“If you want me to be politically correct, that is not how I’m,” paused Mahendra Singh Dhoni, forcing a half-smile, eyes veering on to the just-unveiled, purplish Pune Supergiants jersey lying on the table. “If all of a sudden if you want me to say that I am very excited to play for a new team, it will be wrong,” he continued. If Dhoni’s eyes didn’t betray emotions, his words did. He didn’t suppress those, like modern sportsmen sometimes are compelled to.
Atypical of Dhoni, his sentences were punctuated with frequent pauses in between. Like he is struggling for (and with) words, like he wants to express something deeply emotional but couldn’t choose the right words. An emotional choke. This emotional strand — his deep-rooted bond with Chennai Super Kings — dangled invisibly in almost every word he uttered, though he soon put on a veil of pragmatism, or at least attempted to. “I’ll be lying if I say I have moved on. That is the special thing about being a human being. For eight years it meant a lot,” he said.
The eight-year reference and inference frequently crept into his sentences. And those “eight years” will continue sneaking into his conversations in the future too. Those eight years of bonding and camaraderie, those eight of nurturing teams and accumulating trophies, those eight years of dreaming and realising, and those eight years when Dhoni was CSK and CSK was Dhoni. The memories of those eight years will keep him warm — not just about beating opponents or winning trophies but the “process” and “journey” involved, those light moments in the dressing room, of banter and fun, of anxiety and despair — in as much as the same way it will wrack him from inside. He will feel a void. “Life is not like a blackboard where you can wipe off your memories clean and start a new life,” he even philosophised, exposing a rather sensitive side of his battle-hardened psyche.
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He will feel an oppressive vacuum, a brooding emptiness, left by those familiar faces and voices, in the dressing room as well as on the field. He might twitch to his right to not see Suresh Raina leisurely manning the slip cordon or yell at the point fieldsman to not see Ravindra Jadeja darting in. Or gesture to long on and not see Dwayne Bravo warm up. Those faces gave an assurance. An assurance that ceases to exist. Some of these trusted confreres, now snarling opponents. But Dhoni stressed he is resigned to it: “There are a lot of players we will miss. As also the support staff. We were together for eight years, and our core group was the same. But I believe whatever has happened was for the good and whatever happens it will be for the good too.” The last sentence was so out of place that it felt a tad hollow.
All the same, Dhoni maintains he is professional enough to understand the inexorable demands of the modern game. Or to be practical enough to not carry emotions and nostalgia on to the field. “As a professional we are supposed to do the job with more than 100 hundred percent commitment. As you enter the field, you forget everything and it’s all about winning the match.” He though will have the reassuring presence of Ravichandran Ashwin, Faf du Plessis and coach Stephen Fleming, and its likely that the ex-CSKians will forge an even more special bond, built over time, trust, triumph and trial.
Building a team, afresh
Where the narrative of Dhoni’s CSK folds up, another narrative of Dhoni’s Supergiants unfolds. We can be legitimately excited, for it not only marks a new phase in Dhoni’s career, with sunset not afar from the horizon, but also the legacy he could build here. Two years may be too less to assemble a machinery of Chennai Super Kings’ disturbing efficiency, but he has at his disposal several players, who when fitted in properly, could make the franchisee function smoothly. A roster featuring Steven Smith, Kevin Pietersen, Ajinkya Rahane and Mitchell Marsh can’t be merely outsiders. But Dhoni maintains the team is not merely a sum of the expensive parts, but how they combine to produce a great unit. “If you look at the six other franchisees, they have a settled lot. They just needed to take a couple of players. But we have to start from scratch and see where each one of them fits in and how we can click collectively. That will be the biggest challenge for me. Having the right resources is the key. That was the way CSK always approached the auctions. That is why in one auction we made just one big signing, that of Jadeja. It was because we needed someone like him and went all out for him,” he said.
Chennai Super Kings were also blessed that there weren’t too many king-size egos lurking in the dressing room. Supergiants, though, have one of the biggest in the planet — KP Pietersen. In him, Dhoni has a potential game-changer at his best and a disruptive sulker at his worst. Cricket has seen both in equal measures, but which side of Pietersen can Dhoni inspire will be an interesting sub-plot in his first term. When reminded of Pietersen’s storied feuds with authorities, Dhoni deflected it with another CSK reference: “You may have a problem if the authorities are around. But in CSK it was never like that. Individuals were allowed to fully express themselves, though they have to adhere to certain guidelines. And often what is portrayed in media is not always true. When you actually meet the person, he will be entirely different. There are people who know him well like Flem (who was Pietersen’s coach in the BBL), and both of us are pretty calm and composed people. That will obviously help him,” he said.
When Dhoni left the room, with the new jersey slung on his right shoulder over his jacket, you try to picture him in the new colours (not the photogenic aspect). You struggle. The bright yellow still dazzles. It’s both a visual and emotional choke for you as well, as Dhoni has become something of a CSK metaphor.