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Should we pity Dhoni in his gilded cage?

The idolatry over top Indian cricketers is intimidating

  • By Steve James
  • Published: 18:26 January 22, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: REUTERS
  • Mahendra Singh Dhoni

Mohali: It was bad timing. At the mid-game break in the second One Day International in Kochi, in search of some sustenance, I went to the lift at the back of one of the huge stands that housed nearly 75,000 people for that match.

Alongside me at the lift doors appeared Sourav Ganguly, the former India captain. He is not someone I have met, but he did have a brief spell at my old county of Glamorgan, so I thought I might try to engage him in conversation. Well, I would have done, had I not suddenly been shunted towards the lift doors by a throng of people.

I turned around and I could not even see Ganguly behind a mass of bodies with arms stretched skywards as they used their phones as cameras. This was an abrupt and up-close and personal experience of the adulation that an Indian cricketer receives in his home country. Retired or not, the hero worship continues and the fame lingers. Ganguly’s face peers down from city billboards, as does that of Kapil Dev.

Young fans, who doubtless never saw him play, touch the feet of Sunil Gavaskar. Touching the feet is a formal tradition usually reserved for elders of the family, and it was recently used by an excited fan who ran on to the pitch when Sachin Tendulkar made a century for Mumbai against Baroda in the Ranji Trophy.

Tendulkar is the one who attracts the most attention, of course. Of all the Indian cricketers he leads the least normal of lives. As a colleague out here said the other day in all seriousness: “He’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a living god.” And I suppose it is true that watching him being worshipped is to witness something approaching deification. But that is not to say that it is not rather disturbing, obscene even. It is why he owns a property near Lord’s in London, where he can enjoy relative anonymity. Because all those stories about Tendulkar only being able to drive his flash cars in the dead of night are, sadly, true.

Last week, however, the reaction to Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s return to Ranchi for the first international match at the splendid new stadium in his hometown was every bit as fanatical as any Tendulkar public appearance. The excitement of the huge crowd waiting at the Birsa Munda airport was astonishing, as Dhoni was greeted with more bouquets than Interflora delivers on an average day.

The front page of The Telegraph (no relation) the following day sported side-by-side photographs of Dhoni and England captain Alastair Cook, taken at the airport. Above Dhoni it said ‘King’; and above Cook it said ‘Contender’. What was remarkable, though, was the detail to which the accompanying piece went in describing Dhoni’s arrival.

It led with the tale of how an airline employee had sneaked past the security cordon surrounding Dhoni and had “eventually managed to touch Dhoni’s left forearm”. In another piece was a description of how the India and England teams boarded buses, while Dhoni was “literally kidnapped by wife Sakshi and family members in a black Land Rover”.

Frankly, it was a surprise that the menu for the dinner given by Dhoni for his teammates at his Harmu mansion that evening was not published, too. Cook is no contender for that sort of publicity. He just slips off quietly to his Bedfordshire farm when he gets home. “I might get the odd look in Tesco’s, but no more,” he reflected, trying to explain his celebrity status.

Dhoni, too, is from the hinterland that is producing more and more of India’s top cricketers, and, as a result, equally humble. Indeed, to watch him at any press conference over here, which are always as wild as women at a Tom Jones concert, is to see a model of patience.

But he is a little richer than Cook. Just a little. Last June, Forbes reported that for the previous year Dhoni was the highest-paid cricketer, earning a total of $26.5 million (Dh97.5 million), outstripping Tendulkar’s $18.6 million and placing him 31st on the list of sports people, which was headed by boxer Floyd Mayweather, who made $85 million.

Like it or not, riches, renown and reverence are all now part of an Indian cricketer’s daily life. Whether it all adds up to a good life is another question.

- The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2012

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