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captain cool-from railway ticket collector to cricket icon

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NEW DELHI: When Mahendra Singh Dhoni smashed the six that won the World Cup for India in 2011, it instantly became an iconic moment in cricket and established the man who started out as a railway ticket collector as one of the game’s greats.

Hard-hitting, unruffled no matter the pressure, the record of ‘Captain Cool’ — and India’s most successful captain — will be virtually impossible to beat.

Holding the inaugural World T20 trophy in Johannesburg, in a half-sleeved India vest in 2007 and hitting that six in the World Cup final against Sri Lanka at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium will forever remain etched amongst the most memorable Dhoni moments.

Many will remember him as an accumulator of runs after being appointed India’s one-day captain in 2007, but it was his style which set Dhoni apart.

From humble beginnings in the eastern city of Ranchi, before working as a ticket collector on the railways in Kharagpur in West Bengal, to Indian cricket’s poster boy with a fleet of superbikes, Dhoni’s life has even been chronicled in a Bollywood biopic.

His countless endorsement deals and TV ads not only made him a sports superstar to rival Sachin Tendulkar but also put him in the Forbes list of the world’s richest athletes.

In 2015, his income was estimated to be $31 million.

But he had to keep up the success on the field to fuel such a lifestyle.

The crestfallen look on Dhoni’s face was beamed across the subcontinent as the then 23-year-old — his silky black mane cascading on his broad shoulders — appeared gutted after a nightmarish international debut in 2004.

Dhoni had fallen for a first ball duck in Chittagong, and in the cruellest of manner — run out.

For much of the next decade-and-half, Dhoni subjected rivals to such agonies — from behind the stumps, with the bat, and as a shrewd captain of a highly successful team.

Three and half months after that forgettable debut, Dhoni announced his arrival with a breath-taking 148 off 123 balls against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam.

He wielded the willow like a mace and his batting was less technique and more pyrotechnic. He did not have the steely defence of a Rahul Dravid or the silken touch of a V.V.S. Laxman but Dhoni made up with his muscular ingenuity.

He converted the yorker into a scoring opportunity with his trademark ‘helicopter shot’, a culmination of violent convulsions involving his arm, wrists and torso.

Dhoni wrote his own keeping manual too, barely moving hands sideways before gathering the ball and rather thrusting them down to pull off electric stumpings.

N. Srinivasan, the industrialist who owns the Chennai Super Kings, where Dhoni will remain captain in the Indian Premier League, hailed him as the supreme ‘instinct’ player.

“We’re awash with data just now,” Srinivasan said in a recent interview. “They play videos of every batsman whom they’re going to come against and they see how he got out, what’s his strength, what’s his weakness etc.

“So, MS Dhoni doesn’t attend this, he’s a pure instinct man. The bowling coach, [head coach Stephen] Fleming will be there and everybody will be there, everyone is giving opinions, [but] he’ll get up and go,” Srinivasan said. “In the context of instinct, he feels that okay he can assess a batsman or player on the field, that’s his judgement.”

It is a style that helped Dhoni lead India to the top of the sport after their World Cup triumphs.

His ‘keep them guessing’ tactics also left fans in frustration over the past year as they waited to see whether Dhoni, who turned 39 in July, would play in the national blue jersey again. While India waited for a word from the master, Dhoni went off to serve with the army reserve unit where he is an honorary lieutenant colonel.

But despite his remarkable finishing skills in the middle-order, excellent glove work and sharp reading of the game, it has become increasingly clear that Dhoni would have to let Virat Kohli take complete control.

He stepped down from the limited-overs captaincy in 2017 on the pretext of preparing Kohli as a leader but continued to play a big part in the team’s decision making process.

Kohli never shied away from relying on the experience of Dhoni, who was often seen calling the shots from behind the stumps.

India coach Ravi Shastri said that Dhoni’s impact on the team had been ‘massive’ and the communication with Kohli ‘fantastic’. “As a keeper, he has shown over the years that no one is better than him in this format, not just in taking catches, inflicting run-outs or stumpings.”

Dhoni was appointed Test skipper after Anil Kumble’s retirement in 2008 and to lead the team across formats.

He led by example scoring 4,876 runs including six centuries and 33 fifties in a nine-year Test career that began in 2005 against Sri Lanka.

Dhoni stunned the cricket world by quitting Tests in 2014 after finishing as the country’s most successful skipper in the five-day format with 27 wins in 60 matches. But he is also one of the most successful captains in the IPL and led Chennai to three titles in the money-spinning franchise tournament and eight runner-up finishes.

He was furious after Chennai were banned for two seasons in 2015 along with Rajasthan Royals when team officials were found guilty of involvement in illegal gambling.

“The biggest crime that I can commit is not a murder, it is actually match-fixing,” Dhoni said of the ban. His fans stood by him and Chennai won the title on their return.

Dhoni’s penchant for taking inspiring decisions was best illustrated in the tense final of the 2007 World Cup, when he famously asked an unheralded Joginder Sharma to bowl the final over in a tactical masterstroke against Pakistan.

He also transformed himself into a formidable ‘finisher’, securing India’s 2011 World Cup victory by hitting a six in the final against Sri Lanka.

Age, however, appeared to catch up with him in the World Cup in England last year. He struggled to time the ball even against mediocre attacks and failed to provide the late assault that he once routinely delivered.

Known for his fondness for bikes and military fatigue, Dhoni’s stellar career inspired a 2016 biopic ‘M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story’ which was a roaring box office success.

Such has been his influence that Kohli still considers Dhoni his captain.

“The world has seen achievements, I’ve seen the person. Thanks for everything skip. I tip my hat to you,” Kohli said on Twitter.

And MS led a cricket-mad nation of 1.3 billion with ice in his veins.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2020

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