I made a deal with God in my mind on April 2, 2011 – a victory for India, that’s all I want, I won’t ask for anything ever again. Sehwag out second ball. Tendulkar caught behind off of Malinga. Kohli gone after a decent partnership with Gambhir. Then he walked in, promoting himself over the man in million-dollar form and future player of the World Cup, Yuvraj Singh. He strode out to the middle and did not look back. He maneuvered India, along with Gambhir, out of a tricky period as a billion souls watched in a spellbound state of aspiration and restlessness mixed with anticipation. But he was, as ever, calm, composed, and cool. The rest, as we all witnessed, was history.
But now in the present that man who commandeered India to its first World Cup triumph in 28 years, has retired from international cricket. Scores of articles will be written on him. Hundreds of stories will be told about him. Thousands of highlight videos will be compiled of him. Millions of young cricketers will continue to be inspired by him.
If I start writing about his accomplishments, his leadership, his inscrutable on and off the field persona, his improbable match-winning innings, his audacious stroke play, his impressive mane of hair, and his immense fan-following I would never know where to begin or where to stop. In my view, his status as a cricket icon and his idol-level adulation in India is second only to Sachin Tendulkar. But epithets like ‘Captain Cool,’ ‘Mahi,’ and ‘Thala’ only scratch the surface of the highly complex and intricate mind of the man.
His career began with a duck, run-out after facing just one delivery. It also ended with run-out, at the hands of Martin Guptill in the 2019 World Cup semifinal. A heartbreak that hurts to this day as it crushed all hopes of India advancing to the final. He scored a valiant 50. But bookended by the two run-outs was an illustrious career which one can write volumes about.
He was a batsman like no one before, a captain like no one ever, a wicketkeeper like no other, and a finisher who no one can be like. A brilliant match-winner, he hit a 6 to win an ODI on nine occasions. An inimitable cricketer, he dominated world cricket with his very own style of play. The awkward punches through the covers, the immaculate footwork to hit down the ground, the cheetah-like running between the wickets to steal a run where there was none, the faster than the speed of light reflexes to stump an unwitting batsman, the pinpoint runout throws with one glove off (often taken off before the ball was bowled) in the death overs, and of course the incomparable and inexplicable helicopter shots.
Yet there are so many things I will never understand about him. His enigmatic personality was evident in his pragmatic yet cryptic press conferences. These interviews off the field did little to give us more than a tiny glimpse of what the man is really like. Even his biopic, although impeccably acted and lifted by a rousing tale of perseverance of a small town kid to global star, did not actually shed light on the true nature of the person underneath the helmet. It could not. That part of the story will forever remain untold.
What compelled him to make the game-changing decisions that he made time after time? Joginder Sharma over Harbhajan Singh in the 2007 final? Himself over Yuvraj in the 2011 final? How did choices like these, remarkably more often than not, turn out to be masterstrokes? Did he have the midas touch? Why did he leave it so late in some of the chases? Why always wait till the last over to pull out the big shots? What sort of computer-like calculations did he perform continuously in real-time? Or was it just instinct and an unwavering belief in himself and his team?
He stated in an interview in 2008, “I don’t study cricket too much. Whatever I have learned or experienced is through cricket I’ve played on the field, and whatever little I have watched.” So am I over-analyzing how he analyzed the game? No cricketer has perplexed me, angered me, astonished me, or fascinated me more. But the answer to those questions are not for us to know, nor in his nature to share. You could ask him but he would Jedi-mind-trick you away from his impenetrable aura of cricketing genius.
That fateful day I was trying to broker a deal with God. But it was Mahendra Singh Dhoni who converted mine and a billion other Indians’ prayers into reality. With Dhoni, the impossible was always within reach. With Dhoni, I had a quiet self-confidence, emanating straight from the man, that India will cross the line. With Dhoni, the standards of Indian fielding catapulted from the depths of barely meeting expectations to being the best in the world.
Amazingly with Dhoni, a Pakistani superfan switched allegiances whenever his nation played against India because the skipper was his favorite cricketer. With Dhoni, even former Pakistan President Musharraf was left dazzled by the batting heroics and urged him to not cut his hair. With Dhoni, the Indian team reached the highest of highs in all arenas of the sport. With Dhoni, there were trophies. With Dhoni, there was an air of mystery. With Dhoni, India had its greatest captain.
Without Dhoni, there was a four minute compilation of photos from his career as an Indian cricketer set to the tune of ‘Pal Do Pal Ka Shaayar,’ announcing his retirement, again in his own unmistakable style. Well, he did always finish in style.