MS Dhoni

MS Dhoni — The man who led India in the World Cup win after 28 years in 2011 was a football goalkeeper during his school days © Getty Images

Derek Abraham traces the journey of Ranchi’s, rather Jharkhand’s, most famous citizen. MS Dhoni’s first coach and favourite teacher in school enthralls with stories you have never heard before.

It’s about 7.30 am and it’s cold in Ranchi. So cold that even thermal innerwear, a (borrowed) winter jacket and a skull cap struggle to keep you warm. Flagging an autorickshaw isn’t an option. Your palms are freezing. Where are the gloves? You obviously forgot to pack them.

Understandably, the palms prefer to stay in the pockets. The autowallah is godsend. “Kahaan jayenge? Sharing ya akele (Where are you headed? Travelling alone or you want to share an autorickshaw)?

You choose the easy way out. Not because your trip is paid for, but because you don’t want seven others to crush you in a four-seater. The early morning breeze only makes matters worse. “Dhoni ke school jaana hain? MECON Colony, Shyamali. Ek sau bees rupaiyya (Want to go to Dhoni’s school? Pay up Rs 120).

Thanks to Google Maps, you know the man is not bluffing. But Rs 120 for a 6 km ride? You feel sorry for Mumbai’s autowallahs!

You think of ways to beat the cold. Cigarette? The palms refuse to oblige. Moreover, you can’t walk into a school reeking of smoke! You approach a ‘gol-chakkar’ and the auto takes a sharp right turn.

Yeh MECON Colony hain,” he says (This is MECON Colony).

Metallurgical & Engineering Consultants India Limited is a — ‘miniratna’ (you surely know of the ‘navaratnas’)  — PSU under the steel ministry. Pan Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s father, was a pump guard in the town administration committee at MECON. The colony is self-sufficient. And it’s huge. Dhoni grew up right here. He now lives in an elegant bungalow in Harmu. Wonder who lives in his old house in the ‘M’ Block quarters.

The rickshaw finally pulls up. The watchman at the gate puts his whistle to good use. He scolds the driver and tells him to park a little ahead. You quickly pay up and get off the vehicle. You tell the old man you are a teacher. He smiles; he’s a sport. You tell him you have an appointment with the principal. He guides you to the waiting area. A stupid question puts him off, though. “Arre Dhoni ko hum nursery se jaante hain. Humare saamne bada hua hain ladka,” he says (We know Dhoni since his nursery days. We saw him grow up).

He’s been manning those gates for 30 years now. He can’t be lying.

The school’s uniform is simple but tasteful — navy blue trousers for boys and skirt for girls, white shirt, navy blue tie with yellow stripes, navy blue blazer with a metallic gold-coloured buttons, navy blue socks and black shoes. And if you are still feeling cold, then you are allowed to put on a (navy blue) sweater.

AK Singh, the vice-principal, greets you. The principal, DR Singh, will retire soon and AK Singh will take over. He is proud of Dhoni, but rues that the school is famous only because of him. “We have produced 4,000 IITians and 2,000 doctors. Also, I feel sorry for hockey and kabaddi. It’s pitiable.” You can’t but agree.

He then comes to the point. “So you want to meet Dhoni’s coach and teachers?” You nod. He looks for Banerjee sir. “Banerjee sir made Dhoni what he is. Genius!”

Woh rahe Banerjee sir,” says an onlooker. (There goes Banerjee sir).

This is the man (Keshab Ranjan Banerjee) who first identified Dhoni’s talent. This is the man one who persuaded Dhoni to give up goalkeeping and take up wicket-keeping. This is the man who gave India a World Cup-winning captain after 28 years.

A product of the prestigious Lakshmibai National University of Physical Education (Gwalior), Banerjee has been with the school for 27 years. Success has many godfathers. Every other person you meet in Ranchi says he knows of someone who has mentored or coached Dhoni. But you feel happy you are talking to the right man. Banerjee starts to narrate the story that eventually changed the fortunes of Indian cricket.
“Mahi [Dhoni] was the goalkeeper of our football team. He was in Std VI. That’s when I first saw him. Our wicketkeeper was in Std XI and so I was looking for a replacement. Mahi was very agile and skillful, diving all over the place,” he recalls.

Banerjee had also seen him play cricket during PT periods and realised he was an “excellent fielder” but a “crazy batsman” who threw his bat at everything. So he asked Dhoni if he wanted to be a wicketkeeper. “Chance milega kya?” was the boy’s immediate query? (Will I get a chance?)

What the hell, Banerjee wondered. “I was stunned. I said I’d first take a look at him and then decide.”
He eventually made it and played a few matches representing the school in the Ranchi inter-district tournament in 1997. And once the senior wicketkeeper passed out of school, Dhoni got the job, full-time. “Dhoni’s wicketkeeping technique resembles machli ka moo (fish mouth),” Banerjee says (see pics) before laughing out loud. “Even now, I see him collecting the ball like this. That’s the football technique. But it’s fine because he is comfortable with it.”

Dhoni used to bat at No 8 or 9 initially. “We used to play on matting wickets. He used to come up with scores of 15, 20, not more, but it didn’t bother me because he was a tailender.” But by the time he was in Std VIII, Banerjee promoted him. By Std X, he was batting at No 3 or 4. For the record, the school emerged champions from 1996 to 2003, seven years on the trot.

The turning point of Dhoni’s career, Banerjee says, was a match in 1998-99. “We were playing Kendriya Vidyalaya (Hinoo) in the final and I instructed our openers, Shabir Hussain and Sanjeev Kumar, to bat sensibly. Dhoni came up to me and said he wants to open. I thought he was joking.”

Dhoni wasn’t. Banerjee agreed but on one condition. “No one else will pad up. You guys will bat out the 40 overs.” Dhoni agreed. And he scored an unbeaten double hundred, inclusive of 18 sixes! Hussain, his childhood friend who later played Ranji Trophy, made a ton as Jawahar Vidya Mandir posted close to 350. “We bowled them out for less than 150,” Banerjee says. “Woh ziddi tha (he was stubborn), but he was also analytical. Always thinking. Always asking questions.”

Banerjee also remembers how Dhoni cleared the longest boundary — 95 metres he says — time and again. “On one occasion, the ball entered the courtyard of someone’s house. I rang the bell and our own teacher, Mrs Parvati Mishra, opened the door. We didn’t know she lived there. I told her the boys were playing the final and she actually came and sat with us in the tent.”

In those days, players like Dhoni also represented PSUs for “stipend”. On one occasion, MECON, his father’s employers, refused to take him on board. But Steel Authority of India did. “A few years later, he quit SAIL and joined Central Coalfield Ltd. MECON approached him, but he turned down their offer. He never forgets those who have helped him. Also, doesn’t forget things.”

Banerjee then walks you to the staff room. “You must meet this madam. She knows everything about Mahi the student.” Sarmishta Kumar is an adorable lady. You take her blessings. “I taught him in Std XI and XII. He was a very disciplined boy, very polite, soft-spoken. So lovable. He was so thin,” she gushes. She’s been here for 23 years.

Once, she scolded Dhoni for “bunking school” for 11 days. “I asked him what he planned to do with his life. He didn’t say a word. In fact, he acted as if he deserved to be reprimanded. That’s when Gautam (Upadhyay, another of Dhoni’s bum-chums) told me ‘madam, he scored a hundred for the school and that I should congratulate him’.”

Madam Sarmishta recalls the day Dhoni’s visited the school a few years ago. “He hugged me in front of everybody and quietly whispered, ‘madam, I want to go to my class (XII G)’. He obliged every student with an autograph and later asked me to get him a permanent school ID card so that he could come over and sit in my class whenever he wanted!” Apparently, every girl of the class offered Mahi bhaiyya (elder brother) a seat! “It was so hilarious.”

The accountancy and business studies teacher — Dhoni was a commerce student — explains how Dhoni made her feel shy and special at the same time. “All of us were at the main gate to see him off. He came up to me and said, ‘madam, today I will drop you home’. I advised him against it because everyone including the principal was watching. But he held my hand and took me along. About 2,500 students saw this.” In the car, she asked him if he wanted to come over for dinner. “Call the boys too, I said. And Mahi being Mahi said, ‘madam, why only boys!’”

The teacher hasn’t seen Dhoni since that day, but “it doesn’t matter”. “My prayers are with him. I know he values me, all his teachers in fact. That’s all we ask for.”

Ditto with Banerjee sir. “Everyone thinks I am in constant touch with him. That’s not my style. Dhoni is what he is only because of his hard work and luck. You know what, I don’t even have a ticket for Saturday’s match. But how does it matter?”

Banerjee then takes you to Vivek Raj and Nayan Barla, two fast-bowling all-rounders. Both are U-16 players representing the school. “After seeing Mahibhaiyya, we have decided not to focus too much on our studies. For us, life is cricket. Mahi bhaiyya sends us eight pairs of tracksuits every year. Those who win on sports day get those. He has also promised to ‘treat’ the cricket team. We won the inter-district crown this year.”

There is also a story that Dhoni had feelings for a pretty girl, a junior of his, before he played for India. But she never gave a damn. Wonder what she thinks now! Banerjee sir and Sarmishta madam, though, deny the story. “Mahi was never lovey-dovey.”

You are reminded of your school days.

(The writer is Principal Correspondent at DNA, where the above article first appeared)