It was 2008 when I first had an opinion about MS Dhoni, and he didn’t get off to a good start. It wasn’t his fault.

Growing up in Bangalore in the 2000s meant growing up with an enormous helping of Rahul Dravid propaganda. In a prolonged haze of heartbreak after the 2007 World Cup exit – a loss to Bangladesh, that picture of Dravid covering his face à la Shaun Pollock in the 2003 World Cup – I wholly accepted as my own a fellow Bangalorean’s online proclamation that he would never forgive Dhoni for dropping all his heroes – Dravid, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly – from the ODI team.

Now, as a (marginally) level-headed adult, I look back and forgive that teenage version of myself, whose first opinion of a man was an inelegant, borrowed rant.

Dhoni had, after all, just led India to the World T20 title, and no matter the dogma around high-elbow dead-batters at No. 3, I had enjoyed watching him mow down Pakistan and Sri Lanka with epochal early centuries.

In fact, I don’t even remember being particularly beat up about any of those players being replaced. Occasionally I could be stirred into expressing an opinion at family gatherings. This Rohit will replace Dravid? Harbhajan instead of Kumble? Doesn’t even flight it anymore. It’s all lobbies, I tell you! But these were also thoughts borrowed from local journalists, coaches, and my father.

No such conspiracy themes had occurred to me before. Truth was, I didn’t care enough to have an opinion on the subject. My protest came in the form of an unproclaimed boycott after the 2007 World Cup: limited-overs cricket was dead to me. A needless distraction from real cricket, with real heroes. Dhoni just happened to be the leader of The Other Side.

***

One of my favourite Dhoni memories is of his wedding day. Specifically, how much of a non-public event it was engineered to be. It was smugly satisfying to see paparazzi reporting from afar, in poor light, possibly long after the ceremony was over. No one knew.

It felt like a masterstroke, the notion that a title-winning Indian captain had managed to hoodwink the media and steal some privacy, and gave me the rush and amusement that any number of cricketing moments involving Dhoni did: winning a World Cup bowl-out against Pakistan using top-order batsmen; negotiating bouncers with his chest, sans guard. Look at whom he chose as back-up seamers to Makhaya Ntini and L Balaji at Chennai Super Kings – Joginder Sharma, Manpreet Gony, Palani Amarnath. And he nearly won the inaugural IPL title with them.

Once, during a match, Dhoni told India coach Greg Chappell that if he could see out the first 13 balls that day, he would win it for India. There is only one acceptable response to this in India: Kuch bhi (loosely translating to “Yeah, right”).

Dhoni in 2008: “If you are not 100% fit and not at your best [and still play], it’s cheating.”

Dhoni in 2019: “When you’ve played international cricket, you realise you never play 100%.”

This is Dhoni to me: great captain, elite troll, banter lord. He is – to borrow from Finnish band Poets of the Fall – habitually paradoxical, a parallel perpendicular. Not the first Indian cricket great to be understated or private, but even from the shadows of near anonymity, he exhibits more wit and personality than most.

It was never difficult to warm to these aspects of the man. His calm detachment from the game – whether some sort of coping mechanism or not – also conveniently synced with my own aloofness, even when he transitioned into Test cricket and took over the captaincy.

He captained when India hosted Australia in Bangalore in 2010. On day four of that match, the only one I went to the ground for, I believe I became the world’s first victim of a middling Dhoni innings.

Sachin Tendulkar was on an overnight 191 alongside Dhoni and got to his double-century with no fuss. Hopes of witnessing a triple fell early in the day, though. Tendulkar chopped on Australia’s most nervous debutant ever, Peter George, who at one point in the day had bowled a wide that bounced at least four times before rolling through to the keeper.

No matter, I said to my brother. Tendulkar was the sixth wicket down. That meant it was Dhoni with the tail, with India eight ahead. We were in the first tier of the stands, wide long-on boundary, preparing for carnage.

India made nine runs in the next eight overs before they were bowled out. Dhoni had been around for almost the entire period. “For f***’s sake, what’s wrong with him? Even Marcus North’s got a hundred here.”

The next day, having led India to a 2-0 sweep, he gave a glowing appraisal of the local crowd and said Tests should be given to venues like the Chinnaswamy – to venues that cared. Inject it into my veins – soothing words from the adopted leader of Knowledgeable ChennaiTM himself.

Sweet nothings aside, during his short period in charge, he had shown objectively that he was the right man to take India forward after the 2007 debacle. Famous victories early into captaincy, the ability to get the best out of unheralded players, deadly power tempered with the nous of a world-class finisher, all packed together with confidence and charm. Even with my cynical predisposition, it was hard not to accede to this exciting new character in Indian cricket.

Thala before the storm: in 24 matches across ten IPL seasons, Dhoni has captained Chennai Super Kings to 16 wins against Royal Challengers BangaloreThala before the storm: in 24 matches across ten IPL seasons, Dhoni has captained Chennai Super Kings to 16 wins against Royal Challengers Bangalore © AFP

It was easy to love him. Everyone else was doing it. And perhaps that was one of the problems; rooting for him was too mainstream, and I too much of a hipster. I couldn’t buy into the way we were being told to love Dhoni, in the same manner that I never got into Tendulkar mania either. Again, not his fault. The worm had been planted early, and it grew to produce on-demand cynicism and distrust in just the right amounts to avoid unconditional praise.

Hitting a six to win the World Cup the greatest moment? Yup, buying that. India’s greatest ODI captain? Still buy that. Genius move to push himself above the eventual Player of the Tournament? Not buying it. Best knock of that final? No chance – that was Mahela Jayawardene. Crisis man? Not for me.

“Look at these spinners struggling without Dhoni in the Indian team. That is the power of Thala,” CSK fans would say. Spare me, please.

And while these grouses were personal, emotional, and sometimes irrational, there are other mild irritants that would have pricked no matter who did it: refusing singles, or slowing down at the death in a chase against England in a World Cup match, or publicly criticising Ajinkya Rahane’s scoring ability in the middle overs. Just enough by way of tiny incidents to stay in check.

But after an unnecessary amount of deliberation and investigation of my own biases, I think I know what definitively tipped him out of my top rung. It was the lapse into mainstream superstardom, into stuff that was supposed to be inherently anti-Dhoni. Oddball revolutionary? Not buying it!

When he came in with the aggressive changes as captain early on, reputation meant nothing. There was a semblance of vision, a tilt towards looking ahead and experimenting. The long hair, the technique, intuitive decisions that actually worked, the temerity and subsequent expertise to move powerful figures around without drama – everything about Dhoni was unlike anything we had seen before in Indian cricket.

Would recent-years Dhoni have been a permanent member of Dhoni’s 2007 team? Not with his middle overs (20-40) strike rate of 70.23 since the start of 2015. Rahane’s in the same period is 88.1.

Dhoni always had the middling ODI innings in him. In his first 35 innings, anything that wasn’t scored at 110 or above was scored at 80 or below. The signs had always been there – Dhoni liked to get himself in. And when he did, he could normalise the strike rate over the innings.

One of his biggest strengths is his self-awareness, so it will forever grate for me that he rarely seemed to be on the front lines. There was the 2011 World Cup and a chase from No. 4 in January this year. But over time it became a certainty he wouldn’t walk in early, or when there was a collapse; almost as if he didn’t want to be in a situation where he could potentially not live up to expectations. If the 2019 World Cup semi-final turns out to be his last ODI, it will be remembered as the game where he came in at No. 7, behind Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya and 21-year-old Rishabh Pant, and was outbatted by Ravindra Jadeja, his long-time protégé.

One could argue it’s the environment of hero worship in India that makes it hard for a player like Dhoni to walk away, but the norm is precisely what we weren’t trained for with him. Take how people with a reasonable say in the matter outright sidestep questions about his future. The captain, the head coach, and the selectors all have the same general opinion on it – he knows what he wants, we will adjust accordingly. Run-of-the-mill superstar stuff.

It’s why we’ll never seriously talk about spot-fixing or the Mudgal report on it. After a long silence, Dhoni did come out earlier this year on those subjects, saying the team only knew Gurunath Meiyappan as the CSK owner’s son-in-law, and stating somberly that fixing was a bigger crime than murder, but this was in a documentary produced by one Dhoni Entertainment Production.

He no longer does press conferences, which is a trend among Indian players these days. But even when he ran onto the field to give the umpires a earful during the IPL and then agreed to be interviewed by the TV broadcaster on the sidelines, opening up what could be the only opportunity to hear his take on it, the on-field interviewer let the matter go.

It is all so comically tragic. I was far too young to process such things when the previous line of superstars were setting it all up, but there are obvious parallels to the past, even enhancements, to the power game these days. Who knows what’s next?

***

It all pulls me back to growing up in Bangalore and the four or five coaches I met at junior level who all claimed to have been Dravid’s first mentors. Apart from that bit of innocent vanity, they had another thing in common: a compulsion to say that no one is greater than the game. There’s obvious virtue to the statement, but mostly, it was convenient. Coaches could do anything – drop a player for chewing gum in front of the selectors or cut short someone’s net session because they had to be home for a puja – and get away with that blanket statement.

I think back to their power games when I think of Dhoni and how I can’t ever claim to love him. Not even if I go back to 2008, shed my biases and make up some damn opinions of my own.

However, if I could travel to the past, I would begin by taking to my angsty fellow Bangalorean these remarks from Dhoni’s press conference immediately after the 2011 final:

“[After 1983] people started loving the sport and you then saw two individuals making their debut, Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar. [Ganguly and Dravid] was the chain of players because of whom we are in this position right now. We earn a lot of money, we get a lot of respect and what we are trying to do is to pass it onto the next generation.”

Classy, elegant, and sure to bring much peace to our respective formative years.

On the balance of it, I don’t think it would have gone any differently if I had begun more optimistically with Dhoni. For one, he would still have continued to maul, tease and sneak his way to causing many RCB-related wounds in my life. But on an atomic level, I don’t see how I couldn’t end up at the same level of confusion that I’m at now: unable to tell if I love to hate him or hate to love him.

And when I consider that, I picture Dhoni squatting in a boot camp, chuckling with his pals, because that is probably how he wants it.

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