‘Hi, I am MS Dhoni.’
This was Dhoni greeting me at the National Cricket Academy premises in Bangalore way back in mid-2004. Dhoni had assembled there along with his team-mates before an India ‘A’ overseas tour.
It was during one of my routine visits to NCA with a nose for news when this cheerful Dhoni came to me. This was my second encounter with the man from Ranchi. The first was at his home ground MECON in Ranchi where, in November 2002, the first season of Ranji Trophy Elite and Plate group format, I had gone to cover a Ranji Trophy match between Karnataka and Bihar, before the formation of Jharkhand.
Though Dhoni did not make any runs in the first innings, he played a blinder of a knock in the second innings to singlehandedly take Bihar out of the doldrums. Though Bihar ended up on the losing side, to me, his 87-ball 93 marked the arrival of Dhoni on the big stage. At the end of that particular day’s play, I hung outside the Bihar dressing room for Dhoni’s quotes about his knock. He may have remembered me from that particular interaction.
What made Dhoni come to me and say ‘I am MS Dhoni’ was perhaps because he understood I was struggling to place him. I was thinking of Maharashtra’s Dheeraj Jadhav, but the face and the name did not match.
Looking at my perplexed I-have-seen-him-somewhere-but-forget-his-name look on my face, Dhoni rightly understood my situation and came to my rescue. By identifying who he was with his trademark smile and long hair firmly in place. From that moment, I have been following Dhoni’s progress carefully.
Perhaps, it was this familiarity that made Dhoni remember the face and not the name in our later encounters. I cannot fault him for not remembering my name. To be recognised in a crowd and be enquired about by the great man itself gives me goose bumps even to this day.
Dhoni may not have given very many interviews to the media. I consider myself fortunate when he agreed to a one-on-one in August 2006 in Bangalore, where the Indian team had assembled for a camp before the tri-series in Sri Lanka. Those were the days when the strict BCCI policies of approaching the team manager or the media manager for interview requests were not yet in vogue. But that did not mean easy access to the players.
At the team hotel, I approached the team liaison officer, whom I knew well from the host association Karnataka State Cricket Association, to let Dhoni know that I was there for an interview. I even told the officer that Dhoni may not know my name but can surely recognise my face and agree for the interview. As it happened, Dhoni, after a swimming pool session, looked at me, recognised me and agreed to the interview by asking me to accompany him to his room for the chat. He even took the recorder from my hand and held it himself like he was speaking on a mic to make me feel comfortable.
Needless to say, that was one of my favourite interviews in my career and it touched upon Dhoni’s personality and what he thought made him popular.
An approach for a second interview in June 2008 in Dhaka was not straightaway denied by Dhoni but met with an assurance that he would do it when he came to Mumbai for a television programme he did with the Indian soldiers. Though that interview never happened, by then I had understood that Dhoni had stopped giving one-on-ones to anyone and that the request for interviews was only growing manifold.
But one cannot fault Dhoni for not giving interviews. He stuck to his guns, like he stood by his players through thick and thin, of either giving interviews to one and all or not to anyone, except where he was obliged to give broadcasters or TV channels due to his commitments.
Though we did not meet regularly, there was exchange of pleasantries whenever our eyes met, even in a crowd. The only way to be able to get Dhoni to speak was to catch his attention as he was usually surrounded by bodyguards, and it was usually at the grounds after a practice session. If one was lucky and he saw you, he would not pass without a shake of hand and a warm ‘Hello, how are you?’ exchange.
But one particular chat extended beyond just a ‘hello, how are you?’ It was in January 2016 in Mumbai at the departure press conference hours before the Indian team left for Australia for a limited-overs series. The press conference hall at a posh hotel in Mumbai was packed and awaiting the arrival of skipper Dhoni. I had just used the washroom and was walking back to my seat when there was a crowd in front of me. Before I could realise, Dhoni was ahead of me smartly dressed in the Team India blazer.
Patting him on the back to catch his attention, Dhoni turned around to see. His first question to me after a pause was, “Hi, are you alright? You look different. What is it?”
I told him I had lost some weight to which he said, “hope it’s on purpose because the only time I lost weight was when I was down with jaundice. Otherwise, I have been maintaining my weight.”
With all eyes on Dhoni and me chatting, the funny side of him was evident when he chuckled to me: “People will be wondering what we are talking, something exclusive that I am giving you,” before taking his place in the front to address the media.
There have been a few other occasions where I have bumped into Dhoni and exchanged more than just pleasantries including one in September 2005 when he had just landed at Mumbai airport and straightaway drove to Cricket Club of India’s CK Nayudu Hall for the launch of the ICC Champions Trophy that was to be held in a few weeks’ time. When I approached him for a chat, he invited me to come to his room at the club premises. These are the moments I will always remember him for, of course besides his exploits on the cricket field. He has been very humble, remembers his roots very well and doesn’t easily forget people who he has come to know.
Of course, knowing Dhoni well did not stop me from criticising him where it was needed. For instance, when he had slowed down in the latter part of his career, especially well after his Test retirement, and was not able to finish off matches like he was known to, I wanted him to call it quits. It was for the simple reason that I could not see him struggling on the field, slowing down in his scoring rate and not being to win matches on his own. I did not want a brilliant career of one of the game’s greatest finishers to be overshadowed for the wrong reasons of not performing consistently with the bat in the last stretch of his career. I wanted him to go when he was on a high and not when people questioned him for not being able to finish off matches in style.
Perhaps, the ideal situation for Dhoni to call it quits from the ODI set up would have been after failing to take India to the final of the 2019 World Cup. After a painstaking fifty and being run out when he found the going tough in that semifinal run-chase against New Zealand at Old Trafford, he would have won a few more hearts by saying good bye from ODIs in the midst of his team-mates, most of whom he has groomed.
I was not at all surprised with the way Dhoni announced his international retirement through an Instagram post this Independence Day. Dhoni always did things in his own way and looked ahead, not behind. It was also not surprising that his close friend Suresh Raina also chose to follow Dhoni and on the same platform, in a reply to Dhoni’s retirement post that also featured a four-minute-seven-second video. To me, Dhoni, Raina along with Irfan Pathan and RP Singh have been the inseparable four when they were together in the team. They were so close to each other that they filled the back seats of the team bus and were always together and had so much fun.
I am sure Dhoni will continue to have fun in his own way and continue to give joy to his millions of fans, young and old, through IPL, as much as he had given throughout his near 15-year international career that has seen him rise high and high as India captain from a small town Ranchi to holding aloft two world titles and the ICC Test No. 1 mace.
Well played, MSD!
G Krishnan is a veteran sports journalist who had worked with DNA, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.