MS Dhoni
M.S. Dhoni during the World Cup campaign in England earlier this year. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: On Monday, Mahendra Singh Dhoni became a talking point in the Indian cricket fraternity again — not for the retirement buzz but having completed 15 years in international cricket. His contribution to Indian cricket has been so enormous that despite questions being raised on why he hasn’t retired at 38, his fans adore him as a giant among cricketers of the present era.

It has been a rewarding experience to have been able to interview him from the days he wore jet black long hair to the present avatar of greying bearded days. Answers to queries on his game were always filled with zest and analytical mind, something that would make one want to emulate him, not just as a cricketer but as a leader too.

During my earlier interviews around 2004-2006, he spoke about his ambitions, which he backed with hard work. After taking over as India’s captain in 2007, he rarely gave one-on-one interviews; instead he preferred to express his views in press conferences. During one such interaction in Dubai when Dhoni launched his cricket academy in 2017, I asked him whether he would recommend budding cricketers to attempt his famous helicopter shot. His response was that they should not attempt it very early in the career but rather train to play it only after gaining experience. He spoke in detail on how he had mastered that shot over the years and how one can start practising it.

Dhoni has shaped his career with a lot of thinking and behind his rise to fame, there is a lot of sweat and tears. It might be that willingness to train hard against all odds that have made people adore him as a cool captain. The ability to pull off a victory in closely fought games, not to speak of keeping his emotions in control, all were as sharp as his agility as a wicketkeeper. His determination was as strong as his fitness and even at the age of 38, these qualities have remained sound. The proof lies in the 17,266 runs that he has piled up and the 826 dismissals from across all formats for India over the last 15 years.

Dhoni’s rise from a small industrial town of Ranchi is a lesson for every youngster, and he never hesitates to give tips to budding cricketers on how to be successful — be it his younger colleagues in the Indian team or a star-struck trainee in his academy. A piece of simple advice from him to young cricketers while in Dubai was: “Keep the mobiles away and focus on the game.”

Even the harshest of Dhoni’s critics, who criticise his decision to still continue playing, feel that his sheer presence in the dressing room can lift the spirit and enthusiasm of the team. While reporting his last international inning against New Zealand in the ICC Cricket World Cup semi-final at Manchester, when he walked away after being run out for 50, one witnessed how almost everyone stood up to have a look at him till he disappeared into the dressing room. He hasn’t played for India since July 2019, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether that was his last knock.

The memories of his match-winning knocks and his captaincy that won India the T20 World Cup in 2007, the ICC World Cup in 2011, Champions Trophy in 2013 have all made cricket fans around the world salute him. His brilliance as a captain was also witnessed in the Indian Premier League where he guided Chennai Super Kings to innumerable close wins and three title triumphs. He got his fans to ‘whistlepodu’ (blow of whistles in classic Chennai style). Whatever he does, his fans admire him, including his love for the Indian Army.

Dhoni’s journey from an aspiring goalkeeper in school football to earning his livelihood as a train ticket collector and rising to become one of modern legends will remain an inspiring tale for many generations.