On 15 August, India’s Independence Day, Dhoni Liberated Himself
MS Dhoni, a cricketer without a spin, never stirred or shaken.
Stand straight, click your heels and salute Hony Lt Col MSD, the wicket-keeper who stumped everyone. Amid intense speculation about his future, he has coolly disappeared as of 19:29 hours, Saturday, 15 August.
On India's Independence Day, Mahendra Singh Dhoni liberated himself from the extraordinary demands of international sport.
Under the glare for so long, Dhoni has switched off to retreat into his private gufa and put on the DND sign.
His amazing journey in Indian cricket started many years ago, and my role in it is a very minor footnote.
MSD, then a TTE at the Kharagpur station, was recruited on the basis of his cricketing ability, and I happened to head Railway Sports. He wasn't making progress with the Railways Ranji squad and wanted a release from an employment contract which prevented him from quitting. I agreed to the request, and set him free, so to speak.
MSD is unique because he challenged every rule and stereotype, every set notion of cricketing strategy and every norm of celebrity life. He was one of a kind, so grounded, it appeared the roots were deeper than the height of the man.
MSD's aura was sustained by maintaining (social!) distance and rationing information. MSD existed behind carefully placed curtains and filters that restricted access, a fact teammates (for example, Laxman) will confirm. He stayed in the background, yet stood out. Shunned publicity, but the media chased him.
Instead of exposing himself to the information hungry world, MSD guarded personal space and did not tolerate trespassers. Unlike those in a make-believe bubble, MSD was a cricketer without any spin!
Lots has been said about his legendary cool on the cricket field, his calm behaviour and the ability not to be shaken or stirred. But a close colleague said this nirvana behaviour was no carefully manufactured act – Mahi had truly embraced peace and had the remarkable talent of slowing things down and handling life by taking deep breaths.
But that is not to mean he did not generate tension for others!
Operating in a haze of uncertainty was so, so MSD. When batting, it was impossible to decipher his gameplan. With balls running out and asking rate rising, he would be annoyingly cool – pushing singles, knocking the ball around, taking the game ‘deep’. Yet, with desperation setting in, he turned red hot to ‘finish’ the game.
About retirement, people were in the dark about MSD’s next chaal. MSD did not talk to anyone – not the media, not colleagues, not BCCI officials. The whisper in the cricket world was you can’t get MSD on the phone line, or get him to fall in line.
I remember an occasion when all of BCCI was in a terrible fix because of him. The national selectors met to pick the Indian team and a press conference was scheduled in the afternoon to make the announcement.
But, an unexpected snag developed because nobody could get through to MSD to seek his formal consent. Imagine the crisis: BCCI conference hall packed with media, waiting for team announcement. BCCI top officials frantically working the phones to reach MSD. Without luck.
MSD spoke when he wanted to, through mysterious smiles and chance remarks, but usually it was his bat which did the talking.
You can detect general election trends, unravel monsoon patterns and work out the spinning deceptions of Warne and Murali but understanding MSD is something else.
MSD always played with the bat close to the body, cards always next to his chest. He was a batsman (career figures: 15,000 International runs) with a bowler’s mindset who believed in keeping others guessing.
To an extent that when he abruptly abdicated the Indian captaincy (midway during a Test series in Australia, ending a 90-match career), players in the dressing room gasped in shock.
MSD’s magic rested on defying the normal, swimming against the flow and driving against traffic in a one-way lane. When every two paisa celebrity went ballistic on social media, even posting pictures of food consumed at breakfast, MSD absented himself as if to express disgust about this viral infection.
The silence was vintage MSD as he chose to stay within his private domain. Remember the balidan logo controversy before the World Cup when the BCCI-COA/TV channels/political leaders/assorted celebrities screamed in his support? While everyone was going nuts, there was deafening silence from the man himself.
Yet, for all his laid back attitude and celebrated reticence, MSD was not shy of making a loud statement. Love for the army is worn on the sleeve and, occasionally, on his keeping gloves.
In the Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive the Padma Shri, Lt Col Dhoni marched like a soldier to deliver a crisp salute that would have gladdened instructors at IMA Dehradun.
Given his track record, it was certain MSD would not make a grand announcement about his retirement and life after cricket. But the short post on Saturday must have been a tough call for him, not something routine like moving third man back and calling mid-on up or moving point just a shade right for the uppish square cut.
Right through his remarkable career, MSD was celebrated for his astute decision making and sharp match awareness. When Sachin Tendulkar chose to retire, it was an emotional sendoff which became a national event. As part of the extraordinary departure, a special coin was struck, postage stamps issued and he became the 43rd Indian to receive the Bharat Ratna.
A recent poll indicated MSD was the most admired Indian, after the PM, which proves the keeper caught the imagination of the country. He connected with fans, inspired cricketers and was an ambassador of hope and possibility for youngsters dreaming big.
India will continue to celebrate Dhoni for reasons beyond just being different. As captain, he had statesmanlike dignity, a general in battle with the composure of a monk, a reassuring presence in extreme stress.
Sledging was alien to him, the only display of emotion from MSD was a hesitant high five and a shy smile. His celebration on reaching a landmark was not marked by violent gestures or abusive screams.
Just an old world raising of the bat.
MSD has rejected an elaborately choreographed exit and in his understated style decided to move on. He is still around with CSK and IPL but it looks like MSD is happy to jump on his favourite Harley Davidson Fatboy bike to, literally, drive into the distance.
(Amrit Mathur is a senior cricket writer, former GM of the BCCI and Manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He can be reached at @AmritMathur1)
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