“IF YOU had told me Dhoni was going to be the biggest cricket superstar ever back then, I would have never believed you. Today he earns more than Novak Djokovic.” Douglas Hondo couldn’t have probably put it better. You find him seated alone on one of the many metal stands—the kinds you find at school playgrounds in India—near the practice area at the Harare Sports Club. He’s just got done with bowling in the nets to the Zimbabwe team. At the other end of the ground, MS Dhoni has just begun descending the steps of the Indian dressing-room, and there’s an inevitable buzz around the ground.
And Hondo, the former Zimbabwe fast bowler, can’t help but reminisce about the last time he and the Indian captain were at the historic venue at the same time. It was 2004, and Dhoni had come over as pretty much the anonymous face of the India A squad on tour in Africa. And as first impressions go, he didn’t really make a memorable one on Hondo anyway.
Hondo, then with a full head of dreadlocks, had bowled to the unknown quantity with a handsome long mane resting on his shoulders, and as he puts it wondered how he had made it to this level. “He had such a wonky defence, we thought we could dismiss him every ball,” he recalls. Then Hondo starts bellowing with laughter, almost like he can’t believe what he’s just said before adding, “But well, has there been anyone who’s hit the ball better in the dozen years since.” Just then Tendai Chatara and Elton Chigumbura—both of whom will be part of the Zimbabwe team that takes on India in the first ODI on Saturday—just walk past, pointing towards the Indian team and simply going, “Dhoni ehh,” as if that’s enough said.
You couldn’t really have blamed Hondo or any of his teammates from 12 years ago for not having thought much of Dhoni. He had played a single game in that series, opened and been dismissed by Tinashe Panyangara for 1. India A then moved on to Kenya, where Dhoni came to the fore and the rest is pretty much six-hitting, money-spinning history. That wasn’t the last time the 35-year-old came to Harare though. He was here the following year with the senior India team this time for a tri-series, which included New Zealand. And it was at this picturesque ground that the legend of Dhoni the nerveless finisher was born. In back-to-back ODIs, he guided India home in breath-taking fashion having walked in with the team in a precarious state—something he would do over and over again during the next decade or so.
If that maiden African trip was the making of Dhoni, then this one is in many ways made for him to show that he still remains more than relevant to India’s limited-overs setup, even if he’s basically just shepherding a bunch of new faces into the highest level. It’s not so much about making a statement as it is about making his presence felt at a time, many voices have begun insisting that the climax of the Dhoni saga be brought forth. It doesn’t really matter that Zimbabwe has now gone from a once prosperous NextGen team to pretty much world cricket’s back of beyond. It’s an understatement to say that a lot has changed since then. Yes, the fact that Dhoni now sports an undercut quiff haircut—with the top grown out—is as significant a change. And where his cricketing aura has gone does not need any elaboration. Zimbabwean cricket has gone from the brink of total collapse to, well, total collapse in that period; and even though they’re calling it a ‘full strength’ team that will take on Dhoni & Co in this series, it certainly doesn’t come across as one.
Dhoni’s unexpected arrival in Harare hasn’t been lost on anyone who has anything to do with cricket in Zimbabwe. For the Indian expats here, it’s akin to when Jimi Hendrix returned to the US as the greatest rockstar in the planet back in the 1960s. They can finally see the man they have worshipped and idolized from afar in flesh and blood.
To the extent that many of them actually spent a lot of US dollars—the only accepted currency in Zimbabwe—to attend a dinner party on Wednesday night, just so that they could meet the man in person. As it turned out, and much to their chagrin, he wasn’t there. It wasn’t his fault though for he wasn’t expected to be there. So they did the next big thing, and showed up in their numbers at the quaint Sports Club to catch his attention, and also of course grab a photograph or two.
But to their dismay, the security around the team didn’t allow them anywhere close which led to one of them screaming “These players have too much attitude. Last year we could go close to them” To which the security in-charge calmly replied, “No ma’m. Dhoni wasn’t a part of the team last time.” All they could do was shrug their shoulders and move away, but they weren’t ready to leave yet, even if it meant watching Dhoni from a distance go through his routines—starting with bowling his seam-up—in the nets. For them, the rest of the team were literally just making the numbers.
Seventeen-year-old Anish Nathoo, who attends Westridge High School the only Hindu school in the country, had higher hopes though. As part of the Zimbabwe U-17 team he had been invited to watch the Indians practice. But even he wasn’t fortunate enough to live his dream. “I just want to tell him that I’m the biggest fan of Dhoni in the world,” he said. Just when you were about to go, haven’t we heard that before, he corrected himself, “In Zimbabwe anyway.” Nathoo had to make do with mingling with some of the other members of the Indian team. As far as Dhoni was concerned, all the teenager got was a grudging glimpse of him chat with a young kid, who turned out to be selector-on-tour Gagan Khoda’s son—MSK Prasad the South Zone representative of the selection committee was also in attendance.
As Dhoni got into the nets, and started smashing the ball from the word go, even some of the Zimbabwean team members hung around to watch him. And it didn’t look like they were there simply to take pointers on how they would contend with him the following day. They will get a better look at him of course on Saturday–when Dhoni plays only his fourth ODI against Zimbabwe–and the rest of the extensive Dhoni fan-club as they look to make the most of this unprecedented ‘royal’ visit. Hondo will be there too, armed like he says with his trusted camera. He also plans to catch up with his one-time opponent at some point over the next couple of weeks. But he isn’t keen on revealing his first impressions of Dhoni when the meeting does occur. For as he puts it, “He might just ask me to $^&* off.”