Thala, they call him. Wherever he goes – especially when playing in the canary yellow of Chennai Super Kings – there is an air of reverence, because they know only too well the humble beginnings that came before his rise to one of his craft’s greatest captains.
Thala is a Tamil term for leader. The Don. The One.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni may no longer be the captain of India’s cricket team, but he still leads in his own, unique manner. When the incumbent, the outrageously talented and tempestuous Virat Kohli, boils over, Dhoni is there behind the stumps, serenely surveying the scene and drawing out the tension.
One of Dhoni’s greatest skills as a leader is his attention to detail. During South Africa’s two-month trek around India in 2015, Dhoni found his press conference in the sleepy town of Rajkot interrupted by a huge fireworks display. Never mind that it was in the middle of a five-match series, Rajkot had decided to mark their hosting of a major one-day international with a kaleidoscope as vivid as anything that had greeted India’s historic ICC Cricket World Cup triumph in 2011 on home soil.
As Dhoni prepared to answer the first question, the crackers went off. And carried on. And on. And on. Dhoni got off his chair and went to the window, looking back out to the stadium. A room full of journalists followed him and watched in glee. The show went on for about 10 minutes, but Dhoni was over it after two. He went back to his chair to wait it out and then sparked a conversation with the only visiting journalist in the room.
“What can you tell me about this semifinal that all the South Africans are talking about?” he asked.
“The rugby?” the startled response came.
A well-informed captain
Even by Dhoni’s measure of surprising statements, the topic of discussion came out of left field. “Yes, they are playing the All Blacks, aren’t they? Do they have a chance?”
Like all South Africans, the journalist held cautious optimism in the answer. Semifinals are funny things, but the South African rugby team have a knack of dealing with them – a skill they would do well to pass on to the cricketers.
“Do you think the whole team [the Proteas] will be watching? It is quite late on Saturday, isn’t it?” Dhoni continued, warming to his cross-examination.
As it was, AB de Villiers and the Proteas had set up a room to watch the Springboks deep into the Mumbai night. What Dhoni was getting at was if they would all have a late night. If rugby was so entrenched in the South African culture, might they risk a good night’s sleep over an event happening on the other side of the world?
In any event, South Africa scored heavily on a wonderful surface at the Wankhede Stadium to clinch the series. So the late night didn’t harm them, but that Dhoni had already thought that far ahead was an illustration of how well informed he was as India’s captain. Not much escaped his clutches.
As he nears the end of an illustrious career – an incredible story many have attempted to capture in writing and in a biopic in 2016 – Dhoni’s legacy is already assured. One unforgettable helicopter shot that flew into the Mumbai sky and clinched the World Cup title elevated Dhoni to that special place reserved for the true icons in India.
Dev. Gavaskar. Tendulkar. Dhoni. Kohli.
Lieutenant Colonel Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Dhoni is the unorthodox and unpretentious former ticket collector who rose to become the hottest ticket in town. In a country with well over a billion people, all dreaming of playing cricket for India, his tale to the top is crammed with all the things that make scriptwriters buckle at the knees.
And yet, one of India’s most popular figures of all time always held a candle for national service. In 2011, when he had room to breathe after the World Cup party eventually died down, Dhoni was granted an honorary lieutenant colonel post in the Indian army.
Kapil Dev, the hero of the 1983 World Cup win also holds the honorary title. But it is quite likely that it has never meant quite as much to Dev as it did to Lieutenant Colonel Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who quipped that the honour might be the greatest achievement of his life – perhaps even greater than winning the World Cup.
On the night he received his military title, the story goes that he refused to take off the camouflage threads. He was beyond chuffed. Indeed, his keeping gloves are splattered with the camo design as an ode to the soldiers who are eternal night watchmen for a billion. That is how sincerely he views the work that men in uniform do.
He is especially fascinated by those who man the borders of the country. The protectors.
This shouldn’t be altogether surprising, because Dhoni jealously protected his side and its successes during his tenure. He refuses to even take a peek at what the Indian media monster might be saying. And he has always implored his teams to do the same.
Even as Kohli’s juggernaut into the limelight gathered more steam, Dhoni stood vigil until the best player in the world was ready. Like an ageing Mufasa, watching and waiting to hand over the pride lands, Dhoni has let Kohli grow into the top office in Indian cricket. They are different, he and Kohli. One is brash and feeds off of confrontation and controversy. Come at me, he dares. The other says less, but does just as much. Don’t come at me, his demeanour warns.
Always doing what’s needed
But the dynamic works. While Kohli puffs out his chest, marches to the crease and flays his bat of wonder against anyone who dares stand in front of him, Dhoni simply does. He does what the occasion dictates.
He takes a glove off, ready to effect a run-out from behind the stumps if the opposition need one to win off the final delivery. He strides out at the business end of the chase, often bareheaded, and smacks the drama out of the situation. Often, there is barely a smile on his face.
As a soldier might, he is merely performing his national duty. Then again, Mufasa didn’t need to roar for the animal kingdom to know how he felt. Even now, at nearly 38 years of silent rage, he is still regarded as one of the greatest finishers in the game.
He has earned that tag, too, with some outrageous heist jobs over the past decade and more. Just recently, there was outrage when India’s selectors named their Cricket World Cup squad and there were some anticipated names missing. The world’s most famous babysitter, Rishabh Pant, was not among the 15 names to represent the two-time world champions in the United Kingdom.
Given all the impish left-hander had accomplished on an unforgettable trip to Australia at the turn of the year, Pant seemed to have done more than enough to at least warrant a place in the squad. In his way, however, was one MS Dhoni.
The elder statesman emphasised the reason why the selection panel reconciled with leaving Pant at home in the Indian Premier League (IPL) eliminator between Dhoni’s Chennai and Pant’s Delhi. Dhoni and his ageing Super Kings prevailed, while Pant and a Delhi Capitals team that had looked so good for much of the round-robin stage fell away.
One of the key images from that clash – and, indeed, Indian cricket – came after the match, as Dhoni and Pant engaged in a long conversation. Well, the Thala spoke, and the young one listened. Pant knows that his time will come soon enough, but there is a strong argument that he could still have been in the squad, even if his chances of playing would have been limited.
Hindsight will judge the wisdom of the selectors’ choice.
An unassuming superstar
Pant, one might say, is a Kohli player. Fearless, forthright and fantastically talented. He is the next generation of Indian cricketer, gloriously infused with lashings of confidence after years of development in the IPL. He knows how good he is and wants to show the world.
Dhoni, however, is a different breed. At 20, he was still making his way in life. Those who knew him then still remember how content he was in his role as a travelling ticket examiner at Kharagpur Railway Station. That is a world away from leading an IPL franchise for a decade, from presiding over India’s most successful period as an international winner of tournaments, with the 2007 World Twenty20, the 2011 World Cup, the 2013 Champions Trophy and countless iconic series garnered on his watch.
Despite all that, Dhoni remains one of the most unassuming superstars the game has ever known. He never set out to be a star, on billboards and buildings, his name in movies and books. It just happened.
If it wasn’t cricket, he might have developed into a football goalkeeper. Or a badminton maverick, with hair flowing furiously as he flicked a helicopter forehand over the net. Cricket found him and held his gaze long enough for him to see a future. It was a bit like getting on the wrong train and meeting the love of your life.
He somehow found the right ticket for himself and has been on a ride ever since. But he can hear the brakes engaging now. In fact, he has requested the stop button himself. Like the hit movie The Lion King, Indian cricket will soon lose its Mufasa. Its Thala.
It is inevitable because time deems it so, and so do the ever louder knocks of Pant at the door. Everyone knows that one of the main protagonists in this 2019 Cricket World Cup will be the Indian Simba, Virat Kohli.
Simba roaring his way into the history books
Abundantly talented, Kohli is the world’s best pursuer of targets. In another life, he might have been a steeplechaser, relentlessly mowing down the distance and always with an eye on the clock.
Kohli is primed to roar his way into the history books, with an adolescent ambition for power and an appetite for the big stage. He is greedy enough and gifted enough to shatter most run-scoring records by the time he lays his bat to sleep.
But to really scale the Everest that is Indian cricketing lore, Kohli also has to stand on Pride Rock and deliver a shimmering crown to the masses. India won the 2011 World Cup for Tendulkar, to add glitter and gloss to an exhaustive body of work. The coronation of King Kohli will only be truly complete with a title of that magnitude, where he plays a decisive hand.
He stuttered over his lines in 2017 at the Champions Trophy, as Pakistan stole in like gleeful hyenas and made off with the kill.
“Simba still needs Mufasa,” respected ESPN Cricinfo scribe Siddarth Monga said, assessing the savannah.
“If Kohli felt that there was no need for Dhoni in that team, he might not be there. But he still has massive influence, through bowling and field changes, the rhythm of the game and, of course, his batting.”
That is the power of the captain in Indian cricket. Their yay or nay has implications that are far-reaching. Some feast on this power, but Dhoni has always compartmentalised the fervour. Cricket is still just a game, with a start and an end point. That collective lapse in the Champions Trophy two years ago may have convinced Dhoni to stick around a while longer, because there was still work to be done.
The deadly hyenas on the prowl
Simba will lead and will brace himself for when the hyenas close in once more. From England, Australia, South Africa and, of course, Pakistan, they will come.
For all the pre-emptive talk of England being the favourites to win, this 50-over shootout is India’s to lord over. The drier conditions offered up by a searing British summer only aid their chances, with spin a strong part of their attack. But they are also stacked with winners up the order.
Multimillionaires fêted across their homeland, but still famished for this giant success. India are often regarded as prima donnas, rich kids who have a sense of entitlement, if not of occasion. If they win this World Cup, they can be as entitled as they want.
Whatever happens, this will be Lieutenant Colonel Dhoni’s last post.
There will be no World Cup beyond this, because he has already won everything that the game has to offer. He has been unconventional and that is no easy thing in a game defined for so long by its manuals and extremely particular mannerisms.
If you want a textbook cover drive, knock on the door of Tendulkar, VVS Laxman or Kohli. They were classically trained, perfectly capable of appearing as poetry in cricketing motion.
But if you are in a fight and desperately need someone to rescue you, summon the Thala and he will come armed and ready to rumble. Mahendra Singh Dhoni did everything his way and for that, the incomparable Mufasa of Ranchi deserves this last roar into the night. Then, beyond this final frontier, he will happily slip away into the anonymity of the hills, his race fully run.
India’s World Cup Squad:
Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Vijay Shankar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wicketkeeper), Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik.