Captain Cool: The MS Dhoni Story
pp 211/INR 200
Mahi’s first full-time job was in 2001, as a ticket-collector on the South-Eastern Railway’s Kharagpur (West Bengal) division. It was in the grade nine category, the kind of job a lower-middle-class family in India would strive for, providing as it does the comfort of job security.
For the first time he had to move out of his beloved Ranchi and live in Kharagpur (two hours’ drive from Kolkata) which boasts of having the world’s longest railway platform. Tennis ball cricket tournaments were all the rage in Kharagpur and Dhoni was hugely popular at these events, attracting up to 20,000 spectators to watch his exciting batting. Many of the unique shots he plays he ascribes now to batting against the tennis ball on 18-yard pitches where yorkers were common. Particularly the one he has made most famous–digging the yorker out of the ground and whipping it to or over the mid-wicket boundary.
It is a shot requiring immense strength of the shoulders and forearms, and he claims he can pull it off–where others have suffered injuries while attempting it–due to the robustness he inherited from his ancestors.
It was around this time that he was called for trials for the Railways Ranji Trophy team at their home ground, the Karnail Singh Stadium in New Delhi. It was the only time he briefly flirted with the idea of leaving his Bihar mates. But the trials turned out badly.
He kept for just three balls, batted briefly and was promptly rejected. He claims it did not bother him at the time. But when he was selected for the Duleep Trophy in early 2004, the Railways came calling again. This time it was his chance to turn them down.
‘I said, “No, no, I’m not coming,”’ he recalls. ‘Perhaps I was rude or whatever, but it had a big impact on me. The incident really pushed me to do better. I was neglected in a big way at that trial. I got more determined to be at a level where you are performing consistently and you are recognised by everyone”. (Cricinfo, 24 March 2008).
The rejection also forged in him a determination, once he became captain of India, that a class player must be given an extended run in the side even if he has struck a bad patch. In that sense, perhaps, the Railways selectors unwittingly did a big favour to Indian cricket.
Life was tough in Kharagpur, away from his family, and in the tiny flat he shared with colleagues. By late 2004 he quit the Railways, and in May 2005 joined Indian Airlines as a manager.
By then, of course, he had made his ODI debut and had the luxury of turning down an offer from Jharkhand chief minister ArjunMunda of the post of deputy superintendent of police. He also declined a job offered by Tata Steel in Jamshedpur.
It took five hard seasons on the domestic circuit before he got his break in the Indian team. But all through those years he never wavered in his loyalty, sticking by the Bihar (later Jharkhand) state team, unfashionable though it was. Dhoni claims he was happy playing Ranji Trophy, never feeling disappointed when he missed out in selections. His ability to stay positive came from the firm conviction that merit and performance would lead to higher things.
‘I believed in performance. I never picked up the newspapers to see if I was picked for the Duleep Trophy or Deodhar Trophy matches for East Zone. For me, it was more about playing cricket, enjoying cricket. I knew if I’m good enough I’ll get a chance and for that I have to be consistent. In my mind I was very clear that if they don’t give me a chance for Duleep or Deodhar Trophy, it doesn’t really matter–I’m happy playing for my state. If I can play consistently well for my state, that’s good enough for me because I love playing cricket more than anything else.’ (Cricinfo, 28 March 2008). Dhoni was among the first generation of small-town players from non-traditional cricket centres to rise to international heights.
Mohammed Kaif, Parthiv Patel and Yuvraj Singh had set the trend a few years before Dhoni, and now it has become well established, with the likes of IrfanPathan, R.P. Singh. Joginder Sharma and Praveen Kumar rising from obscurity and sometimes impoverished backgrounds to reach the Indian team.
The days of dominance of players from the traditional metros, while not quite over, have certainly been eclipsed by the country boy cricketer and his burning hunger to succeed. Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar as a separate state in November 2000, with Ranchi as its capital. But it was not till the 2004-05 season that its team competed in the Ranji Trophy under the Jharkhand banner, absorbing players from Bihar (which no longer competes as a separate state team). Till then, players from Jharkhand continued to represent Bihar.
Dhoni never led his state side, despite being offered the captaincy during his breakthrough 2004-05 season, preferring to stay and concentrate on honing his batting and wicketkeeping. He had a taste of captaincy only very briefly in school and college. Even more remarkable, then, that he has taken to leading the national team like a duck to water.
The 1998-99 season was spent playing for Bihar in the Cooch Behar Under-19 tournament (three-day matches) and though he did not make any waves, Dhoni did enough with the bat (185 runs from eight innings, three not out with one 50) and gloves to retain his place in the next season. Bihar made it to the final in 1999-00 and Dhoni also represented East Zone in the C.K. Nayudu Under-19 zonal one-day tournament that season.
Dhoni’s form with the bat picked up in the second season of the Cooch Behar tournament and he had three half-centuries and three scores of 40-plus on the way to the final. But the Bihar boys were in for a rude shock when they faced Punjab in the four-day final at the Keenan Stadium in Jamshedpur in September 1999.
Winning the toss and electing to bat, Bihar would have been pleased with their total of 357. Dhoni was second top scorer with a typically robust 84 (12 fours and two sixes). Then the Punjab batsmen took over, taking up nearly two and a half days in compiling a massive 839 for five wickets in 222 overs.
It was a severe test of Dhoni’s stamina. It was also his first sight of the prodigious talent of Punjab captain Yuvraj Singh, who smashed an amazing 358, adding 207 for the second wicket with Ravneet Singh Ricky and 341 for the third with Vivek Mahajan.
The Bihar bowlers were clueless and Dhoni had to be satisfied with a lone stumping. But it was a lesson worth learning for the youngsters.
Though the C.K. Nayudu tournament was a flop for both East Zone (losing all four games) and their wicket-keeper (97 runs in four innings), Dhoni’s first-class debut followed immediately after. It came for Bihar against Assam in the Ranji Trophy at the Keenan Stadium on 12 January 2000. Bihar captain Sunil Kumar had kept wickets earlier in the season and was one of the side’s leading batsmen as well. But it was felt the triple role was a burden, and so Dhoni was selected to wear the big gloves with Kumar playing as a specialist batsman.
The day before the same teams had met in the Ranji Trophy one-day tournament, Bihar winning by eight wickets. Dhoni took one catch but was not required to bat.
The first-class debut played over four days was something special though. He managed just one victim (Assam opener Parag Kumar Das stumped off Avinash Kumar in the second innings) but made an immediate impression with the bat. Coming in at number seven in both innings, Dhoni struck a rapid 40 from 62 balls in Bihar’s first innings of 258. Assam replied with 247 and when quick runs were needed in the second innings, Dhoni stayed unbeaten on 68 (striking eight boundaries in both knocks) from 89 balls as Assam were set a target of 355. They collapsed for 163 on the final day, handing Bihar a win by 191 runs.
At the end of the match, veteran left-arm spinner Avinash Kumar–ironically playing his last first-class game–told the young debutant: ‘You have the talent to play for India.’ It was a comment that struck Mahi then, and has stayed with him ever since.
Randhir Singh, the medium pacer who had played two ODIs in the ’80s, was one of the state selectors who spotted him and was coach of the Bihar Ranji Trophy team at the time. Looking back at those early struggles in a recent interview, Dhoni appeared bewildered by his own rise from anonymity to international fame.
‘To even to get into the Ranji Trophy side was a big thing,’ he reminisced. (Cricinfo, 28 March 2008). ‘Fortunately we had a selector (Randhir Singh) who believed in youngsters. We (Bihar) qualified for the Cooch Behar Under-19 that year and made it to the final, so there was a big change and all of a sudden we saw five youngsters getting into the Bihar Ranji squad. That was a start. Bihar was considered a small state and for you to be a part of the (East) zonal team, especially to get into the XI, it is tough. Yo u had to perform consistently for that.’
With Bihar qualifying for the Ranji Trophy Super League as the second team in East Zone behind Orissa, Dhoni gained the experience of playing against leading sides from around the country.
Bihar’s campaign in the Super League was a disappointing one, failing to win a single of their four matches and Dhoni managing just 175 runs in eight innings.
It was a harsh welcome to the tough grind of Indian first class cricket but an experience which would stand him in good stead over the next few seasons.
He finished the season with 283 runs from 10 innings (five matches) with one not out and one half-century at an average of 31.44. He also claimed 12 catches and three stumpings. It was hardly an outstanding performance but the promise was obvious.
A quick learner, Dhoni absorbed the lessons of his first season and by 2000-01 he was beginning to look more polished both in front of and behind the stumps.
In the Ranji Trophy one-day match against Tripura that season, he recorded his highest score in senior cricket to date, 84 runs from 73 balls with 10 fours and four sixes, the sort of rollicking batting that would earn him fame and fortune in the years to come.
The match was held at the tiny Calcutta Cricket and Football Club ground in the south of the city, and the short boundaries were easily cleared by his strong blows. He had been promoted to opener in the tournament and finished with scores of 4, 84, 43 and 1 in the four East Zone league matches.
That season he also represented East Zone for the first time in the Deodhar Trophy one-day tournament, playing a match against South Zone in Kanpur.
Then came the big breakthrough on the national level and that, too, on the big stage of the imposing Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
It was in January 2001 that Bihar faced Bengal in their final league match of the season. Dhoni had behind him a string of low scores in the four-day Ranji games and may have been feeling the heat to retain his place in the playing XI.
Batting first, Bengal amassed a huge 608 for five declared with centuries by Nikhil Haldipur, Alokendu Lahiri and Rohan Gavaskar.
Bihar’s aim was to avoid the follow-on. They failed to do so but they discovered a new star in M.S. Dhoni. He reached his maiden first-class century, 114 not out, on 5 January to take Bihar to 323 in their first innings. Following on, Bihar reached 302 for three to earn a creditable draw. Dhoni’s was a fighting knock. He batted for over four hours and faced 206 balls and though the innings contained its liberal share of boundaries (17 fours and one six), it was the way the 19-year-old shielded the tail-enders that impressed onlookers.
In fact there were three distinct phases to his century. Coming in with the total reading 228 at the fall of the fifth wicket, he started with a flurry of boundaries. But as wickets began to fall around him, he dropped anchor.
Once he realised he might run out of partners and miss out on his maiden ton, he let loose again. He found an able partner in number 11 Dhiraj Kumar who contributed just nine runs in a last wicket stand worth 55.
Dhoni reached three figures in flamboyant style, smashing left-arm spinner Shibsagar Singh for a soaring six over long-off.
Sadly, the day was marred by a shocking display of petulance from another teenager, all-rounder LaxmiRatanShukla, who had played three ODIs a couple of years earlier. Shukla’s first over with the second new ball went for 16 runs, Dhoni cracking three boundaries. Shukla responded with a beamer and a mouthful of abuse. Dhoni complained to the umpires after the over but things only got worse. Shukla was eventually sent packing from the field by his captain and did not take the field the next day.
Nothing, though, could ruffle Dhoni’s feathers. While one teenage prodigy was beginning to disintegrate beneath the public gaze, another was just beginning to make his mark. The drawn match ended a miserable season for Bihar, which finished fourth in the East Zone league and failed to qualify for the next stage. Dhoni’s figures for the season read four matches, six innings, one not out, 195 runs, highest score 114 not out, average 39.00. He also claimed six catches and one stumping.
With no more matches for Bihar, some of the momentum was lost for Dhoni, and this may have been one cause for the drastic drop in form the next season. In fact, 2001-02 was an unmitigated disaster for both Dhoni and his team.
Having made the breakthrough with his maiden century in the previous season, he was expected to carry on from where he had left off. Instead, he went through the season with just one half-century (96 against Orissa) in four Ranji four-day games and four Ranji one-day matches as Bihar finished a dismal fourth in their zone in both tournaments.
It was a tough time all round. Usually down at number six, Dhoni was often called upon to save the follow-on, a difficult task for someone who loved to play his strokes. All that combined to leave him, after three seasons of first-class cricket, with a sense of disappointment. Dhoni now found himself bombarded with advice to soften his aggressive style of batting and also switch to a higher-profile state team. But he stuck to his guns, determined not to tamper with the methods that had got him this far on the first-class scene. And he also refused to ditch his team.
It was a wise decision, one that paid rich dividends the very next season in which he reeled off eight half centuries. The Plate and Elite group system was introduced for the first time in the Ranji Trophy in 2002-03 and Bihar had another poor season, finishing bottom of group B in the Plate section, losing all four of their completed matches. They did better in the Ranji one-day tournament with two wins, a tie and a loss, and Dhoni had scores of 10, 74, 88 and 74 as Bihar finished second to Bengal in the East Zone rankings.
After missing out on the Deodhar Trophy the previous season, Dhoni was back for East Zone and added another two 50s in three games.
Cumulatively, it was his best season by far. In the four-day and one-day matches–in which he was now regularly opening– his combined figures for the season read 682 runs from 15 innings (one not out) for the healthy average of 48.71. The crisis of the previous season had been overcome by the only method Dhoni knew–bold, attacking cricket. The die had been cast.
The momentum was maintained and by the end of 2003- 04 he was beginning to catch the eye of the national selectors. Everything was finally falling into place.
The innings that shot him to national prominence was in the Deodhar Trophy match against Central Zone on 27 January 2004, a virtual final before his adoring fans at Jamshedpur. East Zone needed to win the match to claim the title in the round-robin tournament and they did so in fine style, crushing their opponents by 142 runs. It was the first time East Zone had won the Deodhar Trophy since 1996-97 and Dhoni was a star in his own backyard.
Opening with Nikhil Haldipur, he smashed 114 runs from 124 balls with 12 fours and three sixes, as East ran up a formidable 324 for four wickets from their 50 overs. It was a no-contest after that. This was his second century of the season, following 128 against Assam in the Ranji one-day game. Raju Mukherjee and Prakash Poddar, two former Bengal cricketers, were the talent research development officers appointed by the board for the Deodhar Trophy. They passed on information about Dhoni to Dilip Vengsarkar, chairman of the Talent Research Development Wing at the National Cricket Academy.
Mukherjee told me they had mentioned Dhoni’s name as a ‘match-winning hard hitter’ in their reports. ‘I also mentioned that his wicket-keeping did not impress me. Dilip took the initiative to nurture and develop Dhoni’s raw talent. I, of course, cannot take any credit for Dhoni’s success.’
Incidentally, he was not keeping wickets in the Deodhar
Trophy, that role being handled by Bengal’s Deep Dasgupta who had played Test matches by then. Dhoni’s batting prowess thus saw him play the role as a specialist opener in one-day games. A month later, he was selected for the East Zone team for the Duleep Trophy, making his debut in the elite zonal tournament against the visiting England ‘A’ side, the first foreign team to be invited to play in the tournament. Once again, he opened the batting with Dasgupta holding down the ’keeper’s slot.
The match in Amritsar was the second for East in their group, and they had to win to reach the final. Dhoni had missed the first match against South Zone but now he made people sit up and take notice with another forceful batting display.
There were four current or future international players in the England squad, including Kevin Pietersen and opening bowler Sajid Mahmood, both touring for the first time. This was my first sighting of the player whose name had been increasingly appearing in the media.
I introduced myself to Dhoni and we chatted for a few minutes, between innings, on the boundary edge. I recall his face lighting up when I told him that I had spent a year in his beloved Ranchi back in 1973. We briefly exchanged yarns about Ranchi and our respective schools. Though the meeting was brief, I found him friendly, polite and articulate.
It was the first time Dhoni was playing against an international side, but that hardly fazed him as he clouted 12 boundaries in his first innings of 52.
It was certainly an eye-catching performance and there was a buzz round the ground as he added 93 for the opening wicket with Shiv Sundar Das. In the second knock he struck four boundaries in another quick 24 as East won by 93 runs to reach the final against North Zone in Mohali.
Dasgupta was dropped for the final and Dhoni opened the batting, also keeping wickets. Set a stiff target of 409 to win in the fourth innings, Ashish Nehra and the other North bowlers must have wondered what hit them as Dhoni raced to 60 from 47 balls with eight fours and a six. But the momentum could not be maintained and East lost by 59 runs. Dhoni also picked up five catches behind the stumps to complete what had been another outstanding season.
It now appeared only a matter of time before he graduated to India colours.
The second chapter of the book, Captain Cool: The MS Dhoni Story, has been extracted here
Gulu Ezekiel is one of India’s best known sports writers with over 30 years of experience in print, TV, radio and on the Internet. He has previously been Sport Editor at Asian Age, NDTV and indya.com and is the author of over a dozen sports books. Gulu has also contributed to numerous sports books published from India, Australia and England as well as written for over 100 publications worldwide since his career began in 1980. Based in New Delhi from 1991, in August 2001 Gulu launched GE Features, a features and syndication service. He is a familiar face on TV where he is regularly invited to air his views on various news channels.