Pick an all-format, all-time Indian XI, and - for many - Mahendra Singh Dhoni would be first in. Recency bias means Virat Kohli next, then Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev. Foremost, though, it's Dhoni - as captain, too. Through the course of a 15-year international career, formally brought to a close last August, M. S. Dhoni maximised his all-round abilities. In Tests, that meant high-quality keeping, and middle-order attack or defence. In limited-overs cricket, he had - in his prime - an innate sense of how to manoeuvre a chase, or cut off his opponent's path to a target; he remained in calm control of the high-speed decision-making needed in T20. At his best, he stayed ahead of a game's tempo.
India will continue to churn out eye-catching batsmen and a kaleidoscope of bowlers, fast and slow. But will we ever see Dhoni's like again? In the national pantheon, he occupies a unique space, ahead even of Kapil, in many ways his 20th-century precursor. Kapil, from humble Haryana, was the first Indian cricket superstar to emerge from outside the traditional urban power centres. As his country's first fast-bowling all-rounder, he also tore up stereotypes; he also captained them to World Cup victory. But, in an India very different from the one Kapil dominated, Dhoni's is the overpowering story. His impact on Indian life, cricketing and cultural, is full of layers.
He began as an unorthodox, genre-busting product of the grassroots, a torchbearer for small-town energy and ambition, and became a pan-Indian hero, straddling worlds. As Jharkhand's most famous citizen, he brought attention to a neglected state, where tribal identity tussles with a powerful mining industry. And he is a son of the hardy Kumaoni hill people, his family originally from Lawali, in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Today, Dhoni is an unexpected Tamil pop icon, affectionately referred to as Thala ("the leader" in Tamil) because of his association with Chennai Super Kings.
Then there is the name that arose from the 2007 World T20, which India won: Captain Cool. Dhoni as gun-wielding combat man makes sporadic appearances too, a product of his boyhood dream of joining the Indian army. A dagger insignia on his wicketkeeping gloves at the 2019 World Cup, with the word balidaan (sacrifice), belongs to the Indian army's special forces, and was banned by the ICC because of its political edge. Dhoni was given the rank of honorary lieutenant colonel in India's Territorial Army in November 2011 - a perfect fit for a hypernationalistic country forever on the lookout for old heroes and new enemies. In 2018, he completed a five-jump certification with the TA paratroop regiment and, dressed in his uniform and beret, received a civilian honour from Ram Nath Kovind, the president of India. He is a life member of the National Rifle Association of India and, after the 2019 World Cup, pulled out of a tour of the West Indies to spend two months with his TA regiment.
He loves machinery, and motorbikes. Combat man is hardly a smaller part of his identity than Captain Cool. Dhoni's announcement on August 16 belonged to Cool School, and came on Instagram: "Thanks a lot for ur love and support throughout. From 1929 hrs consider me as Retired." It featured an evocative slideshow of career snapshots to a soulful Hindi song about fleeting fame and public recall, written by Sahir Ludhianvi, one of Indian poetry's modern greats. And it hit social media just as Dhoni headed out for a training session with CSK.
This was the third time a major piece of personal news had felt like a throwaway remark, as if he didn't care about trappings or formalities - ironic, perhaps, given how often he was protected in the game's corridors of power. In December 2014, captain Dhoni had used a BCCI media release to retire from Test cricket in the middle of a series in Australia, citing the "strain of playing all formats". In January 2017, around ten days before an ODI series against England, he stepped down from the captaincy of the limited-overs teams, again via press release. (The first we heard of his reasoning was September 2018: during a motivational speech to the Central Industrial Security Force, he said he had wanted to give Kohli time to prepare a team for the 2019 World Cup.) Now came the Instagram announcement.
Each decision has reinforced his brand as a strong-and-silent man's man. Early on, his detached demeanour was welcomed as a departure from Indian cricket's overheated environment; historian and commentator Mukul Kesavan called him "India's first adult captain since Pataudi". As the years passed, Dhoni's healthy distance from the media only added to the mystique, and became his shield from answering questions, cricketing or otherwise. Potential subjects included heavy defeats in away Test series, and on-field decisions such as the batting order, or how he had chosen to finish a game.
But there were also issues that struck deep, such as the 2013 IPL corruption scandal in which a CSK team official, Gurunath Meiyappan - son-in-law of the BCCI president, N. Srinivasan - was accused of having links to the (illegal) betting industry. CSK were banned for two years, yet when Dhoni was asked about it by journalists, he smiled beatifically, and allowed the media minder to step in. His most public comment on the matter was enigmatic: "The biggest crime I can commit is not a murder, it is match-fixing."
For some, his stance was unsettling, and remained so. With India, he was as detached as he chose to be. It was only in CSK yellow that he acted out of character: distraught after losing an IPL final to Mumbai Indians, hollering at a bowler for overstepping, storming on to the field to argue with the umpires for overturning a no-ball in a last-over finish. In the tournament's 2020 edition, he was at it again, apparently persuading an umpire to change his mind about a wide.
Yet even in the ranks, Dhoni remained an enormous presence in the Indian team, with his glovework and spatial instincts behind the wicket, his canny nuggets - audible over the stump mike - to bowlers, and as counsel, guru and field-setter for Kohli. Not being captain was perfect: no press conferences, no carrying the load as representative sage of his country's cricket ecosystem. In his toughest days, he was protected by the board and, above all, by Srinivasan, CSK's uber-owner. In January 2012, after 4-0 wipeouts in England and Australia, the selectors wanted Dhoni sacked as skipper, but Srinivasan used his veto as BCCI president to nix the decision. That September, Mohinder Amarnath, chief of selectors, was removed from the panel.
Nothing dimmed Dhoni's lustre in the eyes of his fans. Haters will hate, they scoffed. A from-the-jaws-of-defeat 2013 Champions Trophy victory was his last major title as captain. But it reminded India why Dhoni, from the moment he made his debut in December 2004, had been so loved. Not just for his carefree, unschooled strokeplay - epitomised by the wristy helicopter shot that sent full-length balls on off stump whistling over long-on - but for an indefatigable appetite for the impossible: as batsman, to chase what looked too large; as captain, to defend what appeared too small. He had rewritten the script of chasing targets by going deep into a game, turning cricket into a mano-a-mano contest. The pitch became boxing ring. It was heady stuff.
In the second half of his career, even as his impact as a finisher diminished, his cult grew. Two World Cups (the World T20 in 2007 and the 50-over edition in 2011, sealed with a Dhoni six), plus that Champions Trophy, had earned him an everlasting layer of Teflon. It was just as well. Between late 2015 and his international retirement, Dhoni's hand in chases, win or lose, went from clear-eyed to befuddled. Two of his last three innings for India were at the 2019 World Cup: 42 not out from 54 balls as India, five wickets in hand, lost by 31 runs to England; then a painful 72-ball 50 during the semi-final defeat by New Zealand. Both lacked a carefully calibrated counter-attack, as if he had lost his hold on the game's tempo, and kept missing the beat.
Regardless, any talk about him quitting was considered blasphemy. Last year, Dhoni joked in a TV advert: "Everyone's really worried about my retirement." As much as the R word, his jagged performances in white-ball death overs acquired holy-cow status among the commentariat. Few called it what it was: the fading of both his enormous hitting power, and his control over acceleration. Instead, his most repetitive tactical oversight - a refusal to bat higher up the order - was hastily retrofitted to suit the Dhoni brand. The latest stumbles, in last year's IPL, were interpreted as part of Dhoni's far-seeing plan to give the team's young players a chance to fit into CSK's superhero uniforms of the future. He himself said the team had not seen "the kind of spark" in the youngsters that could have prompted change. An old fable about an emperor's clothes came to mind.
There were more shabby chases, with Dhoni - who totalled a modest 200 runs in the competition at 25, with a strike-rate of just 116 - often giving up the ghost too early, and CSK missing out on the play-offs for the first time. Not that he showed any sign of stepping down as captain. And so he has morphed from a long-haired, devil-may-care, six-hitting, small-town hero into a percentage-playing man of the Establishment. A Dhoni admirer, far removed from the cricket world, pithily described the distance covered by this most original of Indian cricketers: Dhoni the batsman, she observed, had gone "from dreamer to realist to cynic".
The best of his cricket belonged to the wide, open spaces of possibility and imagination. Final over, batsman versus bowler, you versus me, let everyone see what we're made of. It is probably where M. S. Dhoni should be left. Shoulders rolling, all muscle and intent, eyes narrowed to the sun as the bowler runs in, breeze blowing. The match is on the line, the series is in the balance, India need 16, and Dhoni is on strike.
Sharda Ugra spent three decades reporting sport as required by tabloids, broadsheets, news magazines and websites. Now she lives in Bangalore, and writes to suit herself.