MS Dhoni: The international man of mystery
Dhoni made cricket accessible to all, but there is hardly anyone who can claim to know the man behind the calm demeanour
Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced his retirement from international (limited-overs) cricket with a cryptic post that looked like it might have been typed in a moving car on a bumpy road. “Thanks a lot for ur love and support throughout. from 1929 hrs consider me as Retired," said the entry on Instagram, accompanying an over 4-minute slide show of pictures.
There wasn’t any further explanation as to why he was choosing to retire—even though there had been speculation on his future in cricket for some time, given that his famous “finishing" abilities have been on the wane. There will probably be no explanation in the future either, like there hasn’t been one for why he decided to quit Test cricket in the middle of a series he was captaining in Australia in 2014.
But the way Dhoni’s career has shaped up in the last decade and half, since his international debut in 2004, is indicative not of an impulsive person, but of someone who considers his options carefully. This brevity of communication, like his retirement announcement, and ambiguity in opinions have been a part of Dhoni’s public persona for a long time.
Since his last international match in July 2019, followers of the sport have wondered about his future, without a sliver of a hint from the man in question. That he chose to do it now may have something to do with the postponement of this October’s ICC T20 World Cup but that’s just reasoning by elimination.
Over the last five-odd years when questions about his retirement first started, he has barely given any interviews, has attended press conferences with reluctance and by all accounts, does not like the media too much. During the Indian Premier League (IPL) last year, he didn’t show up for the mandatory press meets—sending the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) coach Stephen Fleming instead.
His silence on many subjects added a Garbo-like mystique to the man who is widely liked, celebrated, successful, visible, yet not well known. He seemed so familiar, with his helicopter shots, flashy stumpings and shy smile, but it was an illusion, brought closer by a television screen.
He sometimes came across as arrogant, condescending even, like when he summoned an Australian journalist who asked him about retirement during a media briefing in 2016. You want me to retire? Dhoni asked. “I was hoping it was an Indian media guy because I can’t really say if you have a brother or a son who can play for India, who is a wicket-keeper."
Given that his Insta statement last Saturday was not clear about the reasons and timing, it led to a slew of speculation, analysis of why he had chosen to break the news at 19.29 hours on Independence Day. One explanation was that it was the hour of sunset in southernmost India, so perhaps the former Indian skipper currently practising in Chennai was referring to a walk into the sunset.
The 39-year-old’s contribution to cricket goes beyond numbers, to how accessible he made the sport to everyone. His coloured, ironed, long hair in the early days, a batting technique developed in the backyard, and roots in a mining town in central India made him the everyman cricketer. But he didn’t turn out to be the naïve small-town boy in a team of urban superstars. As he grew in the sport, becoming captain of the national team, of one of IPL’s most successful franchises, CSK, he came increasingly under scrutiny. Once Sachin Tendulkar retired in 2013, the public spotlight moved firmly on him—and Virat Kohli—and he chose to avoid it in a nuanced manner.
The public had access to his interests—guns, bikes, cars, his sprawling estate and a love for the armed forces—through a narrow window of social media and his wife, Sakshi. If his styling in the initial days and unorthodox manner of play gave the impression of a man with a wild side, his monk-like expressions in later years, and calm demeanour that earned him an annoying moniker, suggested the contrary.
“MS is not wired as an emotional type. It’s almost as if he doesn’t have them; a performance enhancing gift from birth," mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton wrote in his book The Barefoot Coach.
If Dhoni wanted the world to see a version of him off the field, it would be through filtered lenses. A feature film, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, co-produced by Arun Pandey, his brand manager, friend and business partner, airbrushed his life story. A documentary, Roar Of The Lion, telecast after CSK’s return to the IPL following a two-year ban over match-fixing issues, barely touched upon the subject. The five-part series was co-produced by Dhoni Entertainment.
In one of the most incisive pieces written on Dhoni, Sidharth Monga found out that no one, not even his best friend Pandey, knows the wicket-keeper well enough. “His childhood friends can’t tell you what makes him laugh, what concerns him, what his political views or favourite movies are, who his friends or enemies are, what his business interests are," he wrote in ESPN Cricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly in 2014.
Former India coach Greg Chappell wrote in his tribute in Mumbai Mirror that if Indian journalists ever want to write the true story of the noughties, Dhoni, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble should be the go-to guys because “their integrity is unchallenged".
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.