It is uncommon for an Indian cricket captain to train with a domestic side, but Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who plays only the shorter formats of the game now, has been practising with his state squad — Jharkhand — during his extended break from international cricket.
The arrangement is beneficial for both parties – Dhoni and the team, which will play its Ranji Trophy opener against Maharashtra from Thursday. The workout helps Dhoni to get the feel of regular net sessions against the best bowlers from the state when he is not on national duty, while the younger players have the opportunity to rub shoulders with him and pick his brains.
On Wednesday afternoon as the Jharkhand players started warming up, the one time train ticket examiner arrived at the Karnail Singh Stadium — the Railways’ home ground — with his training duffle bag over his shoulder out of which upright cricket bats protruded. This wasn’t going to be only a meet-and-greet session.
As he walked up to the centre wicket, with practice nets on both sides, there was no hullabaloo. Dhoni exchanged pleasantries with the players and coach Rajiv Kumar. It was as if the players were expecting Dhoni to turn up.
A game of improvised football followed – first in a circle and then using sets of wickets as goalposts. The ease with which Dhoni blended into the background during the warm-up game was an early indication that his training sessions with the state team were increasingly becoming a regular affair.
“I won’t be playing this Ranji Trophy game but will be around with the boys. I don’t want to take the place of a youngster who will benefit by playing here,” Dhoni said.
Jharkhand State Cricket Association president Amitabh Choudhary said Dhoni has been part of the pre-season camp held at the international cricket stadium in Ranchi.
And his presence in the Jharkhand dressing room may not be restricted to just the season opener.
When not playing for India, Dhoni is likely to take up the unofficial role of mentor, like he did when the side was playing in the Buchi Babu Invitational Tournament in Chennai in August.
Prior to this, Dhoni was seen opening up when he led a young side on the limited overs tour of Zimbabwe — bonding over PlayStation sessions and making dinner and movie plans.
Since retiring from Tests, Dhoni has fallen back on domestic cricket to get match practice before international games. Last year, he played in the Vijay Hazare Trophy before India travelled to Australia — the first time in nearly eight years that he had played for Jharkhand.
On Wednesday, Dhoni started off by bowling medium-pace in the nets for about 20 minutes. After a while, he padded up and faced the spinners in the nets. As expected, the intensity of the training session wasn’t at par with what he undergoes on the eve of a game. Here Dhoni was getting a few good hits but also doubling up as ‘coach’, talking to the bowlers, and batsmen who were taking turns in the nets along with him.
At the end of the session, the players followed Dhoni into the dressing room for a pre-season talk.
“He spoke about how it is important to build partnerships while batting and also about bowling as a unit. He also gave the boys confidence by talking about how the standard of cricket in the state had improved over the years. His messages are simple but when it comes from someone of his stature, it means a lot. By spending time with the players, Dhoni has boosted the morale of the side,” coach Rajiv Kumar said.
The additional time on hand has also come as a blessing for the 35-year-old Dhoni. Even though he has been caught up in the promotion of his biopic over the past month, not having to play day in and day out has allowed him to recalibrate his fitness regime and tweak his dietary chart.
“I was never a great believer in going to the gym because I was playing regularly (all three formats) and I preferred to give my body rest. When you are playing right through the year, it is difficult at times to maintain a proper diet and find time or energy for the gym. But after retiring from Tests, I have started going to the gym regularly and am able to watch my diet, and it has helped me. I have lost an additional 4 per cent of body fat, which is good. Nowadays, as I am not playing all three formats, I am able to plan my off-season much better,” Dhoni said.
Over the next few days, Dhoni has to be at a selection committee meeting, attend a parade of the Territorial Army, in which he is a Lieutenant Colonel, and will have one eye on the upcoming five-match ODI series. But he promises to drop in at the Karnail Singh Stadium, to build on his newly-acquired reputation as a mentor.