Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.
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One of the highest paid sportsmen in the world, India cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni once needed the kindness of his friends for a good meal

Ranchi is not a blazing example of the new India. But it is getting there. People in offices fret over ‘connectivity’. At least one eatery is called a ‘ristorante’, like the Romans do. Malls have begun to sprout.

Ranchi is the capital of Jharkhand and the hometown of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The Indian captain’s current home is in Mecon Colony. Mecon is an engineering and contracting public sector undertaking where Dhoni’s father, Pan Singh, held a modest job in the lower rungs of management. Pan Singh started his career as an unskilled labourer. Unlike the busier parts of Ranchi, time stands still at Mecon Colony. It is a quiet, green neighbourhood. Houses are low and flat. Like dachshunds. The Dhoni home even has a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign.

Here, Pan Singh and his wife, Devki Devi, have gone about their routine in unassuming fashion. Yet, there are some changes now.

Tricks and Treats

Neighbours who earlier minded Pan Singh plucking flowers for the pooja from their garden now say, “Take the tree if you want.” And guards are ever present outside. They are there not only to handle nosy reporters but also the more dangerous Maoist rebels or terrorists who are a threat to Dhoni and his family.

The heartwarming thing about a person’s success is that it doesn’t just affect the lives of people close to him, but also those on the fringes of his circle. Hriday Das Goswami is a waiter at Nunu Hotel, a dhaba nearly 50 km away from Ranchi on the highway to Jamshedpur. ‘Dhoni bhaiyya’, who has a thing for hearty dhaba meals in the company of friends, has been going there for years. When he visits now, a special table is arranged in the backyard, near an idol of Lord Shiva. Das Goswami, or a few select staff like him, serve Dhoni one of his favourite meals—chilly chicken boneless, butter naan and a mango drink. Dhoni then leaves behind a tip. Once, Das Goswami says, the tip was Rs 6,000.

The owner of Nunu hotel is Sanjay Mukherjee. He is probably in his 40s. He has had a tough life. As a youngster he sold Mumbai maps and city guides at Victoria Terminus. He then went back to Ranchi and worked at Nunu Hotel. He did well. In 2007, for his son’s thread ceremony, Dhoni gifted him a Maruti Swift. Looking at Mukherjee’s stained clothes and unshaven face, you wouldn’t know that he owns a Mahindra Scorpio and a Tata Safari. Mukherjee politely declined the gift. But that is beside the point, which is that Dhoni has a magnanimous spirit and his success has provided him the means to exercise it.

These stories illustrate how far, how quickly Dhoni has risen. Not so long ago, he couldn’t pay for a humble meal. Often, at the end of a long day involving two or three matches, it was ‘Mahi’s’ friends who bought him dinner. The same Dhoni now tips and gifts extraordinarily.

Up, Up and Away

The speed of his progress is evident in his cricketing record too. In four years of playing for India, he has led India to two keynote triumphs—the World Twenty:20 and the CB Series. He became the ICC One-day Player of 2008. Already the one-day skipper, he became, with Anil Kumble’s retirement, the Test cricket boss as well. At one stage, Dhoni’s captaincy record was four wins out of four tests. Four wins is as many as Kapil Dev and Ajit Wadekar could achieve.

“Dhoni has won too much for it to be attributed to beginner’s luck, but it will take at least two more years till we can call him a great captain,” says cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle. “Right now, it’s not fair to put him in that bracket.” Bhogle rates Sourav Ganguly as the best Indian captain since the time he started covering cricket, which was in the early 1990s.

Bhogle sees similarities between Ganguly and Dhoni: “Dhoni is doing what Ganguly did in the early 2000s—backing players. Zaheer has turned the corner beautifully under him. Dhoni also backed Gautam Gambhir when he was really low in 2007, assuring him of his place in the T20 side. He is street smart. Against England in Mohali, Zaheer and Ishant took a wicket each in the first two overs. Dhoni gave the third to Yuvraj. Kevin Pietersen was at the crease and Dhoni knew he had a panga (run-in) with Yuvi.”

After his final Test in Nagpur, Ganguly said this about Dhoni’s captaincy. “He has that extra bit of luck you need. But there will be greater tests for MS, especially when he takes the team abroad.”

A swift ascent isn’t necessarily a painless one. Those days, Pan Singh would rather his younger son put his mind to studies. Dhoni’s elder brother, Narendra, an academic underachiever, took time to get his life in order. Pan Singh did not want the same fate for Mahi. In fact, there is talk of a father-son conflict over Dhoni’s cricket during that anxious phase. Pan Singh admitted to a magazine that he was “extremely apprehensive” about Dhoni’s sporting ambitions. The boy got his encouragement from his mother.

“At times, the school matches would be in the exam season, and I would ask his father if he minded Dhoni playing,” says KR Banerjee, Dhoni’s coach. “He would say he didn’t as long as Dhoni got good marks. Dhoni would assure me that he would, if not 100 on 100 then at least enough to pass.” Banerjee says Dhoni scored in the region of 55 per cent in his class-12 commerce board examination. “Woh bhi khel ke (That too while playing). He is not a dull boy.”

Nor one distracted by girls. “Never. He was content playing cricket and hanging out with friends,” says Banerjee.

On the way to Nunu Hotel, I visited Keenan Stadium in the vast JRD Tata Sports Complex at Jamshedpur. It was overcast. In the distance, chimneys from the local Tata Steel factory rose into the grey sky, emitting smoke—reminding you for some reason of some bleak arthouse movie. I met Kajal Das, the Jharkhand team coach. An ample, towering man. He brought to mind Eddie Murphy of The Nutty Professor. Das was coach when Dhoni played for Jharkhand. I asked him about Dhoni’s angst-filled phase.

Positive Attitude

“He was a bit down then, he was stuck,” Das says. “But he didn’t let it show. He is a positive person. Zero karega, toh aise chal ke aayega, 100 karega toh bhi aise chal ke aayega.” (Whether he scores zero or 100, he walks back in the same manner).

Still, Dhoni made it. Vacancies are precious in team sports, especially for a role as specialised as wicket-keeping. Brad Haddin had to wait in the wings till Adam Gilchrist bowed off the stage. It was Dhoni’s good fortune that in 2004 a wicketkeeper’s job became available. Soon, he was given the ultimate responsibility—captaincy.

Some believe one of the reasons Dhoni was made captain was that he does not pick up cudgels against the Board. But there can be no denying his own qualities. “He is a real captain who leads from the front,” Imran Khan tells me. “He is daring, takes risks. He is not scared of losing. Dhoni is going to be one of the best captains in Indian and international cricket.” Well before Kumble announced his retirement, Ian Chappell was advocating that Dhoni be made Test captain. Ravi Shastri has sung Dhoni’s praise for long.

Those who have known him for years vouch for his leadership skills. “He reads the game,” says Manish Vardhan, the Jharkhand captain. “We were playing Kerala once,” he recounts, “The wicket was grassy. They had a strong pace attack with bowlers like Sreesanth and Tinu Yohannan. I was struggling against the bouncer. I was only thinking about the bouncer. But Dhoni told me that the ball  needed to watch out for was Sreesanth’s yorker. Both of us got runs.”

There are trend-bucking things about Dhoni. He did not receive orthodox cricket coaching in his formative years. Coach Banerjee, who holds a master’s degree in cricket and football from the National Institute of Physical Education (NIPE), Jhansi, did not alter Dhoni’s fundamental styles much, be it wicketkeeping or batting. “His style is his own, it’s not grammatical,” Banerjee says. The coach saw early that the boy, a football goalkeeper to start with, had no fear. “He dived even when there were stones on the ground.” It’s only after a flick that the follow through of a right-handed batsman can end on his right hand side. But in Dhoni’s case this happens with other strokes too. His eccentricity also extends to his decisions, like opting out of the Tests in Sri Lanka due to fatigue.

Gaining captaincy in 2007 added another improbable element to his story. He became India’s first wicket-keeper captain. What’s more, he went on to become one of the most successful wicket-keeper captains in the game.

Restless to Lead

Wicket-keepers are rarely made captain. They work hardest on the field, squatting down and up after every delivery, often running up to the stumps to collect a throw or to confer with the bowler. In Bangalore against Australia in 2007, Dhoni’s first match as ODI captain, I saw him 1) gather an RP Singh delivery 2) run up to him and talk 3) turn back 4) hear out Sachin Tendulkar’s suggestion on the way, all without stopping. Keepers also bat.

The thinking therefore has been that this breed of cricketing bee, busy as it is, should not be burdened with captaincy. Before Dhoni, only once did a wicket-keeper captain India in a Test or one-day international. Statistician Sudhir Vaidya says, “It was in a one-day international against the West Indies on 17 December 1983, in Guwahati. Kapil Dev was not available for some reason, and Syed Kirmani led. But for all practical purposes, Dhoni is India’s first wicket-keeper captain.”

By most accounts, Jharkhand’s Hall of Fame has three members. The first is Birsa Munda, the freedom fighter after whom the Ranchi airport is named. Second is Jaipal Singh, who led India to its first Olympic hockey gold in 1928. Jaipal Singh later championed the cause of tribals. The third is Mahendra Singh Dhoni. All three achieved greatness at a young age. Birsa Munda died a martyr’s death at 25. Jaipal Singh was 25 when he stood on the podium in Amsterdam. Dhoni is 27.

The impact of Dhoni’s success can be seen on Ranchi in different ways. Goutam Das is a sports journalist who has covered the star since his days of anonymity. Das goes to the Sai Baba temple of Shirdi at the slightest opportunity. He says, “Earlier, when people in Shirdi asked me where I was from, I would say ‘Tatanagar’ instead of Ranchi. Not many knew Ranchi. Now when I tell them I’m from Ranchi, they say, ‘Oh, Dhoni’s town.’ They give me two packets of vibhuti and prasad while everyone else gets one.”

Dhoni earned nearly Rs 50 crore in 2008 alone. In 2007, he was his state’s top income tax payer. Even those who know him well have lost count of the number of cars and motorbikes he has. Six? Eight? Nobody is certain. But they remember how his vehicles have got better and his entourage bigger. “Earlier he would come on a bike(an Ind-Suzuki), then a Scorpio, now he comes in his Pajero,” says Manoj Kumar Panda, a priest at Devri Mandir, which Dhoni visits regularly. “At first he would come alone or with a couple of friends. Now there are security guards with him.”

Sacrificial Goats

The Dhoni family is devout. Earlier they were just another family visiting the Devri or Rajrappa temples. They could get away with some of the more controversial practices at the shrines. Now they cannot, thanks to the media’s constant watch. Panda tells us that Dhoni’s elder brother, Narendra, sacrificed a goat at Devri after India won the World T20 in 2007. This year, Dhoni himself was present when the family offered a goat at the Rajrappa temple after India’s win in the CB Series in Australia. He was severely condemned. “I don’t support the tradition of bali (animal sacrifice), but I can’t stop people from doing it,” Panda says as a black goat is led to the knife to the sound of drums. Dhoni has refused to comment on the subject. But it was a shameful act from someone who, ironically, is a dog lover and is, in every other sense, a youth icon worthy of emulation.

His friends have grown weary and wary of the press. Several acquaintances have been asked by Dhoni not to talk. Among the few who talk, if reluctantly, is Paramjit Singh who owns a sports-goods shop. Singh was instrumental in getting Dhoni a contract with BAS bats when he was just emerging. He collects as many news clippings and pictures of his celebrated buddy as he can. He keeps recordings of Dhoni’s matches. A bat signed by the Indian team hangs in one of the showcases. He has bats broken by the star in the process of smashing the ball. Singh confirms that Dhoni, despite his flashy personality, is shy. “He says little even when he is with us.”

You can only imagine the scenes in Ranchi when India thumped Australia, then England. Paramjit Singh must have set scissors to newspaper, updating the already-bulging file of Mahi cuttings. At Nunu Hotel, Hriday Das Goswami must have had 6,000 more reasons to smile.