Cricket has a way of compensating for the realities that produce it. After all these years, the 2001 Test series India played at home against Australia still seems like the beginning of a spring that came after the blackened winter at the turn of the century, when a series of match-fixing cases proved that India’s cricket was rotten to its core. It makes no sense that the constructed drama of sport should balance out the treasons and stratagems of life. But balance it does, and sports fans are privileged by their ability to believe in it. This privilege, and the thing it hides, are both embodied for me by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whom I love, yet was thankful to see retiring at the end of last year.
I was one of those who left cricket fandom to stand out in the cold when the match-fixing cases came to light. I did not come back in during the India–Australia series; to this day I have no idea what VVS Laxman actually did in Kolkata. But I returned to cricket when Mahendra Singh Dhoni arrived, and brought with him something we had never seen before. He made, of course, a remarkable entry into India’s consciousness. His first international century came in his fifth ODI, a dazzling 148 against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam. He kept wickets in a style that made Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik seem like afterthoughts. He had, as Claire Clairmont said of Byron, a wild originality of countenance. But Dhoni was by no means the first killer-diller of the millennium; India was already in the age of Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh. Rahul Dravid, for his part, also kept wickets with his customary grace; he too, was very handsome.
The unscientific attraction of Dhoni was his extraordinary confidence, for which no really satisfactory explanation has ever emerged. Athletes are expected to act with audacity; they are known to be stoic; they train all their lives to achieve the tranquility in which all great sporting feats, attempted in stadiums spilling over with screaming fans, are accomplished. So much of our joy in sport comes from these things that we know how to recognise them almost instantly. Yet the degree to which Dhoni managed to combine all of them in his affect was unprecedented. Cycling fans may remember that the literature of pre-convicted Lance Armstrong was full of notes on his comic-book physiology: the unusual length of his thigh bones, the 80 percent slow-twitch muscle fibre, the heart and lungs like blacksmiths’ bellows. The cottage industry of Dhoni journalism is similarly full of wonder about his intangible super-talent: an attitude that came from nowhere, was impervious to everything, and unchanged in victory or defeat.
It was thrilling. When Dhoni set his jaw at the end of a match, it seemed to be the perfect way to respond to the whole rigmarole, not just as a player, but also as a fan. You wanted to confront cricket with that spirit of boldness, with that enjoyment that was neither grim nor frivolous. It was a useful attitude in defeat, but it was extraordinarily lovely in victory, too. When men like Harbhajan Singh, accused of racially abusing Andrew Symonds on a tour of Australia in 2008, celebrated a Test victory at Perth as though it were a vindication of Indian character, you could look at Dhoni, unruffled even in jubilation, and be reassured by his sense of proportion. Yet, in those heady years, as Dhoni took charge of the team, and India made its way to the top of the Test rankings, it never occurred to anyone to wonder whether Captain Cool cared enough or not. He was in it for the game, a hundred percent; he just managed to put aside the anxiety over its outcome.
A decade after he made his entry into Indian cricket’s upper echelons, that spirit still seems utterly unique. In an attempt to start from the source, the writers of The Caravan’s January 2015 cover story, Sidhanta Patnaik and Dileep Premachandran, went to Ranchi and Kharagpur, his early playing fields. There is no wellspring of self-possession in small-town eastern India, a region whose cricketers have been historically disadvantaged and overlooked by the mainstream. If there was some early, extraordinary will to power, no one seemed to know of it. But of course, geography can only explain things up to a point. Ranchi no more made Dhoni than Mumbai made Sachin Tendulkar, from what we know.