The first time I saw MS Dhoni play, he was run out without bothering the scorers. Post Nayan Mongia's decline and Saba Karim's tragic injury, most wicketkeepers in India were fancying their chances of making it to the national team. Sameer Dighe, Ajay Ratra, MSK Prasad, Deep Dasgupta, Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik... would MS Dhoni join the musical chair competition? As it panned out, over the next 13 years, no other wicketkeeper would get a whiff.
MS Dhoni, the player and the captain, has been eulogised in every possible way. The small town boy from Jharkhand with the long locks who came from nowhere to lead a second string Indian team to win the first T20 World Cup. The extraordinary finisher who was able to win cricket matches that seemed as good as lost for even the most optimistic Indian cricket fan. The punter who promoted himself in a World Cup final ahead of a teammate who was on a purple patch, sealing it with a nonchalant six that left Wankhede, India and the whole cricket fraternity gasping for breath.
He was always the one to shun the limelight, but never the one to shun the responsibility.
Such is his legend that the stories can seem never-ending.
But despite all the hero worship, there continued to live a man who never grew too big for his boots. For me, that is the abiding legacy of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Always the one to shun the limelight, but never the one to shun the responsibility. The belief that he could get the job done and making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What made this extraordinary was that he was never the most talented of cricketers. His technique would make the puritan cringe. He wasn't a game changer in the Richards/Sachin /AB de Villiers mould. But his reading of the game and his understanding of his strengths along with the determination to take things to closure trumped these shortcomings.
As a leader, through his own example, he was able to raise the self-confidence of his team. The team was no longer solely relying on its superstars to win a match. It could be Raina, Yuvraj, Jadeja, Zaheer, even Joginder Sharma who could be the person taking the team home on a given day. He also was able to create an inclusive environment where he got the best out of aging superstars (Sachin, Sourav, Rahul, Laxman) while still investing in the young Turks (Virat, Rohit, Raina, Jadeja). That he was able to do it without attracting jealousy or creating bad blood was again remarkable as the shenanigans that accompany decision-making in leadership positions (especially in our part of the world) is well documented.
His reading of the game and his understanding of his strengths along with the determination to take things to closure trumped these shortcomings [as a cricketer].
Finally, all that MS Dhoni achieved during his captaincy, he achieved with a smile. Ever since Australia started dominating international cricket, most fans started believing in the "Australian way" of playing and winning as a blueprint of success. The template consisted of intimidating opponents with a version of aggression that was unlikely to win friends but likely to win cricket matches.
Dhoni was a breath of fresh air. He let his bat do the "mental disintegration" of the foe. He did not need to speak to bowlers, who he was swatting across the park, but India still won.
I do not know what the future holds for him. Will the freedom from the pressures that come with captaincy give him a new lease of life as a player? Will he able to adjust to Virat's fire and brimstone brand of captaincy? Will he try to return as the swashbuckling batsman that he once was or be the glue that binds a fragile middle order? I suspect even Dhoni doesn't know. At least, in a definitive way. But what I do know is that the dignity that he brought to the role surpassed even the rich silverware that will adorn the cabinet. For this, fans like me will forever be thankful. MSD—I couldn't make a movie about you to express my gratitude. Words and words are all I have....