Cricket is a religion in India and its top players are worshipped as Gods by over a billion fans worldwide. The game is followed with such passion and frenzy that people have often quit jobs to watch them play. Success, in this part of the world, is treated with unmatched jubilation and defeat has seen shameful acts such as burning of players' effigies and pelting of houses. Sense is – at times – rare but nobody can deny immense heart and honesty in the followers of the (not so) gentleman's game
Described as the man with the Midas touch, and arguably the greatest hero of the people of this generation is current CSK captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. This man is absolutely loved wherever he goes, drawing people just to see him hit – what is called – the helicopter shot. He is a phenomenon and why should he not be? Under his leadership, the nation won two World Cups, the final one realising the dream of the greatest icon of the game ever, Sachin Tendulkar. He has given India one Champions Trophy and it was also under him that the nation became the best Test side.
He is such a calm man that it is almost impossible to tell what he is thinking. He made his debut as a swashbuckling wicket-keeper who could hit the ball a long way. He had flowing hair and a flashing blade. With time and responsibility, he adapted himself – from long hair to going completely bald, he metamorphosed into the greatest finisher and India's most successful captain. On the field, he oozes leadership and off it, one can hardly find him. He remains humble in victory and magnanimous in defeat. He made the art of unconventional famous by doing things not many would dare to – those little tricks and gambles paid off for him. He, slowly but deservedly, earned the tag of a silent genius.
The most enduring memory for the fans of this age would be MS Dhoni wielding his bat off the 290th ball of the innings to send it flying over long on at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011 – a moment of glory that made over a billion people cry tears of joy after 28 long years. On that fateful night, along with Gautam Gambhir, he had washed away all the sadness and pain of 2007. It was fitting that the man whose under-construction house was brought down by irate fans in 2007 would hit the winning runs in 2011.
Obsession is a young man's game and much like in any other sport, there comes a time when the magic wanes off and the body gives in. It was 2016 and unfortunately, MS Dhoni, poking the wrong the side of 30, found it difficult to adjust to the pace at which the game was evolving. After the semi-final defeat against West Indies in the T20 World Cup, he looked confident of continuing as long as his body permitted him to.
But at the helm of Rising Pune Supergiants in IPL 2016, not too much went right for him. He was not the same man when it came to finishing games and himself admitted that his scoring rate had suffered. His favourite men failed to deliver when he required them to. His trump card was going through the inevitable low everyone does and his gambles were not coming off. His stars, the biggest ally according to the more superstitious, seemed to desert him too.
On May 7, 2016, for the first time in my life, I saw a dejected MS Dhoni. He tried his best to not show his emotions. But for someone who has seen him give interviews for the past nine years as captain, one could almost sense a heavy cloud of resignation. MS Dhoni, the legend, looked a forlorn man. "Every time I turn up for practice, I am getting hurt or injured. So I am now fighting against time as to when the final blow will come," he had said in the post-match interview after the defeat to RCB.
These words had made my stomach uneasy and sent a shiver down my spine as my heart started uncharacteristically aching. Many questions started popping in my head – are we watching the greatest contributor to India's trophy cabinet run his final lap? Is it a really a case of mind saying no but the spirit carrying him on? Will he be able to go on and play his last World Cup in 2019? Or is it the right time for that tear-laden passing the torch moment? He had given so much to Indian cricket so selflessly – we were talking about a man who did not go to see his new-born daughter so that he could take the misfiring Indian bowling unit to a camp to prepare them for the world cup in 2015.
These questions carried on for quite a while until Dhoni put on the yellow of CSK he absolutely loves. There are no words to describe his affinity for the franchise – the man who did not publicly shed a tear after winning a World Cup was choking with emotions while talking about CSK when they were reinstated in 2018 following the two-year suspension. And the story completely changed hence – from 'finished' to once again finishing matches, Dhoni was turning back the proverbial clock.
Recently, after a long break, Dhoni managed to reawaken the bank of dependability in Indian blue too as he won the man of the series in Australia a few months ago. While it is certain that the captain is nearing his end, he showed in CSK yellow on April 21, he has enough left in him to delay that end. He also showed that if push comes to shove in England – and push will come to shove – he can win it for India, if not take them close.
But at 37, something tells me his time is coming. And I keep repeating the same question, when is it time? Only he knows. The one thing that is for sure is when the time is right – for the nation, not for him – he will quietly walk away into the horizon. He will do it so unassumingly that nobody will know. No warnings. No pomp. No show. No testimonial. He will play his last match and like every time, step aside from the limelight on the podium. Only this time, he will never step on it again.
MS Dhoni will not only go down as the greatest captain, wicket-keeper and finisher but also as India's greatest mystery that will never be solved.