I know when someone retires you are supposed to write a post dripping with emotion and nostalgia, but I can’t lie.
Dhoni is not a cricketer I feel emotionally attached to, at least not in the way I was to Sachin or Sourav or Azharuddin. That’s because they played their cricket when I was in my years of romance and hope—Kajol dancing in the rain, Shahrukh Khan arms outstretched, Mithunda rising from the pyre, Sachin hitting Dyson over his head, Dada threading the offside with precision cuts, Glichrist pirouetting on the pull, Akram swerving left and right, and Azhar, twirling his blade like a samurai. These are things that I will never forget, etched as they are in my mind, like memories of college fresher’s and sitting on the green fields of Jadavpur, watching the sun set and dreaming of a world where things would be perfect.
I am sure there is a whole generation for whom Dhoni captures their imagination and when they see him, they are reminded of themselves. In the way old games on Youtube make me feel, when I see Dada destroying Pakistan in Toronto or Sachin in Chennai, I don’t see the game as much as I see myself in the past seeing the game, oversized glasses, cotton shirt and giant T-square.
While my heart may be beyond Dhoni, because of the age in which he plied his trade, my head is not.
He is not the fantasy of a schoolboy, but an inspiration for an adult, a supremely well-rounded individual who, more than anyone else I can recall, understood what success is, and often more tellingly, what success is not.
Let me explain.
As a cricketer, I found his batting too muscular, too brute-force for my liking. In defense he prodded around like Miandad, and his attacking shots had the subtlety of a gunda breaking windows. As for his keeping, he lacked the delicate grace of a Dujon or a Wriddhiman Saha, his glove work was never subtle, and his stumping, while quick and effective, never did have the drama of a Sadandand Viswanath, that katana blade like whoosh through the air, and maybe I am remembering this all wrong, but that’s my truth, and I am sticking to it.
But where Dhoni was head and shoulders over anyone in any sport that I have seen, was his sense of precise balance. When to go for the third umpire, when to pull out the helicopter shot, when to run down to third man—-there was a clinical detachment to his decisions, it seemed as if there was a mathematical model of supreme precision running in his head, making algorithmic trades in the market of cricketing risks. It was exasperating watching him dead-bat with the asking rate going to twelve, but he knew that the numbers still were not in his favor, the deeper he took the chase, the more the odds will turn for him, with 30 to get in 2 overs, the bowler may make a mistake, Dhoni will then send him out of the park, and then the bowler will get flustered then, and the odds of the bowler making another mistake increases, which increases Dhoni’s chance of sending the next ball to the boundary.
Much was made of Dhoni in his later days, when he could not finish in the way he once could, a meme contrasting him hitting a six to finish World Cup 2011 being put aside of him leaving a ball in a similar chase intending to show him as lesser than he was, but even there one could see the Dhoni in it. The older, more mature, Dhoni calculated his odds were better letting that ball go, what with a chronically failing back, the chances were that he would hurt himself and get out, so it was better to just raise the bat away. An younger Dhoni would have used the same risk calculation function and decided to swing for the fences.
When I had compared to him to a great fund manager in an old post on my blog, I was not kidding, that’s how he played his cricket, calculating odds on the micro and the macro level, and taking cold calculated risk based decisions every time. And once you see the present captain, running around like a ten year old boy who has first discovered the joys of adult abuses and smutty magazines, with his emotions absolutely in control of himself, you realize what a big thing this is.
The state of being Dhoni.
But it was not just what he was on-field that appealed to the adult in me, but what he was off it. His career was always something that was a tool to achieve what he wanted in life. But it never became his life. Be it taking time off for going to the military or partying with movie stars when he was young and playing with daughter when older, Dhoni was someone who captured that balance many of us adults find tough to maintain, where we blur the lines between work and happiness, and try, without success, to let success at work fill the hole in our heart, except that it never happens. The promotions may come, just never the fulfilment.
It’s not that Dhoni did not enjoy what he did for his living, nor was a zen sadhu to the trappings of success. After all one could claim, he hung around, like most Indian greats, a few years beyond his optimum sell-by date, but there was never a time when you felt he was obsessed by attaining success in the game. This often came off as callousness, some former cricketers commented on it that Dhoni never seems devastated when he loses, forgetting he is neither very animated when he wins. But that’s because he is truly never in it, the game is not the end in itself, but a means only, for he knows that triumph and disaster are both fleeting imposters. And which is why he has a trophy cabinet fuller than anyone in contemporary cricket, and a bank balance fuller than anyone too. because he never took work personal.
There will be many images of Dhoni we shall leave with—for some, it will be that shot into the night sky in 2011, for some it will be some moment in that last over of the T20 World Cup final, but for me it will be Dhoni playing with his daughter, his back turned to his team while they celebrate a trophy.
The day is done, the game is over, and the singular man is alone in his little world, eschewing that which is but fleeting, the kinetic joy of attainment, for that which is permanent, true happiness.
That I shall remember.