The Dhoni Effect: More than just cricket

Why it’s time to talk about the impact Mahendra Singh Dhoni has had that goes far beyond the cricket pitch


Every small town boy—and girl—can see Mahendra Singh Dhoni as an inspirational figure. Photo: AFP
Every small town boy—and girl—can see Mahendra Singh Dhoni as an inspirational figure. Photo: AFP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni (MSD) has quit as India captain in the limited overs format of the game—one-day internationals (ODIs) and T20s.

People—famous and unknown, from India, but from across the world—have tweeted a sense of shock and paid homage to a man who is certainly one of the best cricketers India has ever produced. But Dhoni has always shown remarkable intelligence, both on and off the field. And the highest standard to judge a successful man is on his capacity to know when to call it quits.

Dhoni has now exhibited this twice—quite unlike people in this subcontinent in diverse fields, from industry to sports. Almost exactly two years ago, he quit as Test captain at the end of a disastrous tour of Australia. As India’s late great batsman Vijay Merchant said: Go when people ask “Why?” not when they ask “Why not?”

MSD, who has told the Indian board that he will still be available as a player, will be remembered as long as the game is played in India. Of course. But it’s time to talk about the impact he has had that goes far beyond the cricket pitch.

In 2007, when I was editor of the business daily The Financial Express, Dhoni was crowned captain of the Indian team, and we coined a term “Dhoni effect”, which went far beyond cricket. We spent bushels of money, sending three correspondents to 12 Tier-II towns, from Guwahati to Surat, from Mysore to Shimla, to report on the socio-economic impact of Dhoni being made captain, and we ran a series of articles under the “Dhoni Effect” column header.

In 2008, consultancy firm Ernst & Young released a report called “The Dhoni Effect” (I am certain the executives thought up that term on their own). It detailed how small-town India consumers were hankering for more, and marketers and advertisers were unable to keep pace. Companies smelt a good market in these towns, but they are yet to back their marketing with enough advertising focus.

According to Ernst & Young’s study, 22 towns—and I quote from a Hindu Business Line report here, “Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Indore or Pune have three-fourths or more of the affluence levels of Mumbai. On growth potential, they do even better. While (these towns), and other towns and rural India has a larger share of consumption spends vis-a-vis the metros (70:30), the ad spends in most product categories are not in the same proportion. As in the case of some of the cola manufacturers, this proportion is as high as 80% in favour of the metros, in spite of metros generating only about 25% of sales.

“On weighted score of 4.8, based on parameters of affluence index, population size and growth potential, Pune, Chandigarh and Thiruvanathapuram are right behind Hyderabad’s 4.9…Thiruvananthpuram stands ahead of Chennai and Jaipur’s 4.5 scores. A study of the consumption spends shows that metros constitute about 30 per cent of the total consumption market of hundred cities…(Dhoni towns) and rural India together garner a whopping 70 per cent.”

Marketing and ad spends have changed dramatically since then. And to some extent—however small, MSD is inadvertently responsible.

Why did we at our business newspaper and E&Y independently call this the “Dhoni Effect”? Because something was happening in our country and no one had been paying attention. And Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the pointer to that phenomenon: you could no longer shut your eyes and be in denial.

Small-town India did not feel inferior to the metros any more. They wanted more, and they knew they could achieve as much as the people in the big cities, and more than that. In a way, Dhoni became the symbol of this.

Dhoni as captain, whose father operated the pumphouse at an officer’s colony of public sector engineering firm Mecon in Ranchi, brought that groundswell to its first inevitable peak.

Of course, Dhoni revolutionalized Indian cricket in socio-economic terms. As I wrote in The Indian Express at that time:

“But in many ways, Dhoni’s elevation to captaincy is not just about the selection committee for the Indian cricket team taking a long-term bet on a talented young wicketkeeper-batsman. The last man who captained India and who could claim to be from a small town was Chandu Borde, who led India in one Test against Australia in 1967-68. Borde was from Pune, which, with the liberalisation of manufacturing and the software revolution still far away, could be called a small town then. Since then, the skippers have come from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Bangalore. Yet, the last few years made it obvious that a small-town Indian at the helm was something bound to happen. For, the most dramatic phase shift that has occurred in Indian cricket over the last decade or so has been the loosening of the grip of our big cities and our middle and upper classes over cricket.

“Mumbai has only regular member in the Indian Test and ODI teams; Bangalore and Kolkata too have only one each. Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad have none. The class structure has also changed. The team no longer teems with Maharashtrian Brahmins from the Dadar-Shivaji Park area and upper middle class boys from Bangalore. The current Indian cricket pantheon bristles with young men from distinctly lower middle class and even penurious origins. This trickle-down effect in Indian cricket, the emergence of players whose childhood deprivations just made them hungrier for success, steeled their resolve even more, is a great sociological victory for the game.”

But Dhoni’s real impact has been much larger, and quite probably he himself would not be aware of that. He has been a social and economic revolutionary. Every small town boy—and girl—can see him as an inspirational figure, whatever his or her aspirations.

MSD had no godfathers, no sugar daddies. He came from a small town, played club matches in Kharagpur for pitiful amounts of money, served as a temporary ticket collector for the South Eastern Railway, but followed his passion and it saw him through to massive global success and unimaginable wealth.

He is not only a marvellous cricketer but an inspiration for every young Indian. He has been an entrepreneur in every sense of the word, and he is a brand ambassador for the power of every young Indian who is willing to chase a dream till it is caught in the net and then fulfilled to its full potential and even more than that.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.

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