Long long ago, when I was a college going teenager, I remember hearing about a promising young player from Bihar called Dhoni. The 20th century was in its last throes then, the state of Jharkand was not yet in existence. Five seasons later, I remembered that name when I saw this long-haired young fellow make his debut for India. Against Pakistan in Vishakapatnam (?), he smeared 148 or so in virtually no time at all, becoming an overnight sensation.
Let me confess here: I took an instant liking to this guy who was exactly two months younger than me. There was something fascinating about a youngster from a provincial city, the capital of a state normally known for backwardness and poverty, cementing his place in the national team. I was perhaps one of his earliest fans outside his native Jharkhand. Far too many people criticised his hairstyle and branded him a showpony. To me, there was something special about this fellow. There was this never say die spirit about him and more importantly, an extraordinary level of commitment in the way he played.
After a somewhat slow start, this guy had a meteoric rise. Within two years he was named captain, albeit for the inaugural version of a tournament called the T20 World Cup, featuring a form of the game that was virtually unknown in India. In two weeks, a young Indian team peopled by little known youngsters shocked everyone by lifting the trophy. Dhoni had suddenly become the heir apparent to the captaincy, a post then occupied by Anil Kumble in a caretaker capacity. Within a year, the heir apparent acceded to the throne with a landmark win against Australia.
It was the beginning of a fairytale, in the course of which Mahendra Singh Dhoni led India to dizzying heights. A historic away win against New Zealand, back from behind draws in Sri Lanka and South Africa and a series win in West Indies counted among his many achievements. Along the way, he took India to No.1 in the test rankings, something no Indian captain before him could claim to have done. The crowning glory came on 2nd April 2012, when Dhoni hammered that huge six to win the world cup before a delirious home crowd. Just approaching 30, Dhoni was the toast of the nation. The world was his for the taking.
And then the dream suddenly went sour. The tour of England proved an unmitigated disaster, as India lurched from one thrashing to the other, returning without a single win in th course of the tour. A series win against a resolute, but inexperienced West Indies papered over the cracks. The tour of Australia however, saw India come a cropper yet again. The nightmare of England, hitherto dismissed as an aberration, was relived again, as India lost yet another series 0-4. The numero uno ranking was long since lost. Forget winning, this team suddenly looked a side that would struggle to draw against a second division outfit.
Dhoni's own captaincy has been the biggest casualty of the recent events. Something has changed in the recent past. The man who kept a deep cover for the new batsman was hardly recognisable as the man who got Greame Smith out, caught at second slip in a T20 game four sesons ago. The captain who seemed able to turn around any situation, has proved incapable of snatching opportunities that presented itself aplenty. His teammates hardly seem to be reading from the same page. Most significantly however, beneath that calm facade, a different man seems to be lurking in place of the once imperturbable man.
True, ups and downs are part of a sportperson's life. Nevertheless, its hard not to see a pattern in Dhoni's sudden slide. Perhaps its the outcome of the unending grind of international cricket, IPL and Champions Trophy. I doubt if Dhoni has had anything resembling a serious break since two years now. Imagine going to work nearly every single day for two years on the trot. I lived a 'constantly on the move' life for nearly 18 months and I promise you, the mind and body were both crying for a break by the end of it- and I did not have to endure extended periods away from home, nor did I have to suffer 24X7 media attention and the pressure of a billion expectations during that period. From first hand experience, I can only imagine the plight of a man in Mahi's position.
Perhaps its time for Dhoni to take a break. An extended period away from the spotlight, in the midst of the people who matter most, would give him the opportunity to sit back and put things in perspective. Sometimes all that it takes to revive oneself is to remember where it all started: the love for the game that impelled him to travel countless hours in over crowded buses and trains, those countless hours out in the field with one's mates, the leg-pulling, the hours Mahi spent on the longest railway platform in the world in his capacity as TTE with the railways. It only needs a look back into the past to realise how far he has come and realise the sheer enormity of what he has achieved.
No one can take away Mahi's achievements. Two world cup wins, taking India to No.1 in the test rankings, a drawn series in South Africa and ending a 41 year drought in New Zealand- all of them are achievements no other Indian captain can boast of. That he managed all that with an average attack at best, is extraordinary. Many other have achieved far less with much greater resources. Whatever his current situation and irrespective of what he goes on to do, nothing can take away the smiles he put on the faces of millions of Indians. For that alone, he deserves to be remembered as a champion.