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MS Dhoni © Getty Images

Sometime in June 2007. I was a part of the fogyish gang who had still not come in terms with India’s inglorious exit from the ICC World Cup. Greg Chappell was gone but what was the way ahead for India? The Sourav Ganguly-era was history. The Rahul Dravid era did not inspire enough. The popular buzz was Yuvraj Singh followed by a few murmurs on the out-of-form Virender Sehwag. Freshly out of college, a few drinks down, “MS Dhoni,” I had uttered. Silence was heard for a few seconds followed by some headshakes in disbelief till someone uttered ‘bullsh*t’.

In an interview earlier that year Ganguly spoke about Dhoni’s astuteness alert mind and suggestions he came up with, and went on to term him as a potential future leader. To me, Ganguly’s words meant gospel then. I had watched the games closely to second Dada. I went again, “Dhoni it is or rather it should be.”

MS Dhoni steps down as India’s limited-overs (ODI and T20I) captain

A month-and-half later, in a job interview round, I was asked whether Dravid should continue. “No. Dhoni should take over.” The interviewer glared, “Seriously? You see a Tendulkar taking orders from Dhoni?”

“Yes sir, Kapil has from Azhar. Azhar has from Ganguly,” I said.

The rest is history. I cracked the job and accidentally leaped into the world of sports journalism. But why should that interest you? The history bit is for MS Dhoni, who went on to become India’s most successful captain.

Not many foresaw this. I walked around my gang with the swagger. The pride remains and so will I boast all my life.

The aversion

“Dhoni should quit captaincy and bat up the order, I repeat again,” I tell the same gang and write in many of the pieces published here.

‘Bullsh*t!’ many from the same set of friends respond. “Dhoni is the greatest leader ever.”

Almost a decade later, I try to convince the world through write-ups or live videos that all great things come with an expiry date and Dhoni is past it. I belong to the section that wanted him to quit captaincy buthe didn’t.

***

In 2008, ahead of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in India, Ganguly, who was drafted into the side by new selector Krishnamachari Srikkanth, arrived for the press conference. He answered all the questions and then, “…before I leave, I just want to say that this is going to be my last series. I have decided to quit. These four Test matches are going to be my last and hopefully we will go on a winning note.”

Boom, and he immediately walked away. You hate these moments as journalist. A Stone Cold stunner has struck you. Wait, if you think this was a bombshell…

The Boxing Day Test of 2014 was over. It had been a busy month and half: Rohit Sharma’s 264, Phillip Hughes’ tragedy, Virat Kohli’s heroics at Adelaide, the Kohli-Johnson war and then the conclusion of the Boxing Day Test. December 30, and it was time to don the celebratory shoes when ‘boom’.

Dhoni announced retirement from Tests. Life stops. Cricket journalists suddenly metamorphosed into erstwhile fans. Recollection of memories, arranging thoughts, ideating stories, clearing the wires and penning them all…

Even if you paid attention throughout the semester, those surprise class-tests that added to your final scores gave you a jolt. Ganguly had at least given time to prepare.

A BCCI’s tweet had announced the retirement. An hour or so before that Dhoni had been seen smiling and having an animated chat with his counterpart Steven Smith. Little could one fathom. Happy New Year, indeed.

***

2017 began. The mood was still stuck in year-enders. The focus was on Ranji Trophy. Meanwhile, Pakistan were putting up their customary fightback against Australia. Sri Lanka were inching closer to another defeat against South Africa.

Meanwhile, T20 cricket returned to DY Patil Stadium and Cheteshwar Pujara scores a ton in this format. Was that big news? I thought so.

Dhoni, who had been mentoring the just-ousted Jharkhand boys from the Ranji Trophy, was busy on the Playstation with the young lads late in the evening. That was fine.

My editor-in-chief and me were about to start our dinner, and another colleague was set to leave for the day.

It was at that precise moment that the bombshell dropped: Dhoni had resigned as India’s limited-overs captain.

Dinner went for docks. This meant double shifts. The guys on off were pulled up. Before you could pause for a moment, take a deep breath and revisit the fandom to realise that an era had ended, you were reminded with a flurry of emails from the marketing team that this was a rat race. There was Google. There was Facebook. There was competition.

All Dhoni-related articles should first go now, then go now and then now.

Dhoni for sure knows our plight. His dislike for media was apparent. We know for sure. Sam Ferris will tell you more.

The Fan

Dhoni’s name did rounds in the Kolkata circuits in early 2000s. The reputation was: ‘There is this strong long-haired Samson-like lad from Ranchi who can tonk the ball to the next village.’

A die-hard cricket fanatic teenager, I hoped India had found an Adam Gilchrist, a good ’keeper who could bat and more importantly carry himself well. Gillys are not found in gullys, so even an Alec Stewart would do, I thought.

Deep Dasgupta gave hopes, so did Ajay Ratra for a while…

Parthiv Patel definitely did but the X-factor lacked. Dhoni’s name became frequent in the sports pages and there was hope. The brief scores had already won me over. I knew it was a matter of time.

The India A tour of Kenya reassured the faith. They were televised and watching Dhoni for the first time was delightful. Ganguly’s habit of fine cherry picking worked again.

The rest is history.

Even before Dhoni’s 148 at Visakhapatnam that made parents convince their wards to take up milk, this Dhoni fan would go to Wankhede Stadium to watch the legend-in-making in action in the Challenger’s Trophy in 2004-05.

Little is spoken of the fact that Ganguly, captain of India Seniors, had pushed himself to the middle-order to accommodate Dhoni as the opener along with Shikhar Dhawan.

Dhoni’s 96-ball 102* spoke about his determination and of course skills. He was retired hurt for 87 after cramping up but he came back and ensured a quick finish.

His rise to the top of ICC’s ODI Ranking to captaincy to the win at inaugural World T20 triumph to numerous IPL successes to the six that sealed the World Cup 2011, Dhoni was for folklores.

With every passing calendar, he impressed. Exemplary, aggressive yet calm and a role model material, Dhoni managed to capture the imagination of a nation and beyond, something what a Sachin Tendulkar could.

What always won you over was his self-confidence and attributes of leading from the front.

The Critic

MS Dhoni’s biopic highlights the episode when the captain decides to remove players (unnamed in the movie, but speculated as Ganguly, Dravid and Sehwag) from the ODI side citing their agility.

A player of Ganguly’s stature deserved a better farewell in ODIs. In the pre-Dhoni and Kohli era, no Indian apart from Tendulkar and Kapil Dev had created as much impact as Dada in this format.

Sehwag was extremely special.

A popular Dhoni criticism follows that he had reaped rewards of the seeds sown by Ganguly. Dhoni still had to go out, make the right decisions, and marshal the troops well and more importantly he got the results but during the course there came a barrage of biased decisions. Along with that, Dhoni also had to build up a young brigade from the core, especially in limited-overs cricket.

Some players were given a longer rope than the others. Indian cricket team began resembling Chennai Super Kings (CSK) at one point. The same parameters were never followed. While a few waited in the oblivion, a chosen lot was persisted with because of latent talent factor.

His close association with N Srinivasan and support for Gurunath Meyippan was questionable.

An unfit and vacationing RP Singh’s return to the national side during the England tour of 2011 remains a mystery.

Dhoni’s Test captaincy, especially overseas, was far too defensive. There were impressions of him letting the game drift away.

Not deciding to chase at Dominica, the 0-4 in England, 0-4 in Australia, 0-1 in South Africa, 0-1 in New Zealand, 1-3 again in England and then another series loss in Australia. The results overseas paint a sorry picture of the man who had architected India’s rise to the pinnacle.

In one of my interactions with Mark Waugh during the 2011-12 tour of Australia, he mentioned, “Out of all Indian captains I have seen or played against, I would go to an extent saying that MS Dhoni has been the most disappointing. Indian skippers have always been defensive especially when compared to their Australian counterparts, but still they haven’t been looked as rudderless as Dhoni.”

The handling of VVS Laxman’s retirement, the premature end to Sehwag’s career, his reluctance to move up the order, the way he used Ravichandran Ashwin in 2016 (remember Australia, World T20 semi-final and IPL?), clinging on to captaincy after World Cup 2015 despite Kohli being ready for all formats, have all added to the criticism bit.

***

But wait: Where were my criticisms when he actually stepped down? Why is this sudden sense of void? Why does it seem that a chapter of life has suddenly come to an end? Orphan is a strong word, but why do Team India suddenly seem like Pandavas without Krishna or Kauravas without Bheeshma?

Oh wait, Dhoni will be around. Still as a player. This is a good decision. Dhoni, the free-flowing batsman and the exemplary ’keeper will take guard with a free mind-set.

He hasn’t retired… Not yet. But the clock is ticking and the alarm is set. The time, only he knows or he doesn’t. That can wait for another fine day in another weird hour.

The Leader

Dhoni is cricket’s most successful limited-overs skipper in terms of versatility in Trophy wins.

He is the only captain with all the ICC silverwares in his cabinet along with two Asia Cups (one in either format). He has captained in most international matches. He has 178 international wins to his name and is behind only Ricky Ponting, who has 220, making Dhoni the second-most successful skipper across formats.

Instinctive, calculative, astuteness, calmness, leading by example and a scoop of luck are the ingredients of Dhoni’s successful leadership recipe.

The World T20 triumph in 2007 remains his most spectacular feat. The raised bat and the transfixed gaze at the Mumbai sky to seal the World Cup 2011 will continue to be the most cherished poster even decades later (even centuries). And the Champions Trophy win in 2013 was a further assurance that the instinct remained.

Dhoni will continue to lead with his on-field performance and without an iota of doubt; he will be a guiding force to the young Kohli, who is expected to take up the reins.

In his early days, Dhoni had the Gangulys, Tendulkars, Sehwags and Dravids to guide him. That had benefitted him. So will this to Kohli.

The Man

One of the disappointments of Dhoni’s biopic has been the failed opportunity to capture the man’s thought process, which has been a matter of amusement.

He asked Joginder Sharma to bowl the ultimate overs in a World Cup semi-final and final. Nine years on, he hands Kohli the final over ahead of Ashwin. He backed himself to smack sixes like no other cricketer. Shahid Afridi, the other enigma, does the same, but Dhoni has a more calculative and methodical approach. Of course, it is a method that only he understands. For the audience, it is a culmination of brain and brawn.

***

Dhoni mentored the young Jharkhand side that reached its first Ranji Trophy semi-final; we wonder why Dhoni isn’t playing the tournament in first place. The team crashes out. Dhoni was playing FIFA on Playstation with the young boys minutes before we heard he has given up limited-overs captaincy.

The ODI series against New Zealand, Dhoni’s last assignment ended in October 2016. Did it take him over two months to decide?

He called up a foreign journalist on a podium during a routine press conference to counter-question him as he subtly expressed his desire to play World Cup 2019.

He decided to meet his new-born after almost two months as India were in middle of a World Cup campaign.

Even on field, more often than not he could surprise you with the unexpected.

The biopic does capture his story, the trails and tribulations well but not the bemusing riddle behind the stoic face.

It’s Dhoni, a brain, psychologists would have toiled on. It was a brain beyond Neeraj Pandey. The fault did not lie with the director, for he had chosen the most difficult subject in the country.

Had Dhoni been a serial killer, there would have been another unsolved Jack, the Ripper mystery. For different reasons though because surely there would not have been a pattern.

For all we know, the man has defined leadership in sports and beyond. The man is one of sports’ greatest athletes. The man is an inspiration who has left Indian cricket to a better place than when he took over.

Aayush Puthran, a former colleague, had visited Arunachal Pradesh in 2015 and had written about Dhoni and CSK’s popularity near the China border.

The man from Ranchi has helped a young Lobsang from Itanagar to Pervez from Panipat to Bela from Bankura to Pururava from Punalur believe that dreams come true.

Let the reality dawn upon you. You will never see Dhoni in his blues at the toss again. Rewind to 2004 to 2007, expect the willow-wielding beast to unleash.

An era ends. Another story begins…