MS Dhoni at 43 | Not a Do Pal Ka Shayar, but Eternal Enigma Transcending Limits

As MS Dhoni turns 43, we take a look at what makes him an eternal enigma, and not just a 'do pal ka shayar.'

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(This article was first published on 7 July 2023. It is being republished from The Quint's archives on the occasion of MS Dhoni's 43rd birthday).

CHAPTER 1: MS Dhoni, Sahir Ludhianvi, And a Lesson On Repudiating Ephemerality

“Main pal do pal ka shayar hoon,

 Pal do pal meri kahani hain,

 Pal do pal meri hasti hain,

 Pal do pal meri jawani hain.”

(I am, but an ephemeral poet. My stories, existence and youthful exuberance will only last for a moment, or a couple).


When Sahir Ludhianvi published his first book in 1944, the nation could not have been in a more disrupted, more tumultuous state than it already was. Inside the prison walls, Mahatma Gandhi waged a hunger strike. Outside, Subhash Chandra Bose congregated forces for an attack. The occupying forces were perfectly aware of how even the slightest piquancy of insurgence could trigger an empire’s collapse.

Yet, with the same disregard lovers in Paris had for the French Revolution, with the same audacity with which they harboured adoration in the face of bloodshed, Ludhianvi chose to portray pictures of romance. Decades later, verses of romance such as ‘Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein’ would receive numerous accolades.

Beyond that, what remains a highlight of his legacy, is how he inspired youth to not repudiate love, at a time when hate was selling for a dime a dozen. Legend has it that those who dared to love, would keep Ludhianvi’s books under their pillows, manifesting, perhaps, a better tomorrow, but just not in the way everyone else dreamt of it.

When Mahendra Singh Dhoni was announced as the new leader of the team, Indian cricket could not have been in a more disrupted, more tumultuous state than it already was. A group-stage exit from the 2007 Cricket World Cup made the loyalists angry, a defeat against neighbours Bangladesh, who were not even a full member seven years ago, made them bewildered.

In only a few months, India would conquer the world – by scripting history as the first champions of the T20 World Cup. During this process, a bunch of youngsters would completely alter the status quo, whilst beating Pakistan twice. The same set of fans would rejoice again. 

Thirteen years later, when Dhoni, a self-proclaimed connoisseur of old Bollywood songs, would announce his retirement, the cricketing world would come to a standstill. Dhoni, however, as he always has been, would be indifferent to chatter and chirping, and instead, resort to Ludhianvi’s lines, in a bid to explain the evanescent nature of a cricketer’s career.

Little does he know, little had Ludhianvi known, that they have defied the shackles of ephemerality. That, separated from the artists, their art will always be remembered and cherished. Youngsters aiming to beat the odds will still consider Dhoni as an inspiration, writers will continue penning their tributes for him, and the sport, itself, will always lionise one of its most iconic figures – for years, and years to come. The 'people's poet' and the 'people's player' never were ‘pal do pal ke shayar.

Chapter II – Disrupting Status Quo

To claim the Mumbai-Delhi-Punjab-Karnataka circuit dominated the production hub of national team cricketers might be a lazy effort, but where Dhoni hails from, Ranchi (erstwhile Bihar), a benchmark hadn’t been set by anyone to follow.

Purnea’s Kirti Azad did play a few matches, but the central minister’s son didn’t have a prolonged career. Patna’s Saba Karim, a businessman's son, had to ditch Bihar for Bengal, just so that the selectors would offer him a look.

Then, there was his long-haired, new kid on the block, who wasn’t even interested in cricket until a few years ago. How he got into the game is extensively documented, and doesn’t warrant a revisit – albeit, on similar lines, his first-class debut did not warrant attention.

In a run-of-the-mill clash between Bihar and Assam – teams that had negligible chances of disturbing the big boys – an eighteen-year-old Dhoni scored a half-century. Consistency and perseverance in the domestic circuit, coupled with India’s widespread hunt for a wicketkeeper, resulted in an opportunity, and despite an underwhelming and unfortunate start, he justified his selection in only his fifth ODI.

With a 148-run knock against Pakistan, the highest by any Indian wicketkeeper at that point, Dhoni all but made it clear that he will stick around for a while. The big hits, the mammoth sixes, the unrestrained approach – all garnered attention, albeit with a tinge of dogma-laced narrative associated with it.

Dhoni, for all his worth as an entertainer, was the rough-hewn cricketer with brute force. That, he had the strength and courage to take on any bowler was accepted, but he was not included in conversations about the elites, the polished, ones who seemingly were inch-perfectly tailored to uphold the ‘cricket is a gentleman’s game’ narrative.

The perception flaw was not solitarily extrinsic, with his teammates often calling him ‘Bihari’, in absolute oblivion to Jharkhand’s formation a few years ago. 

The line between sporting camaraderie and prejudicial bullying is thin and hazy, and one is welcome to be inclined towards the former in this matter. Yet, the emergence of Dhoni instilled hopes in cricketers from regions such as Ranchi – those that weren’t represented in the map of Indian cricket previously – to not renounce their dreams solely for the region they belonged to.

This marks another instance of Dhoni rising above and beyond the realms of records and statistics, proving he is far, far from a ‘pal do pal ka shayar.’


Chapter III – Carving His Own Team After Carving An Identity

By 2007, Dhoni had seen it all. He had his house vandalised after two ducks in the World Cup, but also aggrandised whenever he did well. Then came his first major captaincy assignment – the T20 World Cup – albeit, expectations were not high.

With ghosts of the horrendous World Cup campaign still haunting every cricket enthusiast in the nation, and no official head coach to guide the players in a new format, the onus was on Dhoni, and Dhoni only, to pull off a miracle.

Among his first steps in building a new era was the unceremonious sequestration of yesteryears’ heroes – a practice not very common in India, wherein respect is dished out by age, and not on merit.

That, however, did not deter Dhoni from not picking the trio of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid for the T20 World Cup. As former coach Greg Chappel once stated – “There was no false modesty with Dhoni; if he thought he could do something, he was confident enough to say that he could. MS was not interested in 'games'.”

Although India’s 15-member squad made a combined 12 appearances in T20Is before the tournament, they went on to lift silverware, merely five months after emerging as the universal underachievers. 

Not for the first time that MS had been a force of positive change, a disruptor for the greater good.


CHAPTER IV – Let It Be Known Henceforth…

Over the next decade, Dhoni scripted history like none other. He first guided India to their maiden World Cup triumph since 1983, before becoming the first captain in the history of the game to will all three of the holy trinity – World Cup, T20 World Cup and Champions Trophy

17226 international runs offer testimony of his batting skills, beyond captaincy, whereas 47 instances of remaining unbeaten in a successful ODI run chase highlight his unparalleled game-reading. 

For all that he did, Dhoni could have asked for the grandest abdication India has ever seen – a farewell wherein billions would have been involved. Yet, he chose to do it when India was celebrating its 74th year of independence, borrowing lines for Ludhianvi.

There was no beating of drums, no blowing of trumpets, not even an exhibition game to officially call curtains. In fact, the nation’s last recollection of its greatest cricketing leader was a melancholic one – of Dhoni failing to take his team over the line in a World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.

There, barely making a noise, Dhoni walked away, retiring from all forms of international cricket, and curtains were called to his pal do pal ki kahaniyan.

Ludhianvi concluded his poem with the lines:

“Kal koi mujhko yaad karein, kyun koi mujhko yaad karein? 

Mashroof zamana mere liye, kyun waqt apna barbaad karein?”

(Why should anyone remember me? Why should this bustling era waste time thinking about me?)

On his 42nd birthday, let it be known, and promulgated, that every second spent reminiscing Dhoni is a second spent cherishing greatness – of a player who transcended boundaries.

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