Like a true perfectionist, MS Dhoni timed his farewell from international cricket by coinciding it with his mother’s birthday and a best night sky event.
At 1929 hours, the sun set at the southernmost tip of India at Cape Comorin. Elsewhere in the universe, the distant blue-green planet Uranus ceased its eastward motion through the distant stars of southern Aries.
It signalled the end of one long journey. Dhoni, the cricketer, got separated from cricket, the only thing he has even known. The former Indian skipper, who had planned this for almost two years but could not take the final call because of brand endorsements, had already readied himself for the next innings.
Dhoni had made up his mind in January when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced the men's contract for 2019-20 and dropped him. “Why did they drop me from the list, am I unfit?” he asked his friends in Ranchi, the sleepy Jharkhand capital once known for the country’s largest mental asylum. He knew the Blue Billion Express under skipper Virat Kohli had already found newer ways to live without him.
The unexpected snub
The former Indian skipper could not handle the January 16, 2020, snub by the world’s richest cricket board. He told his wife and family members that he had taken a remarkably unsentimental view of the situation and realised that he should have retired two years ago and had stayed at the wicket much too long.
But Dhoni still had hope of making it to the T20 team and had started rigorous practice, playing tennis and participating in mind games with management students to remain fit. But the BCCI did not revert on the contract, nor did it give any indication if Dhoni would be included in the T20 squad.
Old grudges surface
Many felt Saurav Ganguly, who had taken over as the board’s president just three months ago (on October 23, 2019), was not keen to keep Dhoni in the list.
No one misses a chance to hit back in Indian cricket. Everyone remembers.
Before the 2008 tri-series in Australia, Dhoni as skipper had dropped Ganguly and Rahul Dravid from the side, arguing in the selection meeting that the two veterans were poor fielders. India won the tournament, thanks to some brilliant fielding by Suresh Raina and Gautam Gambhir.
Ganguly dropped his hat. Face to face, both smiled and exchanged pleasantries. But tensions ran high between the two.
Dhoni planned a brilliant farewell match for Tendulkar, the entire Indian team walking backwards as Sachin walked into the ground. Ganguly, on the other hand, was asked to lead the side by Dhoni towards the end of India’s 172 run win over Australia. Ganguly switched off after leading the side for three overs and asked Dhoni to take charge.
Fast forward to 2019 end. This time Dhoni was at the receiving end, Ganguly at the top. The BCCI president is all powerful when it comes to such crucial issues like players contracts.
Knowing he will have to cross the thin, red line soon, Dhoni, affectionately called Mahi, offered prayers through priest Manoj Panda at the altar of the 700-year-old Durga, an unique 16-hands goddess in Dewri temple in Tamar, 60 KM from Ranchi. That was in January.
This was the last prayer before he announced his retirement wearing a jungle mufti like a soldier. “He did not call after we offered prayers,” said Panda. Maybe it was Dhoni’s farewell prayers for cricket.
And then, Dhoni, along with his Man Friday Monu Singh, Chennai Super Kings co-player Suresh Raina, boarded a chartered flight for Chennai, leaving everyone to speculate about his future post the 13th edition of the world’s richest cricket league.
Life after cricket
His political friend Sudesh Mahato—former deputy CM of Jharkhand—is down with COVID-19 and could not talk. But Mahato sent a message through an emissary saying he was confident one of the two things will happen to Dhoni. The former Indian skipper could get a recall from the BCCI after his performance in the Dubai IPL; else he will get a very interesting role in the government.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is very keen to pick talented people from all kinds of sectors to handle crucial works in the government. The current foreign minister S Jaishankar—a former foreign secretary—was pulled out of the Tata Sons for the current assignment.
Ever since Dhoni dropped his hat, there have been confabulations within the BJP if the former skipper could be given a coveted assignment—either at home and abroad—to help boost the government’s image. What was interesting is that the Congress, realising the BJP was first to write to Dhoni through PM Modi, immediately pushed party president Rahul Gandhi to write a letter on similar lines to Dhoni.
“It was like the Pandavas and Kauravas trying to seek the service of Lord Krishna. Dhoni is a prized catch for any political party,” remarked his longtime friend and former ESPN StarSports journalist Goutam Das.
Das, who had known Dhoni for over two decades, said there were times when the former Indian skipper would get irritated with make-up applied for his brand shoots. “Dekhney do na, daari safed ho raha hain. Chipaney ka kya hain (Let people see my beard has turned white, why hide)?” Das said Dhoni was downright honest, not pretentious about anything.
He bared his mind to a handful of friends from Ranchi and Mumbai. They—a handful—knew Dhoni was sanguine he would never play another 50-over World Cup, else he would not have asked for the ball from the umpire of the lost semi-final match against New Zealand to keep as a memento.
COVID-19 pushed the world’s richest cricket league and ICC T20 World Cup back by some months. Dhoni knew it would be tough for him to retain fitness in the mid of 2021 when T20 would be hosted. He weighed his options and walked away from the national team.
The miss-from-the-list had upset Dhoni. The former skipper was also rattled after actor Sushant Singh Rajput—the lead actor in MSD—was found hanging in his apartment in Mumbai.
Dhoni wanted to shape up his life outside the 22 yards, without the willow or wicket keeping gloves. A few offers to join some top conglomerates as independent directors had come his way. Dhoni wanted to check out the companies and the offer.
He was confident he would do a great job in the board meetings, he remembered how the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) wanted to map his brain to understand how the brain of a captain works in trying conditions.
The many business interests
Dhoni has told friends that he has scaled up a team which will expand the Mahi Residency brand of hotels and expand Sports Fit fitness chains across India and also to Australia, the Middle East, Singapore and the UK.
He will continue to invest in Chennayin FC, the Indian Super League (ISL) champions Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan and Vita Dani Ambani of 11ElevenSports. He will retain his investment in Ranchi Rays, the Jharkhand based franchise of the Hockey India League and increase investment in Seven, a footwear brand that already distributes in the Middle East and the United States besides being listed on Flipkart in India. Now that he is out of the side, Dhoni is not sure how many cricketers will sign up with Rhiti Sports, the sports marketing and management firm. Currently, Faf du Plessis, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Pragyan Ojha and Mohit Sharma are some of the cricketers the firm handles. And then, he has Mahi Racing, a part of the Supersport World Championship.
Dhoni needs to nurture them meticulously.
His cricketing laurels, Dhoni knew before leaving for IPL, would also be in the game’s almanacs. He had won two World Cups—ICC World T20 & ICC World Cup—along with the Champions Trophy, Asia Cup T20 2010 & 2016, and the Asia Cup. He led India in 200 ODIs, maintaining a win-percentage of 59.52 and totalling 10,773 runs, averaging more than 50 despite batting between No.5 and 7 for a large part of his career. In the Test format, Dhoni aggregated 4,876 runs at an average of 38.09 and led India to 27 wins.
His friends knew Dhoni would never bask in laurels. A friend who found him in the imposing Taj Hotel in Mumbai on April 2, 2012— a year after he won the World Cup—asked him if he had visited the Wankhede Stadium to have a look at the ground. Dhoni calmly said no. “I cannot milk it forever,” replied Dhoni.
His friend reminded him about Indian cricketers who continue to talk till date about their laurels after the 1983 Prudential World Cup win. When he was the captain, he kept the media at bay. He was immensely upset after fans threw stones and empty bottles at his home after India’s disastrous performance in the 2007 ICC World Cup. He hated breaking headlines.
Dhoni was the only Indian cricketer who knew the difference between a cricket correspondent and a cricket writer. “He wrote a foreword for my book on Sachin, and called me the next day and asked me to put some humour in his copy,” said Gautam Bhattacharya, one of India’s seasoned sports writers and commentators.
On one occasion, Dhoni called Bhattacharya in faraway Bangkok and said he was keen to answer some of his questions because he could not talk when Bhattacharya had approached him some weeks ago in a hotel lobby.
“After Tendulkar, Dhoni was the most reliable agent of mass euphoria,” said ad guru Sandip Goyal, who has been studying Brand Dhoni since 2006 and covered him in the Celesta Celebrity Study at Dentsu.
A fierce competitive streak
Former Indian coach Sandeep Patil called Dhoni Tarzan for his flowing hair, his teammates for a Zimbabwe tour still recollect how Dhoni screamed his lungs out when injected the antidote to yellow fever and how he talked loudly to attract marauding elephants in a safari on the outskirts of Harare. He has always loved competition, once losing out to John Abraham for a Yamaha bike ad. Abraham charged Rs 1 crore and Dhoni could not fit in despite lowering his rate to Rs 7.5 lakh. There were times when his cool image clashed with Bollywood superstar Ranbir Kapoor and asking price was less than half of Dhoni's. Both co-existed happily.
Now that he has retired, scores walk in and out of his parental home in Ranchi with ease. They are confident they would not be stopped. Mahi will open the doors forever. Ranchi’s root man has returned to his roots.Shantanu Guha Ray is a senior journalist based in New Delhi and the author of Mahi: The Story of India's Most Successful Captain