Mahendra Singh Dhoni is no stranger to the limelight. Once again, he finds himself the cynosure of all eyes, except that this time it's not on a cricket field but in cinemas, courtesy the recent Bollywood biopic on him titled M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story.
For me the true measure of Dhoni's greatness and appeal lies in the man himself.
I have watched the movie and like any biopic on a sporting hero, especially one who makes it against all odds, it was a goose bump fest. However, I almost ran out of goose bumps in the very first sequence of the movie. I remember almost losing my voice screaming with ecstasy in my lounge room in 2011 when India won that World Cup, and to relive that moment from Dhoni's perspective in the opening scene of this biopic was amazing. But there will be plenty of appraisals of the cinematic calibre of the movie and the performances of the actors, especially the leading man Sushant Singh Rajput (who in my non-expert opinion excels in this role). So I am not going to even attempt to critique the "cinematic" merits of this movie.
For me the true measure of Dhoni's greatness and appeal lies in the man himself. So I am going to stick to a single incident where I witnessed firsthand what being M.S. Dhoni may feel like on a day to day basis.
My Dhoni moment occurred earlier this year. India was taking on the mighty Australians in a day night One Day International at the grand Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on 17 January 2016. Melbourne has been my adopted home since 1999 but my cricketing allegiance unflinchingly remains with the team blue. Over the years, with a rapidly increasing Indian diaspora in Melbourne, recent cricketing encounters at the MCG featuring India have more or less felt like home games for India. In fact there is an entire section of the MCG that is reserved these days for the "Swami Army" when India plays here.
The game on 17 January 2016 was not an exception, with a mighty Indian contingent supporting Dhoni and his team from the stands. I was one of them. India batted first in the game and under a baking Aussie sun the innings was progressing rather uneventfully. Towards the end overs of the Indian innings, Rahane was dismissed which meant it was time for M.S. Dhoni to come out and bat.
The MCG, at that very moment, did not stand for a cricket match, it stood merely for one individual named M.S. Dhoni...
By this time the sun had started to fizzle out and 3/4th of the MCG was covered in shadows. I was seated in the 2nd tier of the Great Southern Stand, almost behind the bowlers' arm. A lonesome spot for an Indian supporter (wearing a Team India jersey) to be sitting in a traditionally hostile "Aussie section" of the stadium. Yet, that evening, most of the seats around me were vacant. So I was safe.
As Rahane started his slow walk back to the pavilion after being dismissed, a slight buzz took over in anticipation of Dhoni's arrival on the pitch. Slow, unsynchronized claps, and a "Dhoni Dhoni" murmur broke across the entire ground. Dhoni had not yet emerged from the pavilion. Rahane by now had been forgotten and was a lonely man walking back on his own. Also forgotten in that moment was the status of the game.
An almost full MCG (mostly with Indian spectators) was fixated on the opening of the tunnel leading out from the Indian pavilion for the man himself was about to appear any moment. The claps grew louder and synchronised. "Dhoni Dhoni"—the chant swelled. I was not chanting, just silently observing the euphoria unfold around me. Goose bumps erupting all over me. Then he emerged, from the shadows of the MCG. M.S. Dhoni, bat in hand. I kid you not, the MCG erupted. The venue resounded with claps, whistles, screams and any other ecstatic noises that people could muster.
As he stepped over the boundary rope and entered the playing arena, he swivelled his bat to loosen up his arm. The "Dhoni Dhoni" chant went from being a murmur to a war cry. The Colosseum that the MCG is ushered in the gladiator that MS Dhoni is amongst unparalleled hysteria. Sitting in the stands, witnessing that commotion, I felt a nervous rattle in my knees. The MCG, at that very moment, did not stand for a cricket match, it stood merely for one individual named M.S. Dhoni, and the demi-god status that he holds with the people of his nation.
I realized the true scale of Dhoni's greatness as an entire stadium made of steel and concrete, resonated and trembled with deafening chants of "Dhoni Dhoni."
Yet, Dhoni like an enlightened monk, seemed unmoved by any of it, as he strolled ever so casually towards the centre. As he took guard, the "Dhoni Dhoni" chant still hadn't subsided. Neither had the chill in my spine. And to think that Dhoni had to live with such bedlam day in day out was an overwhelming thought in itself. The movie, though, introduces us to the man behind the monk. The man who practices a "half grin" for he is focused enough within him to realise that displaying emotions is a distraction he cannot afford.
The tag line for the ICC World Cup in 2015 was "Greatness is Contagious", and sitting there in the stands of the MCG on 17 January 2016, I realized the true scale of Dhoni's greatness as an entire stadium made of steel and concrete, resonated and trembled with deafening chants of "Dhoni Dhoni."
And my word, it was contagious.