the ODI legs of the Australia and Pakistan tour in 2003-04. The name was discussed, but the selectors then opted to play it safe and let Rahul Dravid continue as the wicket-keeper in the ODI format.
A few months later there was an India A squad scheduled to tour Zimbabwe and Kenya. Dhoni had been named in the squad alongside another young stumper Dinesh Karthik. No one at the time seemed to have a number to track the young man down, and very few have that number now, even 16 years later!
A call to Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA) office was the only way to track Dhoni down. He had been practising at a nearby facility. He came huffing and puffing after a long nets session, profusely apologising for being late to answer the call. After a long interview the notes of which I have been trying to track down for some years now, he very excitedly offered me all his contact numbers including that of his residence and cellphone. Those numbers are no longer valid, but I remember thinking then that here is an excitable young man trying to find his way in the big bad world of cricket.
When he finally made his international debut in Bangladesh later that year in 2004, I missed seeing him in flesh and blood, as most of us had been there just for the Test leg to see Sachin Tendulkar equal Sunil Gavaskar’s 34th Test century record.
But I was present at the ground as a reporter when he scored his breathtaking 148 against Pakistan at Vizag in 2005 which changed his fortunes forever. From thereon, Dhoni remained a constant in the Indian cricket. Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf advising him not to cut his hair after an ODI in Lahore in 2006 was another moment I happened to witness. His quiet arrival in Mumbai after becoming the world’s number one ranked ODI batsman in 2006 was another moment that stood out in my memory.
A Rare Dhoni Interview
But the moment that really captured my imagination happened on the 2006 West Indies tour. I had sought time for an interview with the man who was still new to international cricket. After the second Test in St Lucia, he promised to give me time during the 10-day long break in St Kitts. True to his word he met me in the lobby of St Kitts hotel at breakfast and fixed up a time for the next day. Then as I was going with him to his room for the interview, he saw a few other journalists coming along with us.
He instantly stopped and said: “Aap is baar nahi. Meine inko (pointing to me) pehle time diya tha. Pehle aaj inka, phir baakiyon ka.” I was really surprised by the calmness and the quiet assertive nature of the man even then. As we entered his room, he sat and patiently answered all the queries.
One thing stood out, the landline phone in the room kept ringing, he just refused to answer it. He then informed me that one thing he does not like is answering phones, not even from family!
How things had changed for the man who just under two years ago, was gladly offering all his contact details to me. That moment in 2006 remained my first and last personal interview as an active journalist with the man.
He then became a bit distant as he achieved many more milestones along the way.
A Quirky Captain
During the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 in Colombo, the Indian squad arrived for pre-tournament commitments of signing bats, clicking headshots. I was working with International Cricket Council (ICC) at the time and we had arranged for a fun game for the players to indulge in while they did the needful. Dhoni was the most active and keenest to play the game. He was the last to leave the room even after finishing his schedule!
The other major interaction was in 2013 during the Champions Trophy. He kept us in the ICC on tenterhooks with toss and national anthem call times. He would arrive in the nick of time just as everyone from the floor manager to producer in the commentary box and director in the production control room would almost break a nerve in panic.
The nerviest moment would be the time when the teams had to step out for national anthem. The Indian team would not move till MSD had not got up. I would keep an eye hoping to catch MSD’s movement, because everyone else seemed powerless! But just in the nick of time he would make it.
After India won the Champions Trophy, memory of him remaining calm even as his young turk Virat Kohli went berserk still stands out for me. He gladly signed autographs for friends as requested by me and did not forget to leave it at the reception as promised!
I had two more personal interactions with the man over the next five years. But each time we met it was almost as if we picked up from where we left off. During the 2014 ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, I remember having a long chat with him about the need for specialist squad for the format and how he viewed it. A security official was keen to move me away from MS, but the India captain asked him to move away so that he could talk to me.
The entire squad kept waiting for the captain to return for a post-match chat, while he spoke to me at the Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka. It gave me an insight into the man and how he thought about certain issues that were the talking point at the time.
Finally, in 2018 his face lit up when he saw me at the opening of his cricket academy in Dubai. He was pleasantly surprised as he saw me in a crowd that he expected would be full of parents and eager trainees.
Over the course of 16 years our interactions may have been dictated by distance, but he remained as warm as ever since the first personal meet in 2006. For a brief while I was ‘The Times of India’ for him, because that is where I worked at the time.
His friendships were the talking point at all times. It started with the likes of Irfan Pathan, RP Singh and Suresh Raina in 2005-06 till Hardik Pandya in 2019. He had a close crop of friends. The faces may have changed while playing for India, but Raina remained a close confidante all through the years.
It was a surprise initially that Raina too had retired after Dhoni, but then he was an ardent follower of the man. He blindly accepted him as his elder brother and leader. It was fitting that the two ended their careers on the same day, after having had their careers intertwined for a major part of the last 15 years.
Now hopefully we will see a much freer Dhoni and Raina during the Indian Premier League (IPL). The kinds we first saw when the two played as young turks back in 2005-06.
(Chandresh Narayanan is a former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and the Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.)
(This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark MS Dhoni's 41th birthday. It was first published on 16 August 2020.)