Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Dhoni phenomenon

He is the newest poster boy of the cricket world. A daredevil with a pleasing demeanour, his understanding of the game has made him a force to reckon with, writes Gopal Sharma

Mahendra Singh DhoniAt a time when the Indian cricket team is in the transition period with so many young and talented players from unknown places making their presence felt, the charismatic Mahendra Singh Dhoni has come as a whiff of fresh air. He has invigorated the Indian team buffeted by the departure of Sourav Ganguly, recurring injuries to Sachin Tendulkar and the indifferent form of Virender Sehwag. The success of Dhoni has been the single most important factor in India winning 22 ODIs out of the 32 they have played under Greg Chappell.

Taking No 1 spot in the ICC’s ODI rankings, ahead of established players like Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Rahul Dravid and Andrew Flintoff, not only speaks about Dhoni’s consistency but also his growing stature in international cricket as a feared batsman. In the last 33 one-dayers that he has played, Dhoni averages nearly 60, while the figure for Ponting and Dravid hovers around 46 per match. Even after playing 42 ODIs and completing 1000 runs, his strikes rate is well over 100, a feat unmatched by any contemporary batsman.

Barely 16 months old on the international scene, the 24-year-old from Jharkhand has already achieved iconic status. The inimitable but flamboyant style of his batting, willingness to adapt, down-to-earth attitude and the all-pervasive grin on an unconventional visage make him a true superstar.

Dhoni’s has been a meteoric rise. Finding a parallel — somebody having achieved as much for his team and himself in such a short period — will be an extremely tough job.

Dhoni announced his arrival at the international level loud and clear. Playing only his fifth one-day match, Dhoni blitzed Pakistan with a belligerent 123-ball 148 to author India’s comprehensive victory at Visakhapatnam. The innings, the highest by an Indian wicketkeeper at that time, put the match out of the reach of the rivals after the first innings itself, propelling India to a whopping 356.

Dhoni had a fruitful tour of Zimbabwe in 2005 in Videocon Triseries with New Zealand as the third team. He notched up a couple of useful half centuries as well as gave a good display behind the wickets to prove that he was a wicketkeeper-batsman worth relying upon.

But what dashing Dhoni did against Sri Lanka in Jaipur in the October 2005 series one-dayer was something unbelievable. Bludgeoning the hapless Sri Lankan attack, Dhoni struck 183 not out, the highest score by a wicketkeeper in ODIs and the sixth best overall. It rained sixes (he clobbered 10) as Dhoni levelled Sourav Ganguly’s 183 (vs Sri Lanka) but fell short of Sachin Tendulkar’s 186 not out, the highest score by an Indian in ODIs. Such was Dhoni’s domination that had there been more runs on the board, he might have overtaken Sayeed Anwar’s record of 194, the highest individual score in the history of the game.

In the subsequent away series in Pakistan, Dhoni proved a thorn in Pakistan’s flesh and played a stellar role as India registered a 4-1 series victory.

What stands out in the case of Dhoni as a successful batsman is his composure and uncluttered mind. Supreme confidence that he exudes while facing the likes of Shoaib Akhtar comes as much from his inherent skill as it does from the hard grind and toil that he underwent in the domestic cricket during the past couple of seasons. His ability to hit the ball long and hard facing fast bowlers or spinners alike is not new to those who have followed his progress at the domestic level or when playing for India A. Hitting a bowler as pacy as Mohammad Sami for successive straight sixes or digging out a yorker off a similar bowler for the same result requires special ability and confidence, which, Dhoni, fortunately, has in plenty. No wonder, he has established himself as a clinical destroyer of a bowling attack.

Dhoni’s saga of success is nothing short of a fairytale. It is all about the evolution of a small-town boy striking it rich in a sport where the performer is under constant public gaze. Despite receiving so much adulation from media as well as cricket lovers and having corporate houses making a beeline after him, Dhoni has kept his feet firmly rooted to the ground.

Blessed as he is with a sound cricket brain, Dhoni is transforming into a batsman who is willing to play the waiting game whenever needed and come out triumphant. He is proving to be a fine judge of the existing situation and has shown the ability to anchor the innings. Nothing illustrates it better than the Jamshedpur match against England, where he opened the innings in the sweltering heat. Though he was unlucky to miss out on a well-deserved century, he paced his innings beautifully. Coming good of Dhoni as a dependable wicketkeeper and all-rounder flexible enough to bat at any slot has given the Indian team an option to go in the game with five bowlers.

Keeping wickets for 50 overs and then shouldering the responsibility of being the key batsman in side can be the most demanding in one-day cricket. With so much of cricket being played these days, there’s always a danger of fatigue, burnout or injuries. With the World Cup in the West Indies 10 months away, the likes of Dhoni need to handled with care. Inzamam termed Dhoni "murderous" after his exploits with the bat in Pakistan and observed that Dhoni would be a player to be watched in the 2007 World Cup. The burly skipper said it because Dhoni averaged 219 in the five-match series and was the key player for India in the victories at Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi.

Ranchi rocker

M.S. Unnikrishnan traces the beginnings and making of the star cricketer, who comes from a middle class family, whose first love was football and who’s crazy about fast bikes

Hair to stay
Ramandeep Singh

Mahendra Singh DhoniDhoni's hair is as much in the news as his explosive batting. His wicket-keeping is taken for granted. So he is known for other things-his batting and hair. In India, everything a player does is put under the scanner by the fans. Dhoni's hair is no exception and is much talked about. The way Dhoni started his international career, his hair is surely his lucky charm, just as a red handkerchief brought good luck to Aussie great Steve Waugh, who carried it in his pocket throughout his career.

Therefore, Dhoni may not shorten his hair in the near future, including for reasons commercial. Who knows if he tinkers with his top, he may suffer loss of form. But what if he loses form with his crowning glory intact?

Dhoni's locks are quite the rage in Jamshedpur, with youngsters queuing outside his favourite salon. Even his hairdresser, Dilip Kumar, has decided to don the 'Dhoni look' after giving the 'Dhoni cut' to more than 100 diehard Dhoni fans.

When India toured Pakistan earlier this year, his Pakistani fans, and that includes President Pervez Musharraf, were bowled over by Dhoni's exploits with the bat and also by his hair. Musharraf advised him to keep his long hair intact at a time when there were calls in the media asking Dhoni to crop them.

Indian cricketers are not known for flamboyance other than with the bat or the ball. But Dhoni has changed that. What matters is that Dhoni is winning matches for Team India, and often when it looks like defeat is just a hair's breadth away.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni might never have become a cricketer had he not been a talented football goalkeeper. The NIS football coach at DAV School in Ranchi, Kesava Ranjan Banerjee, was so impressed with Dhoni’s goal-keeping skills, particularly his flexibility and agility under the bar, that he wanted him to play a sport which would provide him a wider exposure and better prospects.

So when the coach got a call from Chanchal Bhattacharya, a sports journalist with Ranchi Express, to spare a player to don the gloves for his cricket club Commando, Banerjee suggested the name of Dhoni. Though Chanchal was sceptical about fielding a football goalie behind the wickets for a Ranchi League match, he took a chance and decided to test the words of the football coach that young Dhoni would not fail him. And soon enough the coach was proved right. Dhoni was a revelation as wicketkeeper.

In Chanchal’s words "Dhoni kept wickets like a seasoned campaigner in the very first match", and he became a regular with Commando. The ‘Symonds’ kit bag gifted by the Commando club to Dhoni was the first-ever cricket gear worn by the player.

Dhoni stayed with Commando from 1995 to 1998 to chisel his game, and the experience stood him in good stead when he played higher-grade cricket in various age groups.

The limited circumstances under which Dhoni learned cricket has made him a dogged fighter with the strength and determination to overcome all odds. In his formative years, Dhoni played cricket with canvas balls as cricket balls and even tennis balls were beyond his reach. But with inborn talent and focus on the game, he soon became a name to be reckoned with in the cricketing world.

Chanchal Bhattacharya was to play the role of a catalyst in Dhoni’s cricketing career yet again. When Dhoni was selected for the Bihar team to play in the Vinoo Mankad Trophy Under-16 Championship in Delhi, Chanchal accompanied the team as coach. In the first match against Gujarat, Dhoni did such a splendid job behind and in front of the wicket that Bihar had no problem sweeping aside Gujarat. From then on, Dhoni’s career-graph rose rapidly, helping him break into the Indian team.

Cricket did not figure in Dhoni’s wish-list when he took to sports as a Class VI student at DAV School, Ranchi. The capital of the fledgling state of Jharkhand had few facilities for cricket. Most boys played either football or hockey as these were the easiest options available. Dhoni had opted for badminton and football, which he played at the district and club level, respectively. (He played as the goalkeeper of the Shynati Football Academy when he was in Class VII).

But, as it turned out, eventually cricket became his calling. He proved to be a "natural" on turf wickets. Dhoni learned most of his cricketing lessons on matting tracks, "pinned to the ground", but adjusted quite easily to turf when he went out to play for his club, and for district and state teams. Though cricket facilities remain more or less primitive in Ranchi, Dhoni has become a rage, an icon, the most recognised face in the state. Young boys swear by him, and the dream of every child who plays cricket in Ranchi, is to become a Dhoni clone. His handsome looks, six-foot-two-inch height, long locks, cheerful persona, and love for bikes have endeared him to one and all. Born on July 7, 1981, Dhoni, whose parents migrated from Uttaranchal years ago, is the best thing that has happened to Jharkhand sports, nay Indian cricket.

But despite attaining cricket stardom, the 24-year-old remains the "Mahi" of old for Ranchiites. He still listens to old Hindi songs of Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar. His innate shyness, simplicity and discipline are attributes not many cricket stars can be associated with today. A great fan of Adam Gilchrist, Dhoni’s ambition is to ‘keep’ like the Aussie.

Sabeer Hussain, a close friend of Dhoni, who has known the Dhoni family for the past 10 years, and who runs an advertising agency in Ranchi, says the cricketer still mingles with his old classmates and cricket pals when he is in Ranchi.

To do his bit for his town, the cricketer readily agreed to lend his name for the "School Chalein Hum" campaign to be launched by the administration. The school dropout rate in Ranchi, incidentally, is around 45 per cent. Dhoni and film actor Farooq Sheikh would be the brand ambassadors of this socially relevant campaign, which would motivate dropouts to go back to schools.

Sabeer Hussain says Dhoni has not forgotten his humble background, and the path he strode to excel in the game. He has shed sweat and tears to break into the Indian team and would now like to take cricket from the metros to the villages. He believes that many more "Dhonis" are waiting to be discovered in the interiors of the country.

Dhoni’s father Pan Singh worked as lower division clerk with Mecon, and lived in the Mecon quarters, at Ranchi. Dhoni’s father, mother Devaki Devi, sister Jayanti Gupta and brother Narendra still live at E-25 in the Mecon quarters though Mecon has gifted Dhoni a flat after he became a star player. Another flat for Dhoni is being built by a private company on the Ratu Road, which will be ready for occupation in 2007, besides the 10,000 sq-ft plot allotted to him by the Jharkhand Government at the Harmu Housing Colony in Ranchi.

Dhoni’s stardom has made him rich beyond his dreams. He commands a price upward of Rs 50 lakh for an endorsement, and he has already bagged about 10 high profile campaigns.

Yet, Dhoni remains down to earth. "Dhoni is still very shy and humble. He opens up only before his very close friends," adds Sabeer. Dhoni’s passion for speed is well known to people of Ranchi, with his Rs 10 lakh Yamaha dream machine being the envy of his young fans. Till not so long ago, he could be spotted speeding around on it on the roads of Ranchi. But now his celebrity status has made him discreet and cautious. With well-wishers advising him against high speeding, the cricketer now drives a black Scorpio and Pajero but bikes continue to remain a passion with him. No wonder then Dhoni’s idol is Bollywood glamour boy John Abraham, whose craze for bikes is well known too.

Dhoni believes that his long hair has brought him luck in cricket, and he plans to keep it long, at least till the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies.

When Harbhajan Singh was presented a 150cc TVS bike after being adjudged the man of the match in the first one-dayer against England in Delhi, it was Dhoni who did the "test drive".