NAHI,NAHI, NAHI…,” he starts shouting, shaking his hand vigorously. MS Dhoni has just been invited to represent the Indian Media XI in a match against the Zimbabwe Media XI. He’s even been promised an opening slot, just so that he finally gets to bat on this tour. But he isn’t budging from his obstinate stance or buying into my promises. “Wahan pe bhi keeping karake bhej doge (Even there you will make me keep wickets and send me away),” he says before sauntering into the dressing-room, still shaking his hand.
Maybe his trepidation is vindicated. At this point of the tour, the only place he’s batted in is the nets. And the only bowlers he’s faced are his own, plus a couple of local net bowlers who’ve been so overawed by his sight that they’ve often missed their run-ups and cheered every time he’s smacked them over the jacaranda trees into the proverbial place of no return for the ball—the President’s house next door.
As it turned out, Dhoni did finally get to move out of the nets and bat in the middle of the Harare Sports Club on a couple of occasions in the T20s. There was the one game where he failed to finish the game off with India needing eight off the last over and a boundary off the final ball. Then there was an innocuous innings in the final game, where he struggled to get going, and even got hit in the eye with a bail after being bowled attempting an ungainly hoick. In those two knocks put together, he scored 28 runs in 30 balls, with two fours, both back-cuts to the third-man fence. If looked at as isolated incidents, you could argue that Dhoni in Zimbabwe was further incriminating evidence in the debate over what comes across as the rapidly diminishing reserves of Kryptonite for Indian cricket’s superman.
This two-week one-city African sojourn was not so much, if at all, about what Dhoni was up to in front of the cameras though. It was more about what he was up to behind the scenes. It was a tour that even for one as well-travelled a cricketer as Dhoni—he broke the record of captaining his country in more internationals than anyone else in history—was unprecedented. For once, he wasn’t in the glare of the spotlight. There were no rogue cameras following him around, recording his every move. For once, he was left to be on his own. It was the cricket tour version of a hideaway.
Considering the squad he was leading and the lack of intensity in the series, Dhoni could have easily shut himself in his room, looked at this tour as a burden, and grudgingly counted down the days. It would have been understandable even. But instead, he warmed up to the task, and also to having a bunch of new faces that he hasn’t had much to do with in the past around him. To have a fortnight away from the swarming press coaxing, cudgelling and cossetting him for a definitive answer about his future may have helped too. It was as if having the breath of fresh air and the breathing space had had a therapeutic effect on him. As the tour progressed, he seemed more rejuvenated than ever, like someone keen to get going with the next chapter in his remarkable narrative rather than someone bracing for what many detractors perceive as the bitter climax.
That next chapter could well be continuing in the role as the best wicket-keeper batsman in the country—an established fact that he doesn’t necessarily need to reiterate by inviting a journalist to the podium—but under the leadership of Virat Kohli. Dhoni is smart enough to realize that he no longer controls his own destiny as far as him being ODI and T20 captain is concerned. There are enough precedents in Indian cricket of high-profile skippers having extended their careers, and successfully so, long after they gave up the reins. Dhoni himself has overseen the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid discovering many last hurrahs in the twilight zone. And from whatever you saw of him through the beaded curtain in Harare, whether it be in terms of his wholesome involvement with the young team on and off the field or his cheery disposition overall, it’s likely that the passion to continue representing the nation still remains indelible for Dhoni and not being at the helm after such a lengthy stint is unlikely to make it otherwise.
Having said that, his is one future that would be presumptuous and precarious to predict without adding a disclaimer that ‘Dhoni is Dhoni’. He has already pulled a fast one on the cricket world by calling it quits in Tests minutes after addressing a routine post-match press conference in the middle of a series in Australia. He is what even the most unabashed of seers would term an anomaly and wish to stay away from. But what you could say definitively was that the only signs Dhoni showed in Harare wasn’t that of a man who seems ready or keen to quit just yet. And also that he still has a lot to offer, and not just on either side of the stumps.
THE STORY goes that, set to play his debut Test, a young batsman was desperately awaiting his much-awaited maiden tete-a-tete with his celebrity captain. But as it turned out, he had to wait all five days, one in which he played a crucial role for an Indian win, before finally catching Dhoni’s attention. Even then all he got from Dhoni was a ‘Aur sab theek hai?” during their briefest of interactions outside the team hotel elevator. That was the most you got from the skipper back in the day. On the eve of the team’s departure for Harare, off-spinner Jayant Yadav beamed brazenly that the chance to tour with Dhoni was the most exciting part of his first-ever outing as an India player. He was only echoing the sentiments of most of the Zimbabwe-bound players. Yuzvendra Chahal would talk about being apprehensive of how it would be to have a chat with Dhoni.
As it turned out, the young Indians didn’t have to try too hard to seek their captain’s attention. For, it was he who was seeking them out. If he wasn’t pulling them aside for one-on-one chats, he was inviting them over for sessions on his Playstation. The door to his room was left ajar for most parts, and it was the room to be in if you wanted to be entertained by who better than Dhoni himself.
“He was the first out for breakfast, and was always encouraging the boys to join him. “Arey yahan aa jao”, you heard him shout out every morning. He was also the first on the bus every day. No fuss about being a high-profile star on a low-profile tour,” says one member of the team management.
One particular comment on Twitter during the tour described the Zimbabwe tour like Dhoni taking the kids to the amusement park. The youngsters seem all excited about the trip, while Dhoni is left bored but still forced to look excited about it. Though in reality, it was Dhoni who seemed most enthralled with the time away from the high-strung scrutiny back home. He was the one making dinner and movie plans, and the ‘kids’ understandably flocked around him.
According to those who’ve seen him around in Indian team on other occasions, this was the most involved they’ve seen him, especially off the field. Stand-in coach Sanjay Bangar in particular raved about the effort put in by Dhoni to make the younger players more comfortable.
“I definitely felt that he opened up quite a bit. He had a lot of interactions with them. He made the effort to go out and mingle with them. He probably invited them for dinners and Playstation sessions together. He went out of the way to make them feel comfortable,” Bangar had revealed after India clinched the T20 series on Wednesday.
With Zimbabwe having competed only sparingly and the scheduling of the matches during the tour, the Indians didn’t deem it necessary to indulge in too many practice sessions. Whenever they did, Dhoni was very much at the forefront. He would start every session like he usually does by sharing the semi-new ball with the fast bowlers. Even here, it was apparent that the captain was trying his best to dig deeper into the psyche of the likes of Sran and Dhawal Kulkarni.
During one practice session, he took a special interest in Yadav, and personally helped the off-spinner work on his doosra, especially in terms of the line. He took turns with Ambati Rayudu—his regular companion in the nets—to try and smash Yadav into the far reaches of the HSC. But whenever the bowler managed to draw a false shot from Rayudu with a doosra that pitched on off-stump and drifted past the charging right-hander, Dhoni would scream, “Nicccee Jayantt,”.
Another time, he was demonstrating the pros and cons of charging out of the crease while crossing your feet as to clicking your heels and getting the feet moving in the same line to Rayudu. The rest of the batsmen stood around soaking in the sermon, awe writ large on their faces.
THOUGH THE tour was more about the younger players gaining a lot from Dhoni’s presence, at times it felt like Dhoni himself was gaining a lot from their presence. But he wasn’t being the friendly, affable older brother at all times either. He was visibly livid with the loss in opening T20, especially with a number of batsmen having thrown away good positions in search of the glory shot. Even in the field, he was more or less like a drill sergeant, never short of pulling up one of his bowlers for not getting their act right. In those terms, the last three months have arguably the most challenging of Dhoni’s captaincy career. In the IPL, he was in-charge of a Pune bowling attack that never gave him an easy feeling to deal with.
It’s like being an irate director who has to deal with a bunch of actors who haven’t really read his script like he expects them to. At times during the T20s especially, there were occasions when you could almost see Dhoni go “Cut-cut..Retake.” These were the only times his frustration came through.
In the first game, India’s only loss on tour, he lashed into Jaidev Unadkat for not sticking to the plan of bowling wide yorkers and instead letting Elton Chigumbura smash length deliveries over cow-corner. This despite Dhoni pointing to him that the third-man had been kept back specifically for the delivery he was expecting.
He was equally irate with Kulkarni for spraying the ball around in the final T20. In one over with Vusi Sibanda on the charge, Dhoni was more animated than he’d been all tour long. Despite his vision being blurred thanks to the stray bail earlier in the day, his mind was very much on the ball. He made four field changes for four balls. It was vintage Dhoni.
Kulkarni’s first ball was smoked over mid-off for four. In came third-man, back went mid-off. The next ball was short and wide, and Sibanda slashed it past Kedar Jadhav for four. In came mid-off, back went the sweeper cover. The next ball was length and picked over the bowler’s head. In came fine-leg, back went mid-wicket. Kulkarni then finally found his mark.
Even in the last over of the tour, Dhoni was fully into it. He was the one directing Sran to bowl around the wicket even as the young seamer marked his run. Once Sran was launched by Timycen Maruma for six in Brathwaitesque fashion of the first ball, Dhoni spent a good two minutes calming his bowler down, and getting his head back in the game. Eventually Sran held his nerve to win the match. When he’s not been in his bowlers’ ear—Axar Patel being guided by constant calls of ‘Idhar hi daalna Bapu’ from behind the stumps—Dhoni’s been busy chatting with KL Rahul, who mostly stood at slip, about wicket-keeping or certain tactics.
DHONI AND Makhaya Ntini of course go a long way back having spent a few good seasons with Chennai Super Kings. And the eccentric Zimbabwe coach has never been short of yelling out his usual gabble at the Indian captain. But Dhoni has responded each time by saying, “I am still waiting for that coffee you promised,” leading to a lot of laughter from both camps. It’s not just with his own team that Dhoni has managed to hit a chord. A day before the final T20, he spent close to 20 minutes with the ground-staff, sat in a prostate stance in the middle of the pitch. Despite the large number of photograph requests, he indulged as many as he could have. On most occasions his rule was loud and clear. “Photos only for kids please,” he had to declare often.
He’s also made it a point to interact with the opposition players. Despite clearly seething after the loss last Saturday, he kept his young counterpart, Graeme Cremer, enthralled and amused in a conversation which seemed to revolve around the last over in which he had failed to get eight runs for victory as the two waited for the post-match presentation.
DHONI’S CONNECTION with Zimbabwe isn’t incessant but it runs deep. As he contended himself with some free-hits in the nets during the ODI series, the conversation once turned to his previous trips here over a decade ago. And he reminisced about how different things were in this country before revealing that it was here that he opened the innings for one of the last times in his career.
It’s here that the Dhoni legend was born after all. And there are many who would assume that its final vestiges were played out here over the last fortnight. As he walks past for one final time on tour, showing his bloodied eye and saying “Tu sirf aadha dikh raha hai “, you ask him, “Ab agla kab mulaqat hoga?” His response is just a smile—that Dhoni smile loaded with mystery and mischief. It’s like him saying you go figure it out for yourself, knowing very well how thankless a task that is. For, he knows more than anyone else that nobody can be sure, not with Dhoni, and certainly not his future.