Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a very private person. He doesn’t take phone calls, avoids in-depth interviews, didn’t invite team-mates for his wedding and was hyper-secretive about quitting Test captaincy. A uni-expression recluse, India’s most-famous and the least-understood superstar has kept the world at arm’s length.
Of late, he has changed. Admired for bottling up those insuppressible emotions — anger, anxiety and elation — inside him for close to a decade and a half, Dhoni, these days, has been unusually open about his fanboydom for the fatigues. After initiating the Indian team’s move to wear military hats for a home one-dayer few months back, Dhoni chose the World Cup stage to put the commando dagger para-military insignia on his wicket-keeping gloves.
Long before he pushed the envelope in England, got ICC to google “Balidan badge” and made the moushtaches of the television studios to ramp up their angry act, Dhoni had always been an obsessive army adherent. His armed forces fixation is as old as his long-haired Tarzan look.
On the cricket circuit, they say, the best way to engage the cagey cricketer is to mention the army. Not quite a reader, Dhoni is said to be an avid student of military history and tactical warfare. He chose Neeraj Pandey, a movie-maker who weaves covert military operations stories with fatigue intrigue (Baby, Aiyaary, Rustom and Naam Shabana), to helm his biopic. Among his closest friends is an ex-armyman. On one England tour, he met a local hot-shot politician. They got talking about tanks and fighter planes. Folklore has it that the stumped Englishman, after the chat, said Dhoni had it in him to be defence minister.
His captaincy too had a bit of army leadership to it. There were no long team meetings and one-on-one with freshers were rare. The team worked on a strictly need-to-know basis. Dhoni kept his mind and team uncluttered; his clear thinking giving India two World Cups and a long stint as the No 1 Test team.
Back in the day, Dhoni would often go incommunicado between series. After persistent pestering about his whereabouts, his minders would reveal, “He was at an Army unit, he loves spending time with them. Not for writing, he does not do it for publicity.”
In 2011, the World Cup winning captain was made a lieutenant colonel in the Territorial Army. He got his own olive greens. Those close to him say, he couldn’t sleep that night. Now, he was more public about his love for troops. He posted pictures with guns, visited J&K in uniform, and then, his fascination for the fatigue sneaked on to his glove. The Balidan emblem he fashioned belongs to the elite special forces of the parachute regiment, who undergo arduous impossible-to-imagine-for-a-civilian training — both physical and psychological — to earn that badge.
Mind you, Dhoni wasn’t pretending to be one of them. His act needs to be firmly seen as that of an earnest fan-boy who looks up to the elite soldiers with unabashed star-struck reverence. Probably, similar to a football fan piously donning a ManU jersey or a Marvel buff sneaking to school a geometry box with a Thor sticker on it.
It’s not too different from that never-out-of-fashion Top Gun hat-tip — bomber jackets, aviators and dog tags. Picked from the merchandise shops, this paraphernalia has for years been popular with SSB rejects, and over-protective mother’s pets kept away from defence services or plain war-movie or Tom Cruise buffs.
Last year, for the Padma Bhushan ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Dhoni wore his army uniform with all its accompanying glitter. So used to seeing him in cricket gear, it felt mildly awkward to see him in the new “officer” avatar. Dhoni’s makeover wasn’t cosmetic. Inside the intimidatingly grand Durbar Hall, with the prime minister in audience, he marched towards the dais. While his sparkling cricketing achievements were being read out, the most-popular awardee that day went left-right-left-right, half-step turn, left-right-left-right.
A revered Indian captain wearing the much-respected uniform for an august occasion, the frame was too distinguished to be brutally dissected. But there was no denying it looked awkward and out-of-place. A blazer with a BCCI logo would have been apt. It was like turning up for your medical school convocation wearing an advocate’s gown or sporting NCC khakhis while getting a medallion for academic excellence.
But by bringing his fanhood for the fatigues to the cricket field, Dhoni crossed the line. Maybe, in his uncomplicated mind, this was a novel gesture to support armed forces, a grandiose follow-up after the team’s heart-felt financial support to families of the men in uniform killed in the line of duty.
But he was missing an important point. The military look of cricketers was blurring that very important line that separates a sporting contest between neighbours and a cross-border skirmish where men lose lives. Wearing military hats on the 22 yards was a knotty issue and downright hostile in a foreign land. It wasn’t some fauji theme-party. This had layers.
Dhoni, for one, has always pushed for the sport to remain just that, a sport. Before every India-Pakistan game, he would be guarded with his words. The then captain would bore you to death by repeating the classic pre-match day de-escalation cliche “it’s just another game of cricket”. Contrary to that, in these hyper-sensitive times for Indo-Pak relations, Dhoni’s army logo glove has changed the context of the World Cup’s most-anticipated match next Sunday. It has needlessly raised the stakes of what is actually “just another India-Pakistan game”.
Militarising machismo can be easily perceived as unwarranted baiting. Combat caps for a game in Ranchi against an indifferent Australia was something the ICC had let pass. Expecting to be allowed a special forces badge days before an Indo-Pak square off was always fraught. Imagine Pakistan launching a tit-for-tat logo war, or worse, England strapping on SAS symbols or Australia brandishing their insignia when playing Afghanistan. This muddies the water, it brings on field those unwanted non-cricket actors.
In days to come, voices of cricket pundits will be drowned by bickering professional war-mongers on either side of the border, each jostling for their 15 minutes of fame. Quick on the button, Pakistan’s science and technology minister has set the tone. He didn’t miss the chance to show his mythological proficiency by saying that Dhoni was not in England for Mahabharat. It was enough for television studios to conduct cross border shout-athons, send reporters to the Wagah border and invoke the inner Sunny Deol of unsuspecting morning walkers who were suddenly live on national television.
This happens every time India plays Pakistan, but this weekend things will be different. On the television screens, when those nauseating rabid debates are on, will be the face of India’s least-provocative cricketer with cult status. The olive green hue to India-Pakistan cricket contest was outrightly avoidable. The result of an India-Pakistan game doesn’t just decide the mood of the nation, but it unfortunately becomes the commentary on the assertion and aspiration of the two countries.
The scoreboard that isn’t even a reliable assessment of the skills and athleticism of the 22 on field, gets treated as a nation’s report card. So, in this backdrop, imagine if the ball pops out of Dhoni’s Balidan gloves and the edge is from the bat of Pakistan opener Fakhar Zaman, who is also wearing his employer Pakistan Navy’s crescent and star on top of an anchor logo. Mixing sport and the armed forces isn’t good for either’s reputation.
Dhoni should have known this. Military symbols aren’t just about valour and patriotism; commando daggers are also reminders of war, death, orphans and widows. Sport is also about winning and losing but it’s also about shaking hands at the end of the contest. And do India’s forces need validation frankly, piggybacking on the popularity of a cricket hero? His fandom of the fatigues notwithstanding, Dhoni should have known — cricket has the luxury of reviews, wars are grim affairs with no second chance.