In Sun And Shadow

The decade of Mahendra Singh Dhoni

Christopher Lee / Gety Images for ECB
Christopher Lee / Gety Images for ECB

This version of the story appears in print in the January 2015 issue of The Caravan. It went to press before Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced his retirement from Test cricket on 30 December 2014. 

BY CHENNAI STANDARDS it was cool, and rain hung heavy in the air, on 1 December 2005. In a stand just behind the pickets at Chepauk stadium, a young man sat surrounded by a small posse of journalists. In less than twenty-four hours, he would make his Test debut against Sri Lanka. If he was nervous he didn’t show it. “That question bores me,” he said coolly, when asked how his early years as a football goalkeeper had shaped his game. “I’m not going to talk about that any more.”

His preternatural confidence always marked Mahendra Singh Dhoni as a man apart. It was this quality that had caught the eye of the national selection committee when they went to watch the 2003–2004 Duleep Trophy final between North Zone and East Zone at Mohali, a year earlier. They were there primarily to check on the match fitness of Ashish Nehra, one of the country’s premier fast bowlers, just days before India embarked on a historic tour of Pakistan. Nehra, Aakash Chopra and Yuvraj Singh—all of whom would go on to be part of that successful trip—were playing for the North side. But the match’s main talking point occurred on the fourth day, when East began their pursuit of North’s score of 408.

In the first sixteen overs, one of the opening batsmen, a relatively unknown wicketkeeper from the cricketing backwater of Jharkhand stole the limelight. East ended up losing by 59 runs, but Dhoni’s 47-ball 60, at a venue generally considered seamer-friendly, left everybody wondering how the match would have panned out had he batted a while longer.

His assault on Nehra stunned Chopra, who was standing in the slips. “Dhoni took the aerial route and drove the first ball from Ashish for a one-bounce four,” he recalled. “I was slightly shocked to see someone bat like this in the first over in Mohali. The second ball was an expected bouncer. Dhoni hooked it for a six.”

Dhoni keeping wickets in a first-class match in 2004. He was selected to play for the Indian team in December that year. RAVEENDRAN / AFP / Gety Images

This year marks Dhoni’s decade in international cricket, which began with a one-day international appearance against Bangladesh in December 2004. He now stands at the centre of India’s cricketing universe, as statistically the country’s most successful captain, and as the key player in its most controversy-ridden domestic cricket franchise. Dhoni’s achievements as a cricketer and a leader have been crucial to the Indian national team’s successes over the past decade. But an ongoing Supreme Court-appointed probe into deep-rooted corruption in Indian cricket, for which he was questioned by the Justice Mudgal committee, has also made the public uncomfortably aware of his possible failures.

In November 2014, when the Mudgal report on allegations of spot-fixing in Indian Premier League matches  was submitted to the Supreme Court, it threatened to shatter the country’s cricketing edifice. For alleged incidents of betting, the report indicted Gurunath Meiyappan, a former team principal of the Chennai Super Kings, an enormously successful team captained by Dhoni. The Super Kings are effectively controlled by N Srinivasan, the suspended president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the chief of the International Cricket Council. Srinivasan is also Meiyappan’s father-in-law, and the managing director of India Cements, the conglomerate that owns the Super Kings. An initial version of the report, which came out in February, caused a stir about Dhoni’s role in the affair. Lawyers arguing against the BCCI in the Supreme Court alleged that Dhoni had lied to investigators by telling them that Meiyappan was merely a cricket enthusiast, not officially part of the franchise’s management.

As the committee prepared a more detailed final report, Dhoni was called in for further questioning in October. That version was still sealed, exclusively for the eyes of the Supreme Court bench, at the time this story went to press, and the BCCI argued successfully for the names of some individuals mentioned in it to be protected. But Dhoni’s name has come up in the hearings anyway, and to grave effect. At a hearing in late November, a lawyer representing the BCCI’s opponents asked if she should assume that Dhoni was one of the key figures connected to Meiyappan in the report. To this a judge on the bench responded: “Assume and argue.”

The corruption allegations put Srinivasan’s conflicts of interest as an administrator and team owner under severe scrutiny. In consequence, Dhoni’s employment with India Cements, where he is a vice-president, has raised questions too. It is not the first time Dhoni has been accused of violating the principle. In June 2013, news broke of his owning a 15-percent stake in Rhiti Sports, an agency run by his friend and manager Arun Pandey. Records showed that Dhoni had held these shares for just over a month, and no evidence emerged at the time that he had favoured players signed up with Rhiti Sports in his capacity as captain of the national side—but the matter continues to shadow his record.

The recent criticisms of Dhoni also belie the deep and enduring admiration he evokes in Indian cricket fans—something that imposes an extraordinary measure of pressure upon him. The passion of Sourav Ganguly triggered a revolution in Indian cricket at the start of the millennium. Yet Dhoni’s role in building on earlier success was arguably more significant, and more complex. His strength of personality kept the team from floundering when the stalwarts of an earlier generation retired, and helped it retain a sense of continuity.

India knows very little about the man who has led the national side to World Cup victory and the top international ranking in Tests. Chennai fans may consider him one of their own—dhoti-clad ad shoots and all—but even they struggle to find a label for him. Sachin Tendulkar was always the Master, or even God. Rahul Dravid was the Wall. Ganguly was Our Captain, and Anil Kumble the India Rubber Man, continually bouncing back from adversity. Dhoni started out as Captain Cool, but the sobriquet fell out of use years ago, especially after 2011 as India’s Test performances grew erratic and Dhoni’s abilities as captain were called into question. On tour in England last summer, there were signs that being in cricket’s most stressful job was telling on his love of the game, which had once been an all-consuming obsession.

Yet the serenity that brought Dhoni to India’s attention continues to mark him. Regardless of maelstroms off the field or trouble on it, Dhoni’s equanimity has not frayed noticeably in a decade. More than any of his predecessors in the Indian side, he has embraced, and embodied, the old Kipling line about treating victory and defeat, both imposters, the same. His manner upon winning a Test match at Lord’s, which he did in July last year, was little different from that after the three-day defeats at Old Trafford and The Oval to follow. The lynchpin of the Indian team is a man so aloof from the occupational hazards of his role that he can seem like an outsider to the world of Indian cricket—perhaps because that is precisely how he began his career.

Fans celebrating Dhoni and the Indian team at Wankhede Stadium in September 2007. The team’s victory in the World T20 Championship earlier that month was Dhoni’s first major victory as captain of the national squad. Gautam Singh / AP Photo

IN THE FATEFUL DULEEP TROPHY GAME that propelled his entry into the Indian side, Dhoni got a noteworthy five dismissals from behind the stumps. Even more remarkable was the fact that he had kept wickets at all. The more established Deep Dasgupta was expected to play in the position. Dhoni found a champion in Pranab Roy, the East Zone selector, who, like Dasgupta himself, belonged to East’s most powerful bloc, the Cricket Association of Bengal. Roy took nearly a week to get his colleagues in the Bengal association to let Dhoni try out as a wicketkeeper ahead of Dasgupta in the larger interest of the Indian team. As it turned out, Dasgupta got injured on the eve of the match, and dropped out.

This minor drama helped the national selectors solve a bigger problem facing the Indian team—they were looking to relieve Rahul Dravid of wicketkeeping responsibilities in one-day internationals. In 2000, Nayan Mongia had gone off-piste in the shorter version of the game, and Dravid had successfully stepped into the keeper’s position. But his primary value to the team remained as a batsman, and though his average scores in his 73 games as a wicketkeeper were higher than his career average, he was never seen as a long-term keeper-batsman.

Substitutes were hard to find. MSK Prasad, Vijay Dahiya, Sameer Dighe and Dasgupta had not been able to nail down a place in the national side. Ajay Ratra, Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik were not yet fully groomed. Kiran More, a national selector from 2002 to 2005 and the chairman of the selection committee for the last two years of his tenure, talked of the “desperation to find a wicketkeeper-batsman who could fill the number six-number seven slot in the team as an all-rounder and win matches with his aggressive play.”

Dhoni’s name first came to the national selectors’ attention in a 2003 report filed by Prakash Poddar, the East Zone’s representative in the Talent Resource Development Wing of the BCCI. In the following year, a series of decisive performances earned Dhoni more attention. In early 2004, he helped East win the Deodhar Trophy. Between July and September that year, he starred in the India ‘A’ team’s successful campaign at a triangular tournament in Kenya, which also featured the Pakistan ‘A’ team. His 362 runs, including two centuries in six innings, earned him the Man of the Tournament award. Javagal Srinath, a former national cricketer who commentated on that tournament, said that Dhoni “took the game brutally away from the Pakistanis.” Chopra was “taken aback by his audacity” as he swept and reverse-swept Iftikhar Anjum, a Pakistani seamer, for consecutive boundaries in a match in which he scored 119 runs unbeaten.

Four months after that sojourn, Dhoni, aged twenty-three, broke into the senior team. He had played just four domestic seasons, representing teams from a zone and a state historically considered weak, before making the cut. It was a rapid ascent by any standards. More, thinking back to his first impression of the young man in the Duleep Trophy final, said that he had found him “raw but slightly hatke”—different—and with “a lot of dum,” or courage.

Success followed success. Within fourteen months of his debut, Dhoni became the first Indian wicketkeeper to score three international centuries. The Indian public immediately saw what the selectors had, and his popularity skyrocketed. So did his value to advertisers. His first, breathtaking ton came in April 2005 in Visakhapatnam, a 148 against Pakistan in his fifth one-day international. After the game, a top marketing executive from a multinational company, who was about to sign another Indian cricketer as a brand ambassador, took a call from his head office while on a train from Visakhapatnam to Jamshedpur, where the Indian team was playing. His bosses asked the executive to tear up the contract, and wait for a fresh one with Dhoni’s name on it.

Dhoni at a biking event in 2014. Motorcycles have always been a keen interest of his; last year he said he owns thirty-five bikes. Oinam Anand / indian express archive

India had never fielded anyone who looked, and acted, quite like Dhoni. A well-muscled frame, with a coiled–up, brute strength, ratcheted up his machismo. He displayed no arrogance, but also no visible insecurity about his modest background. His long, coppery mane, with something of The Lion King about it, stood out on a field full of sensible haircuts. On the 2004 trip to Kenya with India ‘A’, the batsman Aakash Chopra, who was Dhoni’s roommate, heard him quip that one day, “people will start keeping long hair like me.”

“The feeling one got was that he was assured about what he was doing,” Hrishikesh Kanitkar, a former India player who was Dhoni’s teammate during a Hong Kong Sixes tournament in 2004, said. “He didn’t speak much, but he had a quiet confidence about himself.”

In Ranchi, Dhoni’s home town, the widespread enchantment must have seemed inevitable. The cricket aficionados of that city had been mindful of Dhoni from his early days. He inspired such confidence that Pradeep Khanna, the city’s most famous cricketer before Dhoni, said after the Visakhapatnam century that Dhoni would “make fans forget Sachin and Sehwag with his aggressive batting.”

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CENTRAL COAL LIMITED, or CCL, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, no longer has a cricket team. But back in January 1998, when Deval Sahay joined the organisation as director of personnel, he oversaw the laying of a turf pitch on the CCL campus in Ranchi, and started to employ cricketers under the company’s provisions for a sports quota. Offering talented youngsters stipends to support their cricket allowed Sahay to build a team that could participate in the local Ranchi league. Dhoni had just made local news; in the final of an inter-school tournament, he had scored a double century and put on an unbroken opening partnership of 378 with Shabir Hussain. The monthly stipend for a young player at CCL was Rs 2,000, but Dhoni was paid an extra Rs 200 because, in Sahay’s words, he was “a match-winning player.”

Adil Hussain, a former Bihar captain and the CCL team’s first skipper, developed an immediate fondness for Dhoni’s punctuality and sincerity. “I would have shouted at least once at everybody in the team, but Dhoni and Shabir never gave me the scope to scold them,” he said. He was richly repaid: between 1998 and 2002, a callow Dhoni was hitting the likes of Debashish Mohanty and T Kumaran, then seamers in the Indian side, with disdain. “Those days, we never thought he would play for India, but his commitment was superb,” Hussain said. “He was shy outside the field, but the moment he entered the ground, he looked like a giant.”

Dhoni was still in school when he got his first taste of the professional game. He adapted quickly; the CCL team “taught me the importance of discipline,” he told The Telegraph in 2006. Greg Chappell, who as the coach of the Indian national team played a major part in Dhoni’s career years later, pointed out that this was a remarkable place for the young player to learn his trade. “It must have been a highly competitive environment without too much interference from adults,” he said. “Being intelligent and a good observer, he learnt how to work things out himself and succeed.”

Dhoni’s father had arrived in Ranchi in 1964 to work as a pump operator with MECON Limited, a public-sector engineering firm. Dhoni, who was born in July 1981, grew up in a one-bedroom apartment adjacent to the city’s MECON Stadium. “As a kid, he used to sneak into the ground always,” Umakanta Jena, the ground’s head curator, recalled. “We had to constantly shoo him away.” Dhoni grew up playing football, but shifted his focus to cricket sometime around 1993. The story of his introduction to the game is now famous. He was keeping goal in a football match when he was spotted by Keshab Ranjan Banerjee, a senior sports teacher at his school, Jawahar Vidya Mandir. Banerjee, impressed by Dhoni’s saves, thought of trying him out behind the stumps for the school’s cricket team, since the regular wicketkeeper had become unavailable.

Chance milega kya?” Dhoni asked Banerjee. “To hum karenge”—If I get a chance, I will do it. He was in class six. Banerjee, taken aback by such confidence, invited him to nets practice that winter. By the time Dhoni graduated six years later, he had broken more than one windowpane in the school building with his lofted sixes.

In Ranchi, it seems everyone has a story about Dhoni’s quiet fortitude. Chanchal Bhattacharya, a local sports journalist and cricket coach, used to visit Dhoni’s school often in the course of his work, and remembered one particular match that the school team lost to a weaker opponent. As punishment, the team was told to walk back from the ground instead of taking the bus. Other players complained, Bhattacharya said, but “Dhoni and another friend of his accepted the punishment quietly.”

The English captain Alastair Cook and Dhoni toss at the Oval during India’s tour of England last year. After a decisive victory in the first Test at Lord’s, India’s results slipped badly, resurrecting questions about Dhoni’s fitness as Test captain. Visionhaus / Corbis

Amitabh Choudhary, the president of the Jharkhand State Cricket Association, reckoned that “it did not take a Vasco da Gama to find out what MS Dhoni was.” Yet bureaucratic disorganisation almost sabotaged the young man’s rise. Dhoni got his first zonal-level call-up for the 2000–2001 Duleep Trophy East Zone team, but only narrowly made it to the tournament at all. The Cricket Association of Bihar, the precursor to the Jharkhand association, was in such a shambles that they didn’t notice his absence from the travelling squad. Bhattacharya claimed that the CAB did not even inform Dhoni of his selection.

Enter Paramjit Singh, a man without whom few stories about Dhoni’s life in Ranchi are complete. Singh and Dhoni had played cricket together in the mid 1990s, and Singh helped his friend land his first ever bat contract, with Beat All-Sports, just days before Dhoni made his Ranji Trophy debut in January 2000. When Singh got wind of Dhoni’s selection for the East Zone team, he hired a Tata Sumo, and drove Dhoni and two other friends—among them Gautam Gupta, Dhoni’s future brother-in-law—overnight to Kolkata. They could not get to Agartala, the venue of the first game, in time, but Dhoni was able to travel with the team to Pune for the next match against West Zone.

For Dhoni, that game was the fulfilment of a cherished dream, for Sachin Tendulkar was to play in it. “There used to be a big Tendulkar poster above his head in the room where he used to sleep,” Gautam Upadhyaya, another of Dhoni’s childhood friends, said. “His one target was to play with or against Sachin at least once.” Dhoni was designated the twelfth man for the game, and Tendulkar, on his way to a match-winning 199, asked Dhoni for water during a drinks break. That was as close as Dhoni got to his idol on the first go-round. In 2010, Dhoni was at the non-striker’s end when Tendulkar became the first batsman to score a double-century in one-dayers. He was also at the other end of the pitch when Tendulkar made his fiftieth Test hundred. Tendulkar went on to rate Dhoni as the best captain he had ever played for.

But these wonders were a decade in the future. In 2001, fresh off his turn on the drinks cart, Dhoni had to turn his attention to practical matters. That season, he moved to Kharagpur in West Bengal, where Animesh Kumar Ganguly, then a divisional manager of the South Eastern Railways was trying to build a strong team for the department. Ganguly asked Subroto Banerjee, the coach of the South Eastern Railways team, who told him about an up-and-coming keeper-batsman in the Bihar side. Ganguly asked Satya Prakash, one of his players, to call for Dhoni. When the young man arrived at Ganguly’s bungalow, which had its own cricket pitch, Ganguly bowled a spell at him, and was happy with what he saw. He gave Dhoni a job as a train ticket examiner, and a spot on his cricket squad.

In the 2002–2003 season, he played for the divisional railways team, as well as for East Zone, Bihar, and—for fun—Durga Sporting, a tennis-ball cricket club where he became popular for the long sixes he hoisted in night-time tournaments. His day job suffered; he was issued a show-cause notice for being irregular in showing up for duty. “He was a bit casual at work and the only thing he waited for was for the clock to strike two pm, so that he could be at the ground,” Satya Prakash, who was Dhoni’s roommate during this time, said. When he wasn’t watching cricket or going on bike rides, he worked on his body at the South Eastern Railways stadium. Ashish Dhal, a gym instructor, used to be the lone man in the gallery, tracking his progress. “During rainy season, he used to take a football and run alone on the ground to increase his lung capacity, and strengthen his thighs,” Dhal said. The gallery is now named after Dhoni.

Those early years in Ranchi and Kharagpur, consumed by cricket looked immeasurably distant in 2014. Dhoni resigned from the railways in 2003, and Animesh Kumar Ganguly died of a stroke in 2006. In Kharagpur, the greatest testament to the link between India’s largest employer and its most famous former employee is the MS Dhoni Museum, built in the sports hostel room where he lived for a year, which showcases memorabilia such as his offer letter from the railways. The photographs on display now invoke a certain nostalgia. The youngster in them is a far cry from the man who, two days before the Oval Test against England last year, skipped practice and went to a shooting range to switch off.

NO INDIAN CAPTAIN HAS EVER BEEN more different from his predecessors than Dhoni. Had he come from an affluent background, his acquisitions and habits might have been viewed as wasteful rather than aspirational. From the very beginning, Dhoni struck a chord with India’s booming young population, a great many of whom live outside India’s metropolises and belong to the first generation to enjoy the benefits of the country’s economic liberalisation. In many ways, Dhoni’s career symbolises the hopes of this generation, the way Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar—upper-caste, middle-class Mumbai natives—epitomised the dreams of another kind of Indian.

Dhoni has never been shy about his interests outside of cricket—a deviation from earlier eras when cricketers were expected to be guarded about how they carried themselves off the field. His Twitter biography reads: “Indian Cricket Team Captain, Biker, Gamer, hindi retro aficionado, and absolute pet-lover and perennially hungry for chicken butter masala.” “Dhoni loves having what I call boys-and-their-toys fun,” Paddy Upton, who was the Indian team’s mental conditioning coach during Gary Kirsten’s tenure as head coach between 2008 and 2011, said. “Give him a gun, a bow-and-arrow or any weapon, a fishing rod or some cool vehicle to drive—like a motorbike or a tank or aeroplane—his eyes light up even more than they do when winning a game of cricket.” In September last year, Dhoni told the magazine All Out Cricket that he owned thirty-five motorbikes. With an annual income of approximately Rs 177 crore, Dhoni is Jharkhand’s highest individual taxpayer.

But it is difficult for him to take a bike out for a ride in his home town. At least two people he is close to implied in interviews that his inner circle has shrunk over time. Like many people whose talent and ambition has allowed them to supersede their origins, Dhoni finds himself cut off from the very environment that nurtured him. And, like others who are similarly untethered, Dhoni found that the next-best option was to entrust someone with the responsibility for sustaining the bubble around him.

Arun Pandey, now thirty-six years old, has known Dhoni for the duration of his international career. Pandey is the owner of Rhiti Sports, and has been Dhoni’s agent since 2010. When Pandey says “no one knows him better than me,” it is hard not to believe him. Originally from Varanasi, Pandey, a left-arm spinner, made his Ranji Trophy debut for Uttar Pradesh in 2000 before moving to Bihar in search of better opportunities. He first met Dhoni in 2001.

In an interview at the ITC Gardenia in Bangalore last November, Pandey said his relationship with Dhoni was cemented over the question of lunch during an early outing to Delhi. “Once Mahi had come to my room in Delhi while I was not there,” Pandey said. “He and another friend went on a bike to McDonald’s in South Extension for lunch. When they returned, Mahi had carried a milkshake and a burger for me, remembering that I am a vegetarian. I had lived in Delhi for seven years and my room was open for all, but no one had ever done anything for me till then. That day, I told myself that whatever happens, I will protect him.”

Nominally, Dhoni lives in Ranchi with his parents and wife, but by our calculations, he spends less than two months a year at home. Accordingly, Pandey’s days and nights, too, are chaotic with work. Between hotel suites and collecting air miles, Pandey said, his client’s lifestyle is defined by monotony. Dhoni, Pandey said in jest, is “a labourer.”

A significant amount of Dhoni’s time off the field is spent on his brand endorsements. As of 2014, there were over a dozen, including Pepsi, Aircel, TVS Motors and Titan. Late last year, Forbes ranked him the fifth most valuable athlete in sport, behind LeBron James and Roger Federer but ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Rafael Nadal. Unsurprisingly, Dhoni, like the others on the list, meets his marketing commitments with the same sort of stamina it takes to play sports at the highest level. Yudhajit Dutta, who was Dhoni’s manager before he officially signed up with Pandey and Rhiti Sports, saw Dhoni clock attendance at a World T20 victory party until four am one morning, only to be on his feet again two hours later. “He did six shoots from six am until midnight,” Dutta said. “Eighteen hours, without sleep.” Dutta could recall only a single occasion when Dhoni cut loose as the whirl of activity overwhelmed him. In 2005, just a year into his international career, he became “totally incommunicado for two days” when he was supposed to appear at a client event, Dutta said. “He doesn’t like people disturbing him all the time. The phone concept actually irritates him.”

“He doesn’t have time to sign more brands, which is why I have gone into ventures where his physical presence is not required,” Pandey said. These include partnerships with franchises in other sports—Dhoni is a co-owner of Chennaiyin FC, a football team in the Indian Super League, as well as of the Ranchi Rays, his home city’s team in the Hockey India League. He also owns Rhiti Sports’ motorcycle-racing franchise, Mahi Racing Team India. Mahi Racing won the team title in the 2013 Supersport World Championship, but ran into trouble last year due to financial constraints. “We are trying to secure his interests by using his name and image,” Pandey said. Dhoni, he argued, was not a mercenary by any stretch of the imagination. “We have given up around four to five brands, which would come up to Rs 25 crore in today’s market,” Pandey said. “He doesn’t care about that. If he wants to make money, he can make a lot more than what he is making today through legal and commercial channels. There is no end to it, but he doesn’t think about money.”


DHONI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE MEDIA, too, is one that he tightly controls, to give away as little of himself as possible. These days, his remarkable self-possession manifests itself as a poker face during the rare interviews he grants. BCCI rules prohibit players from speaking to the media up to 45 days before and after a tour, which effectively blocks off Dhoni’s whole year. He turns up to press conferences as mandated by the ICC, but answers questions as self-deprecatingly as he can, as if to emphasise the pointlessness of the exercise. Sourav Ganguly could be confrontational; Rahul Dravid, poised and serious. Virat Kohli is earnest and forthcoming. Dhoni, for the most part, can’t be bothered.

“He has always been very professional in the media requirements that I have been involved in,” Michael Atherton, the former England captain who is now a cricket commentator. “Distant, though—which is his way of insulating himself, no doubt, from the intense demands that being Indian captain involves.”

Dhoni’s press persona was developed in the face of extraordinary pressure, brought about first by defeat, and then by victory. His first World Cup, the 2007 tournament in the Caribbean, was a disaster for the Indian team, which crashed out in the first round. The fallout spread to Ranchi, where Dhoni was burned in effigy in front of his family home. That episode hurt the family deeply, and occasioned their own long-standing distrust of the media. (None of them agreed to be interviewed for this story.) When the team arrived in England in July that year for a full series, morale was far from high. An English journalist coined the term “Show Dhoni,” rhyming with show pony, to mock the reckless shots Dhoni had played in a Test against England in Mumbai in 2006.

After a debacle in the 2007 World Cup, many on the Indian team grew obsessed with winning the tournament. In 2011, Dhoni led them to the trophy, closing the deal in the final himself with a winning six and an unbeaten score of 91. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP / Getty Images

But after an indifferent performance in the World Cup, Dhoni quickly proved his worth as a batsman. With defeat imminent in the first Test at Lord’s, Dhoni stayed at the crease for 203 minutes, including a half-hour vigil for the last wicket with S Sreesanth. Rain ended the match five minutes before tea on the final day, resulting in a draw. Dhoni’s innings became the cornerstone of India’s first series win in England since 1986.

The former India bowler Venkatesh Prasad, who was the team’s bowling coach on that tour, was pleased. “Today’s Captain Cool is very intense, and a fighter to the core,” he said. “The Lord’s Test was a good example of that. People think Dhoni is flamboyant in his batting, but he can change gears as well, not just from first to fourth but from fourth to second also.”

It was at this point that Indian cricket, and Dhoni’s role in it, underwent a transformation. The Twenty20 format hadn’t yet taken off in India, although an Indian team had competed in a handful of games, and won its inaugural international match in the short format against South Africa in 2006, under the captaincy of Virender Sehwag. Sehwag, though, was out of form, and had been dropped before the trip to England. Rahul Dravid, who had held the captaincy of the Test and ODI teams since Dhoni’s Test debut in 2005, gave it up immediately after the England tour to focus on his batting, and he, along with Tendulkar and Ganguly, had already opted out of the first World Twenty20 tournament, scheduled to be held in South Africa in September that year. Suddenly, India needed a captain.

Dhoni had already established a reputation as a leader in the dressing room. The colleague most like him in age and experience, Yuvraj Singh, was increasingly seen as a limited-overs specialist. With the team at a critical juncture, the selectors picked Dhoni to take charge of a group mostly made up of rookies.

“Initially no one thought that he would be the future captain, but over the years it became evident that he would be a good leader,” VVS Laxman, who became a Test specialist after the 2006 South Africa tour, said. “He used to get along not only with his colleagues, but also with the seniors. He was always looking to improve and learn, talk about the game. The most important aspect was that he was balanced. He never got carried away.”

To cap things off in Dhoni’s favour, there was a far-from-minor recommendation from Tendulkar himself, who put Dhoni’s name forward to to Sharad Pawar, then the BCCI president. Dilip Vengsarkar, the chief selector at the moment of Dhoni’s appointment, said that “everyone in the selection committee was on the same wavelength” about the new captain, and that “it was a well thought-out decision.”

The decision proved to be a masterstroke. India coasted into the final of the World Twenty20, defeating a favoured Australia team on the way, and faced off against Pakistan in Johannesburg for the trophy. The match went down to the wire, with Pakistan needing 13 runs to win off the last over. Of the millions watching in India, a significant number were encountering this new team, and the new format, for the first time. For that fateful last over, Dhoni gave the ball to the newcomer Joginder Sharma ahead of the experienced Harbhajan Singh, who had just leaked 19 runs in his previous over. The tension soared as two shots left Pakistan needing just six runs off four balls. Dhoni, behind the stumps, betrayed no signs of anxiety. In the middle of the raucous stadium, traditionally referred to as The Bullring, he seemed to have found perfect tranquility. Before the third ball, he walked across to talk to Sharma.

“Dhoni said that it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, just keep the goal in mind,” Sharma said, looking back at the victory. “Stick to the plan and give your one hundred percent.”

The plan was to have Sharma bowl at the stumps. That, coupled with an error in judgment by Misbah-ul-Haq, gave India victory by five runs. Dhoni was the first to hug his bowler. Euphoria engulfed the ground and the Indian players. Back home, Indians saw for the first time, though not the last, that victory sat light on their captain’s shoulders.

INDIA JUMPED ONTO THE TWENTY20 bandwagon late, but after the World Twenty20 success it was just a matter of time before the cricketing impresario Lalit Modi’s vision for the Indian Premier League, became a lucrative reality. No player embraced the concept quite like Dhoni, who remains the only original “icon” player still with the IPL team that bought him in its inaugural auction. In 2008, the Super Kings bought Dhoni for $1.5 million, the highest price for any player at the IPL’s first auction.

The team went from strength to strength between 2008 and 2014. That success has now come under a cloud, but Dhoni’s talent for captaincy, and his tactical boldness, remain above question. Sundar Raman, the chief operating officer of the IPL, remembered a game in the 2010 Champions League Twenty20 tournament, which pitted the top franchise teams from across the world against each other, between the Super Kings and Victoria Bushrangers in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The game went into the Super Over, and Dhoni picked a young Ravichandran Ashwin to bowl it ahead of the established trio of Muttiah Muralitharan, Doug Bollinger and L Balaji. Ashwin got hit for 23 runs, and Chennai lost the game.

“After the game, Dhoni said, ‘I asked who wants to bowl the Super Over and Ashwin raised his hand. If a guy is confident and wanting to do the job, I will give it to him.’ That speaks of encouragement,” Raman said. “After that over Ashwin thought he was never going to bowl. In the next match, he opened the bowling.” He also picked up three wickets, and the Super Kings qualified for the semi-final. They then went on to the final, where Ashwin finished with figures of 2 for 16. The Super Kings became the first Indian team to lift the CLTwenty20 trophy.

The efflorescence of Twenty20 cricket in India turned the fortunes of its talented but perennially under-prepared national cricket teams around. India’s stock rose steadily after the 2007 World Twenty20 win. An ODI tournament win in Australia in 2008 was followed by Test success in New Zealand after a gap of forty-one years, in 2009. The year after that, India lifted the Asia Cup for the first time in fifteen years, drew a Test series in South Africa for the first time ever, and became the world’s number one Test side, a position it held until July 2011. As captain, Dhoni rapidly worked out his combinations for each format; drafting Suresh Raina into the team for the World Cup quarterfinal in 2011 was as decisive as opening the bowling with Praveen Kumar in the CB Series final in 2008. Personal success bolstered his authority; he was adjudged the ICC’s ODI cricketer of the year in 2008 and 2009.

The seeds for some of this success had been sown earlier. The Indian team’s former coach Greg Chappell had backed a raw, young Dhoni when he first entered the side, and projected him as a future leader. Of the thirty-two ODI wins India registered during Chappell’s tenure, between July 2005 and March 2007, Dhoni was a part of thirty-one. In those successes, he aggregated 1,099 runs at an average of 91.58 and a strike-rate of 111.91. This set him on the road to becoming one of the finest finishers in the one-day form of the game.

“I was drawn to Dhoni because he read players and situations well,” Chappell said. “Wicketkeepers are in the centre of the game so they usually see and hear more than others.” Coaches need someone out in the middle to fill in the gaps in their vision, Chappell said, and Dhoni was excellent in this respect. “His strength and his unorthodox methods attracted my attention. What appealed to me was that he hit the balls to parts of the ground that no one else did. The more I observed, the more I realised that he had a good cricket brain. As we tried to build a good ODI team, it became obvious to me that he had to be a part of it.”

Yet it is Dhoni’s Twenty20 legacy that is most obviously personal to him. The IPL significantly improved prospects for players in India. On its heels came pensions for former cricketers, improved infrastructure at the domestic level of the game, and job security for domestic players signed on to its teams. “Don’t be jealous of IPL,” Dhoni shot back last year at an English journalist who asked whether the Indian team’s ineptitude in the 2014 Test series had anything to do with players prioritising the IPL over other tournaments. It was a rare display of emotion in public.

“Dhoni realises that IPL is allowing a career in cricket for a lot of people,” Raman said. “He understands the obligation and responsibility for someone like him.”

On the flip side stands the likelihood that the IPL has been hollowed out by corruption, in great part thanks to Dhoni’s direct employers. Arun Pandey, who himself came under scrutiny for the conflict of interest between Dhoni, Rhiti Sports and the Indian team, insisted that his client was above all this pettiness. “Woh ek sant aatma hai,” he said—He is a pure soul. Dhoni, Pandey explained, was intelligent enough to maintain a clean image. But the spot-fixing inquiries have dragged on for nineteen months, with no resolution or decision in sight, and few other than Pandey disagree that the sheen has worn off the league’s image. In times like these, failures on the field are harder to forgive—and the sense that the idol has feet of clay now hovers about Dhoni.


THERE IS A PHOTOGRAPH FROM 21 JULY 2014 of a joyous Ishant Sharma during his epic spell on the final day of the Lord’s Test that captures the significance of an event many years in the making. Between 2008 and 2013, as Kumble, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar retired one by one, talk of transitional pangs in the Indian team gathered volume. The new generation, however, took just six matches following Tendulkar’s retirement to taste their first overseas Test win, against England in that Test. They became only the second Indian team to register a victory at Lord’s. Ajinkya Rahane’s classy century against the odds in the first innings was one of the year’s most remarkable knocks. Murali Vijay and Ravindra Jadeja scored contrasting half-centuries in the second innings, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar was clinical with both bat and ball. But it was the skipper’s stubbornness that proved decisive.

With six wickets to get on the fifth day, Dhoni insisted that Ishant Sharma, his bowling spearhead, attack the batsmen with a barrage of bouncers. Initially hesitant, Sharma gave in, and with fielders placed in the deep, watching for hook and pull shots, he finished with career-best figures of 7 for 74. England collapsed dramatically to hand India a 95-run win. Sharma, who became only the third Indian seamer to take seven or more wickets in an innings outside Asia, went on to say at the presentation ceremony: “I think all these wickets are not for me, they are for the captain.”

Such days have been rare for Dhoni as captain of the Test squad, however. In that series in England alone, India lost the next three Tests, and Dhoni’s tally of overseas defeats as Test captain swelled to fourteen. At the time of going to press, India, on an ongoing tour of Australia, had lost successive Tests to the hosts at Adelaide and Brisbane, although Dhoni was out injured for the first match. His current record of twenty-seven Test wins eclipses that of the next most successful Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly,  who has twenty-one. But for many critics, disappointment has marred Dhoni’s Test captaincy. When India lost all its eight Tests in England and Australia between July 2011 and January 2012—Dhoni played in seven of them—the captain refused to attack his squad or induct fresh faces into the side. Even the batting order remained more or less intact throughout this time.

Dhoni and Virat Kohli at Wankhede Stadium in 2012. “I’d like to have his calmness,” Kohli said in a 2013 interview. “It’s reassuring.” Neeraj Priyadarshi / indian express archive

“Dhoni is too defensive and predictable as a captain at times,” said Michael Holding, a cricket analyst and former West Indies fast bowler. “He just allows things to drift at their pace instead of making things happen in a particular way.”

In 2012, Mohinder Amarnath, the India veteran and North Zone representative, told CNN-IBN that the board of selectors would have sacked Dhoni as captain, if Srinivasan, who had by this time assumed the BCCI presidency, had not overruled them. Amarnath, who had been Dhoni’s most vociferous critic, found that his tenure ended abruptly after the board meeting in which this transpired. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The roots of India’s Test woes go deeper than Dhoni’s limitations. India have won only twenty-six Tests outside Asia since 1932. In the decade that Dhoni has been an international player, no country, with the exception of South Africa, has travelled well at all. Dhoni is one of only six captains in cricketing history to have led his country in sixty or more Tests, and he has done so without the cushion that some of the others had. Graeme Smith led the best batting attack in South Africa’s history; Clive Lloyd and Ricky Ponting could call on some of the greatest bowlers cricket has seen.

The closest analogy to Dhoni among these captains of exceptional longevity is perhaps Allan Border, who built a team from scratch when Australia were in the doldrums in 1984. The end of the Greg Chappell–Rodney Marsh–Dennis Lillee era had created a vaccum in the Australian team, and the drought of victories was broken only in Border’s eighth series as captain, in 1987–1988. Border remained at the helm till the 1993–1994 tour to South Africa, by which time he had overseen thirty-two wins, and Australia had at its disposal Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. It remains to be seen whether the group Dhoni is now preparing will similarly star in India’s cricketing future.

What the rough patches have amply demonstrated is Dhoni’s singular talent as captain: his effect on morale. “Irrespective of what is happening on the field, the dressing room atmosphere among the players should never be diluted,” pointed out Laxman. “Dhoni was able to do that.” Many players we spoke to told us that Dhoni’s knack for understanding those around him made him a people’s person, at least in the dressing room. “Anyone playing with him benefits from his confidence,” the Australian batsman George Bailey, Dhoni’s former Super Kings teammate, said. “Anyone playing against him is terrified of what might happen.” The India player Pragyan Ojha, who enjoyed playing under Dhoni, said the captain was just one among the boys in the dressing room. “He has got the authority, but he never shows off,” Ojha said. Paddy Upton, the former mental conditioning coach, called Dhoni a clever man, never the sort to get into clashes.

The times when this seemed most obvious were those that required Dhoni to take tough calls about how to phase out older players in the long-term interest of the team. Laxman, who played thirty-four Tests under him, said that Dhoni discharged his duties amicably. “He had a lot of senior players in the side,” Laxman explained. “But he made them understand the importance of his vision as a captain, what he wanted from the team and where he wanted it to go.” Dhoni’s dressing room could have been a powder keg, with some of India’s most popular players commanding space in the squad. Yet he managed to reconcile fans, as well as other players, to the passage of time. The future duly arrived in 2011, when he led the team to the World Cup it had hankered after for over a generation.

The 2011 World Cup was the first held on the Indian subcontinent since 1996, and conditions seemed ripe for an Indian victory. After the players and their families were heckled following the collapse at the 2007 tournament, the trophy became something of an obsession for many of them. When Gary Kirsten joined the team as coach at the beginning of 2008, every hour, every game and every tour was linked to the big goal—of the team standing on the podium with the winners’ medals on 2 April 2011.

In keeping with expectations, the team advanced through the early rounds, and won a couple of hair-raising games in the knock-out stages to proceed to the final. The skipper himself was markedly subdued during the preliminaries. Going into that last match, against Sri Lanka at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, his highest score in the Cup was a 34, against Ireland. Yet Dhoni kept his cool once again, promoting himself ahead of Yuvraj Singh, the player of the tournament, to join Gautam Gambhir in the middle at the fall of the third wicket. It was the twenty-second over, and India were chasing 275. Upton, who was in the dressing room that night, compared Dhoni with Robocop, the eponymous hero of Paul Verhoeven’s science-fiction action film. “Very tough,” Upton said, “with no emotions and no mental hijacking under pressure.”

Singh, in the past, had had problems against the Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, the leading wicket-taker in international cricket, and no one in the Indian middle order was more aware of his guile and repertoire than Dhoni, who played alongside him for the Super Kings. A left hand-right hand combination, Dhoni guessed, was more likely to unsettle the opposition’s bowling attack. There were no histrionics. Dhoni played exactly the sort of innings that had made him famous, with the rotation of strike forming its bedrock, and was unbeaten on 91 at the end of the night, finishing the game with a six over long-on off Nuwan Kulasekara. It was one of the finest performances in a World Cup final, and brought India the trophy after twenty-eight years.

THIS YEAR BEGINS WITH the clearest indication there has been in the last few seasons that a change of guard is imminent in the Indian national squad. Virat Kohli, who took over as captain in the first Test against Australia last month, first broke into the team in 2008 on the back of his success at the Under-19 World Cup that year. At the time, he was perceived as a brat who lacked direction, but he has been moulded over the years, and has made himself the frontrunner to take up the captaincy after Dhoni steps down. Kohli scored twin centuries in that Test, becoming only the second player, after Greg Chappell, to do so on debut as captain. It is difficult to measure precisely Dhoni’s influence in Kohli’s growth. Dhoni, Kohli told The Telegraph in January 2013, had “groomed youngsters like me.” Kohli said he would like to remain an aggressive player, but “I’d still like to have his calmness. It’s reassuring.” He may well have spoken for his entire generation.

No cricketer has embraced T20 cricket, or embodied both its glamour and squalor, as Dhoni has. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP / Getty Images

Keshab Ranjan Banerjee had not yet discovered Dhoni when Australia and New Zealand last hosted the World Cup, in 1992. On 15 February, when India start their campaign to retain the title against Pakistan at the Adelaide Oval, the captain of the defending champions will have only Kohli, Suresh Raina and Ravichandran Ashwin with him from the tournament’s previous edition. In 2011, the World Cup was won thanks to immaculate planning and clinical execution, but it also left the players mentally and physically exhausted. Test series whitewashes followed in England and Australia, and Dhoni was confirmed once again as the side’s best hope for revival. His contemporaries were all either unavailable or irrelevant, and his juniors were far too young to shoulder the responsibility of leadership. Today, that is no longer the case.

It may be that Dhoni himself looks to the future with some sense of relief. The opportunity to spend more time at the shooting range—perhaps with the Indian Army, where he takes his position as an honorary lieutenant-colonel very seriously—may not be far off, and the bikes and the pets await. For now, while the India cap still sits firmly on Dhoni’s rapidly greying hair, few things will count more to the team than how true he can be to the men in his dressing room.

Dhoni, long interested in the military, was made an honorary lieutenant-colonel in the parachute regiment of the Indian Army in 2011. SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP / Getty Images

Ravi Shastri, the director of the Indian team, said that Dhoni’s character had helped the team immensely for all these years. “He is basically a solid human being,” he said. “He backs his beliefs. He can be stubborn and say no. More often than not that is a very good quality, because the pace at which the game is moving now you hear things from all quarters and you can be swayed easily. On Tuesday, you might be thinking something, and on Friday you are thinking something else because you have met a hundred people along the way.”

Shastri knows where he stands on Dhoni’s position in Indian cricket. “There is still room for improvement in Test cricket, but MS is the most successful Indian captain by a fair distance because, in the modern era, he has taken India to the top in all the three formats,” Shastri said. “He has also won the Champions Trophy, the IPL and the Champions League. There is nothing left to win.”