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M S Dhoni: Before he became a giant

Long before he made his debut for India in 2004, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was making waves in Ranchi and Kharagpur

Sidhanta Patnaik & Dileep Premachandran 

Monthly stipend for a young player at CCL was Rs 2,000, but Dhoni was paid an extra Rs 200

Central Coal Limited, or CCL, a subsidiary of Coal India Limited, no longer has a cricket team. But back in January 1998, when Deval Sahay joined the organisation as director of personnel, he oversaw the laying of a turf pitch on the CCL campus in Ranchi, and started to employ cricketers under the company’s provisions for a sports quota.

Offering talented youngsters stipends to support their cricket allowed Sahay to build a team that could participate in the local Ranchi league. Dhoni had just made local news; in the final of an inter-school tournament, he had scored a double century and put on an unbroken opening partnership of 378 with Shabir Hussain. The monthly stipend for a young player at CCL was Rs 2,000, but Dhoni was paid an extra Rs 200 because, in Sahay’s words, he was “a match-winning player”.

Adil Hussain, a former Bihar captain and the CCL team’s first skipper, developed an immediate fondness for Dhoni’s punctuality and sincerity. “I would have shouted at least once at everybody in the team, but Dhoni and Shabir never gave me the scope to scold them,” he said. He was richly repaid: between 1998 and 2002, a callow Dhoni was hitting the likes of Debashish Mohanty and T Kumaran, then seamers in the Indian side, with disdain. “Those days, we never thought he would play for India, but his commitment was superb,” Hussain said. “He was shy outside the field, but the moment he entered the ground, he looked like a giant.”

Dhoni’s father had arrived in Ranchi in 1964 to work as a pump operator with MECON Limited, a public-sector engineering firm. Dhoni, who was born in July 1981, grew up in a one-bedroom apartment adjacent to the city’s MECON Stadium. “As a kid, he used to sneak into the ground always,” Umakanta Jena, the ground’s head curator, recalled.

“We had to constantly shoo him away.” Dhoni grew up playing football, but shifted his focus to cricket sometime around 1993. The story of his introduction to the game is now famous. He was keeping goal in a football match when he was spotted by Keshab Ranjan Banerjee, a senior sports teacher at his school, Jawahar Vidya Mandir. Banerjee, impressed by Dhoni’s saves, thought of trying him out behind the stumps for the school’s cricket team, since the regular wicketkeeper had become unavailable.

“Chance milega kya?” Dhoni asked Banerjee. “To hum karenge (If I get a chance, I will do it).” He was in Class VI. Banerjee, taken aback by such confidence, invited him to nets practice that winter. By the time Dhoni graduated six years later, he had broken more than one windowpane in the school building with his lofted sixes.

Yet bureaucratic disorganisation almost sabotaged the young man’s rise. Dhoni got his first zonal-level call-up for the 2000-01 Duleep Trophy East Zone team, but only narrowly made it to the tournament at all. The Cricket Association of Bihar, the precursor to the Jharkhand association, was in such a shambles that they didn’t notice his absence from the travelling squad. Bhattacharya claimed that the CAB did not even inform Dhoni of his selection.

Enter Paramjit Singh, a man without whom few stories about Dhoni’s life in Ranchi are complete. Singh and Dhoni had played cricket together in the mid 1990s, and Singh helped his friend land his first ever bat contract, with Beat All-Sports, just days before Dhoni made his Ranji Trophy debut in January 2000. When Singh got wind of Dhoni’s selection for the East Zone team, he hired a Tata Sumo, and drove Dhoni and two other friends — among them Gautam Gupta, Dhoni’s future brother-in-law — overnight to Kolkata. They could not get to Agartala, the venue of the first game, in time, but Dhoni was able to travel with the team to Pune for the next match against West Zone.

For Dhoni, that game was the fulfilment of a cherished dream, for Sachin Tendulkar was to play in it. “There used to be a big Tendulkar poster above his head in the room where he used to sleep,” Gautam Upadhyaya, another of Dhoni’s childhood friends, said. “His one target was to play with or against Sachin at least once.” Dhoni was designated the twelfth man for the game, and Tendulkar, on his way to a match-winning 199, asked Dhoni for water during a drinks break. That was as close as Dhoni got to his idol on the first go-round.

But these wonders were a decade in the future. In 2001, fresh off his turn on the drinks cart, Dhoni had to turn his attention to practical matters. That season, he moved to Kharagpur in West Bengal, where Animesh Kumar Ganguly, then a divisional manager of the South Eastern Railways was trying to build a strong team for the department.

Ganguly asked Subroto Banerjee, the coach of the South Eastern Railways team, who told him about an up-and-coming keeper-batsman in the Bihar side. Ganguly asked Satya Prakash, one of his players, to call for Dhoni. When the young man arrived at Ganguly’s bungalow, which had its own cricket pitch, Ganguly bowled a spell at him, and was happy with what he saw. He gave Dhoni a job as a train ticket examiner, and a spot on his cricket squad.

In the 2002-03 season, he played for the divisional railways team, as well as for East Zone, Bihar, and — for fun — Durga Sporting, a tennis-ball cricket club where he became popular for the long sixes he hoisted in night-time tournaments. His day job suffered; he was issued a showcause notice for being irregular in showing up for duty.

“He was a bit casual at work and the only thing he waited for was for the clock to strike two pm, so that he could be at the ground,” Satya Prakash, who was Dhoni’s roommate during this time, said. When he wasn’t watching cricket or going on bike rides, he worked on his body at the South Eastern Railways stadium. Ashish Dhal, a gym instructor, used to be the lone man in the gallery, tracking his progress. “During rainy season, he used to take a football and run alone on the ground to increase his lung capacity, and strengthen his thighs,” Dhal said. The gallery is now named after Dhoni.

Those early years in Ranchi and Kharagpur, consumed by cricket looked immeasurably distant in 2014. Dhoni resigned from the railways in 2003, and Animesh Kumar Ganguly died of a stroke in 2006. In Kharagpur, the greatest testament to the link between India’s largest employer and its most famous former employee is the MS Dhoni Museum, built in the sports hostel room where he lived for a year, which showcases memorabilia such as his offer letter from the railways.

From the very beginning, Dhoni struck a chord with India’s booming young population, a great many of whom live outside India’s metropolises and belong to the first generation to enjoy the benefits of the country’s economic liberalisation. In many ways, Dhoni’s career symbolises the hopes of this generation, the way Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar — upper-caste, middle-class Mumbai natives — epitomised the dreams of another kind of Indian.

Dhoni has never been shy about his interests outside of cricket — a deviation from earlier eras when cricketers were expected to be guarded about how they carried themselves off the field. His Twitter biography reads: “Indian Cricket Team Captain, Biker, Gamer, hindi retro aficionado, and absolute pet-lover and perennially hungry for chicken butter masala.”

“Dhoni loves having what I call boys-and-their toys fun,” Paddy Upton, who was the Indian team’s mental conditioning coach during Gary Kirsten’s tenure as head coach between 2008 and 2011, said. “Give him a gun, a bow and arrow or any weapon, a fishing rod or some cool vehicle to drive—like a motorbike or a tank or aeroplane—his eyes light up even more than they do when winning a game of cricket.” In September last year, Dhoni told the magazine All Out Cricket that he owned thirty-five motorbikes. With an annual income of approximately Rs 177 crore, Dhoni is Jharkhand’s highest individual taxpayer.

But it is difficult for him to take a bike out for a ride in his home town. At least two he is close to implied in interviews that his inner circle has shrunk over time. Like many whose talent and ambition has allowed them to supersede their origins, Dhoni finds himself cut off from the very environment that nurtured him. And, like others who are similarly untethered, Dhoni found that the nextbest option was to entrust someone with the responsibility for sustaining the bubble around him.

Arun Pandey, now thirty-six years old, has known Dhoni for the duration of his international career. Pandey is the owner of Rhiti Sports, and has been Dhoni’s agent since 2010. When Pandey says “no one knows him better than me,” it is hard not to believe him. Originally from Varanasi, Pandey, a left-arm spinner, made his Ranji Trophy debut for Uttar Pradesh in 2000 before moving to Bihar in search of better opportunities. He first met Dhoni in 2001.

Nominally, Dhoni lives in Ranchi with his parents and wife, but by our calculations, he spends less than two months a year at home. Accordingly, Pandey’s days and nights, too, are chaotic with work. Between hotel suites and collecting air miles, Pandey said, his client’s lifestyle is defined by monotony. Dhoni, Pandey said in jest, is “a labourer”.

A significant amount of Dhoni’s time off the field is spent on his brand endorsements. As of 2014, there were over a dozen, including Pepsi, Aircel, TVS Motors and Titan. Late last year, Forbes ranked him the fifth most valuable athlete in sport, behind LeBron James and Roger Federer but ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Rafael Nadal.

Unsurprisingly, Dhoni, like the others on the list, meets his marketing commitments with the same sort of stamina it takes to play sports at the highest level. Yudhajit Dutta, who was Dhoni’s manager before he officially signed up with Pandey and Rhiti Sports, saw Dhoni clock attendance at a World T20 victory party until 4 am one morning, only to be on his feet again two hours later. “He did six shoots from 6 am until midnight,” Dutta said.

“He doesn’t have time to sign more brands, which is why I have gone into ventures where his physical presence is not required,” Pandey said. These include partnerships with franchises in other sports — Dhoni is a co-owner of Chennaiyin FC, a football team in the Indian Super League, as well as of the Ranchi Rays, his home city’s team in the Hockey India League. He also owns Rhiti Sports’ motorcycle-racing franchise, Mahi Racing Team India. Dhoni, he argued, was not a mercenary by any stretch of the imagination. “We have given up around four to five brands, which would come up to Rs 25 crore in today’s market,” Pandey said.

This is an extract reprinted with permission from the January 2015 issue of The Caravan © Delhi Press

First Published: Sat, January 10 2015. 00:14 IST