The hero from the hill country
On Mahendra Singh Dhoni and what he meant to me
In the end it was all a bit unreal.
MS running a double, a World Cup in the balance, and Marty Guptill’s sharp throw breaking a billion hearts. It’s easy to read the symbolism now, after the game is over, but until that point, India never lost hope.
Until MS is at the crease, India rarely does.
But then he isn’t, and the silence that descends is deafening.
And as he walks back, we see under the helmet a rare moment of emotion, our Iron Man betraying something he rarely, if ever does: Despair.
That hurt. It hurts even now. It will hurt a long time from now.
But the ball before the last was a short one from fast man Lockie Ferguson, and those eyes had flashed fire, sending it across backward point with a scythe we know really, really well. In the slow motion replay of this shot, he walks calmly across to Chahal after playing it, watching it go all the way. The sequence barely lasts three seconds, but it is pure Bollywood.
In those three seconds, a nation watches their old warhorse, eyes glued to screens, and they believe.
In those three seconds, at least for those three seconds, a nation sits back and breathes.
Their hero is there, and he will deliver victory. It’s what he was born to do.
It doesn’t happen.
But what matters, and what will always matter, is that MS was there till the end, and we believed.
I always knew I’d be writing this one day, and though I’ve known this for so long, and dreaded it for even longer, you can’t do much when the time comes.
And the time has come.
I don’t know, though. I don’t know if the announcement is coming now, this week or the next, or if he will stick around for a farewell series at home, with perhaps a domestic game for Jharkhand as well. Perhaps the World T20 next year? That’s a stretch, perhaps?
But then, with MS, what do you know?
When he does, better writers and way more knowledgeable experts on the game (excluding Sanjay Manjrekar, national prick) will tell you what he did for the game and for his country, dissect how he did what he did, and prepare a timeline of his achievements across a trophy-studded career.
What I want to write about is what he meant. To me, of course, as a fan, but also to a generation.
And for that, we’ll have to go back a bit. In cricket, you always have to.
Our game is unique in that it is, and always has been, self-consciously obsessed with its own history. We are bred on its lore, on stories of Gundappa Vishwanath and Sunny Gavaskar and Kapil Dev and Bishan Singh Bedi. Our fathers had their heroes, our mothers had theirs, and our grandfathers told us tales of test match scores put up on The Hindu’s offices on Mount Road.
Us 90s kids, we had Dada and Jammy and Sachin and Viru. We had the Sharjah games, and we had Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh. We didn’t win as much, sure, but boy did we have fun. When Hrishikesh Kanitkar swept that ball for four to win us that final against Pakistan, the Indian Air Force quarters I lived in then erupted in one unanimous roar of pure, pure joy.
A childhood of these memories is not one I take for granted.
But Indian cricket was changing, and the first time it became really evident was in 2007.
You see, until then, though I watched cricket, loved the game, and adored our heroes, I never saw myself as one of them.
How could I? I was not them, I could never be them. Dada was almost a Calcutta royal; Sachin was a Bombay blue-blood; Dravid and Kumble were the smart, cosmopolitan Bangaloreans; Viru, Gambhir, and Nehra were the brash Delhi brigand; Ajay Jadeja was actually from the royal family of Jamnagar. Big city boys, some of them from high privilege, with clear pathways to cricket, better facilities, and city ecosystems to nurture their game.
For a long time, I took it for granted that to play for India meant that you had to come from the traditional cricket cities, the powerhouses of Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi, and Madras foremost among them. Sure, a couple of boys made it from here and there. But largely, Indian cricket was them, and nobody else.
But then he arrived.
Even today, it boggles my mind. After watching him fanatically for close to 15 years, I’m still amazed by how he did it. Long haired Bihari boy, straight out of the hill country, raw and muscular, no money, no connections, comes to the game, and fights his way in through sheer physical and mental ability.
How did he find it within himself to become the leader he became, skilled, supple, and street-smart? How did he take all of that pressure in and deliver, at the crunch moments, blows of such staggering confidence and ferocity, that even now in the twilight of his playing days, even in the direst of dire situations, we believe?
In the movie they made on him, there is one detail I particularly love: In no scene is his name mangled into the cooler-sounding, Hindi-ized Maahi; It is the curt, cut, Bhojpuri Mahi.
As it should be.
He made me believe that it didn’t matter where you came from. He made me believe that we — of the smaller towns, of the temple verandahs, of dusty back-streets, sons of carpenters, daughters of clerks — that we had it in us too. That we had it in us to be anything we wanted to. If we put our minds to it. If we worked for it.
Sure, a lot of us would fall by the wayside as we tried. Sure, looking at him, we see the one who survived, and don’t see the million others who failed.
But again, we look at him, and know that one of us made it. Did what he or she wanted to, got up there and showed everyone what we are capable of, what we could do if only the smallest opportunity was given.
I will never let anyone forget where in the country he found his own fanatical, almost worshipful fan base. In working class, hard-grinding, heat-oppressed Madras, Dhoni became a demigod. Thala, they call him down here in the Tamil south, an epithet of respect and awe, a title not given lightly. Say something adverse about Thala here, you are bound to get stares and cold looks. Keep it up, and you might get a threat. Don’t say more. This city works hard for a living, and they are rabidly protective of one of their own. Remember, the Chennai Super Kings have never had another captain. From the beginning, they loved him with ridiculous, hysterical fervour.
I would know. I’m one of them.
MS will retire as India’s most successful captain, holder of a legacy that includes the team that is now dominating world cricket, this semi-final loss notwithstanding. The genius of his leadership made this generation. Confident, world-beating superstars, galacticos. King Kohli, sublime Rohit, awesome Bumrah, magical Kuldeep, a fierce, prowling-at-point Jaddu.
But for us from the Mofussil, from India’s small towns, he will always be more than that, way more than that. MS is the story we will tell our children when we tell them what is open to them in this world, what is possible. If only you could put your mind to it, if only you work hard, very hard. You can be captain of India. You can build a rocket. You can be an Olympian. You can build a company. You can help people. You can do anything you want.
And like Dhoni, you can do it your way.
When Dravid and Sachin retired, I shed tears, of course; I’m a 90s kid, after all. But when MS goes now, and he’s going to, I’m unsure of what it will take to console me.
Because when our heroes bow out, they don’t leave alone, do they? They take a bit of you with them. Your life has gone on along theirs all this time, and they’ve become this constant for you: You turn and there they are.
No one talks about it, but there’s comfort in fandom; there’s feeling, there’s ownership, and because there’s all this, when they leave, there’s emptiness too.
MS Dhoni is my hero. I was 20 when he won us the 2007 World T20, 21 when he won us the CB Series in Australia, 24 when he won us the World Cup, and 26 when he won us the Champions Trophy. In between, he found time to win two IPL trophies for the Chennai Super Kings, capping it with a third in 2018. I was 30 then, this last year.
My entire adult life has been one of following him around cricket stadiums in the country, shouting at the top of my voice when he swaggered to the crease. I have finished college, got a job, made a career, loved and lost, loved again and got married, and in all of this, when I’ve turned around he has been there, sometimes in the blue and at other times in the yellow, playing, winning, and living.
In his calmness, courage, and leadership, I have found inspiration and strength.
But most of all, because of where he came from and what he stood for, I have found, in a way, myself.
As someone said when you walked up those stairs on Wednesday, Thala, thank you.
Thank you. You’ve given us everything.