M.S. Dhoni: The good, the bad and the ugly
Photo: Hindustan Times
Whether Dhoni is a puppet of BCCI was never expected to be answered in The Untold Story, but what it definitely lets us know is he is good at beating his own drum
In a span of less than six months, two biopics came out on two very different Indian cricket captains. The starting few moments of both the films capture the contrast in how the two will be remembered. Emraan Hashmi-starrer Azhar starts with Mohammad Azharuddin, then 37 with an accomplished career but still promising more, being pulled disingenuously—as the film doggedly tries to project—into the morass of match-fixing scandal.
On the other hand, Sushant Singh Rajput—playing the role of M.S. Dhoni in Neeraj Pandey’s directorial venture M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story—starts with promoting himself up the order in 2011 World Cup final and taking India to the title by depositing Nuwan Kulasekara for a mighty six over the long-on fence.
Even if the two careers will be remembered differently, the two movies shared one important characteristic: both are puff jobs. Like Hashmi in Azhar, Rajput in The Untold Story could not put a foot wrong.
Azhar could not blank out the match-fixing controversy. In fact, the controversy became the central thread of the plot. The Untold Story went a step ahead eschewing all controversies, though none were of the level of the match-fixing allegation Azharuddin was accused of.
Even if a minor controversy of dropping senior players from the one-day international team has been shown, the dull rigmarole of reality is brutally yanked away by this dialogue delivered by Rajput/Dhoni: “We are all national servants and we are all doing national duty.” Only a reminder for the audience to applaud was missing. The audience was too obedient regardless!
In one of the scenes in The Untold Story, Dhoni, now established as the captain of Indian cricket team, welcomes Satya Prakash, a flatmate from the days he was employed with Indian Railways in Kharagpur, to his hotel room. In order to recreate an old prank with his friend, Dhoni is seen dummy talking on his phone to some senior official of the all-powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
During this fake conversation, Rajput/Dhoni says, “I have no interest in captaincy because I can’t be a ‘puppet’.” At least a few close observers of the game would definitely be reminded of Dhoni’s press conference on the eve of Indian team’s departure to England for the last edition of Champions Trophy in 2013.
Indian cricket had been rocked by spot-fixing scandal. The past few days had seen a number of skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the annual T20 extravaganza organised by the BCCI. Three players of the Rajasthan Royals franchisee had been arrested. Under the scanner was also the Chennai Super Kings (CSK), the franchise whose cricket team was led by Dhoni himself.
Gurunath Meiyappan, till then widely recognized as the team principal of the Super Kings, was accused of betting on the matches of his own franchisee—a charge tantamount to “insider trading”. Meiyappan, the son-in-law of then BCCI president N. Srinivasan, was quickly downplayed by the powers that be to just a “cricket enthusiast” with no formal position in the CSK franchisee. Srinivasan was also the director of India Cements, the company which owned CSK. To add to the maze of conflicts of interests, Dhoni was—and continues to be—a vice-president in India Cements.
Dhoni had been avoiding questions on the scandal through the entire period the story played itself out. The pre-departure press conference was an occasion the Indian skipper could have used to utter some reassuring words for the average cricket fan. But all questions related to the controversy were deflected by the BCCI media manager R.N. Baba.
To be fair, it is not an easy task for an active cricketer to take on the might of BCCI. But on 28 May 2013, Dhoni did not even try to do the minimum he could have—speak as an honourable sportsman. It was apparent that both Dhoni and Baba were under instructions not to entertain controversial questions. Dhoni revelled in carrying out the instructions. Wonder if it solves the puppet question?
Well, if it doesn’t, there is more to the saga. A three-member committee led by justice Mukul Mudgal was appointed by the Supreme Court of India to investigate into the allegations of betting and spot fixing in the IPL. Dhoni deposed before the committee and took the stand, the report of the committee notes, that Meiyappan “had nothing to do with the cricketing affairs of Chennai Super Kings and was a mere cricket enthusiast supporting CSK”.
Despite Dhoni’s deposition, the committee, after examining various documents and recording the statements of several involved, concluded that “the role of Gurunath Meiyappan in Chennai Super Kings as the team official stands proved”. The committee goes on to say that “the allegations of betting and passing on information” on Meiyappan also “stand proved”.
Appearing on behalf of Aditya Verma, the secretary of Cricket Association of Bihar, in his legal fight against the BCCI, Harish Salve, senior advocate and former solicitor-general of India, accused Dhoni of a “cover up”. “The definition of corruption,” added Salve, “includes cover up”.
Whether it was the press conference of 28 May 2013 or the statement before the Mudgal committee, there was undoubtedly a conflict of interest between Dhoni’s role as the Indian cricket team captain and one as the vice-president of India Cements.
Not a singular case
There has been at least one other instance of Dhoni’s conflict of interest erupting into a major controversy. While Dhoni was leading his team in the 2013 Champions Trophy, the news broke out of his stakes in Rhiti Sports, a sports management company that handled, at various points in time, cricketers like Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Pragyan Ojha. As a captain, Dhoni had a role in team selections. If some of the players under contention for selections are managed by a company in which the captain holds a stake, there cannot be a clearer case of conflict of interest.
Rhiti Sports promptly clarified that Dhoni owned those stakes only for a brief period of time. But all the clamour for investigation went unheeded by the BCCI. Two years later on 20 June 2015, The Hindustan Times reported, quoting then BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya, that the board’s disciplinary committee had already been probing the conflict of interest involving Dhoni and Rhiti Sports. Within a day, Dalmiya clarified that he had been misquoted.
While Dhoni may have held shares in Rhiti Sports only for a brief while, he has a number of other business interests, as has been reported by India Today, in ventures of Arun Pandey, the owner of Rhiti Sports. Pandey is Dhoni’s agent and claims—as quoted in a January 2015 Caravan profile of Dhoni—that no one knows Dhoni better than him.
If someone had a doubt over why The Untold Story is more hagiographical than biographical, it may have something to do with Pandey’s moolah in the venture—he is the film’s producer. It is hardly surprising why the film neither has anything on the IPL scandal nor on the Rhiti Sports controversy. According to news reports, the film has hit the success benchmark of making Rs100 crore.
Dhoni, ranking 23rd among the world’s highest paid athletes according to Forbes, may not be needing a job in Indian Cements to sustain himself, but there are other cricketers who do need such support. In a 2012 interview to Mint, Srinivasan reminded, “From my father’s time, India Cements has been supporting cricket. Many Ranji Trophy players were employed in the company. When there was no money in the sport, we were promoting cricket and cricketers.”
But Dhoni was not always uber-rich. In fact, as The Untold Story shows, Dhoni comes from a modest family in Ranchi.
Paan Singh Dhoni wanted his son to secure a government job. If not his academic qualifications, his cricketing skills would get him jobs in Steel Authority of India Ltd and then at Central Coalfields Ltd, both in his hometown. The real opportunity for celebration arrived for the family with an offer letter to join as a ticket collector in the Indian Railways in Kharagpur. The family believed Dhoni’s future was bright and he could also become a divisional railway manager one day. But Dhoni was after a different quest.
Frustrated with running from one platform to another while making little progress in his cricket career, Dhoni is shown in the film returning home from a train he finds at platform number eight. There are 10 platforms in Kharagpur but none of them displayed as number eight (they are numbered 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3, 3A, 4, 4A, 5, 6).
Given how prominently Neeraj Pandey shows platform number eight, there is every chance the mistake is deliberate. But there is another mistake that is not deliberate.
In a local fair during Durga Puja, the roughly 12-14 year-old Dhoni is seen demanding a poster of cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. Since Dhoni was born in 1981, the year when this demand was made cannot be beyond 1995. But the Tendulkar on poster was clearly not of pre-1995 era.
However, Neeraj Pandey has detailed the nuances of a small-town like Ranchi in a brilliant manner. The importance of Durga Puja and the Bengali accent of Dhoni’s school coach gives away the proximity to West Bengal (to Ranchi’s east). Then there are other accents from the north and west of Ranchi seen in various shades from Dhoni’s own family to the one of the commentators in school games.
The mix of the east (West Bengal) and north-west (Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) is best captured by the interchangeable use of samosa and singhara.
Dhoni’s own family is shown as religious, conservative and middle class. The walls full of gods and goddesses give way to fancier art works only when Dhoni’s international cricket career begins to return gold. The gods and goddesses get a separate place of their own where Dhoni’s mother would be chanting prayers while son was facing the toughest bowlers on pitches around the world.
The family members and friends would call him "Mahi" rather than "Maahi" as he would later be known among his Indian teammates. But Dhoni is a man for his friends. Never isolated, always among friends. As opposed to a young Yuvraj Singh, who is shown carrying swagger which, Dhoni believes, gets the former selected for the Under-19 World Cup of 2000.
It was difficult for Dhoni to enter the Indian team purely as a batsman. He came in as a wicketkeeper batsman. Even in his school team, he was drafted purely as a wicketkeeper after the coach was impressed by his football goalkeeping skills. But he would tell the coach soon that he liked batting more than wicketkeeping. He gained a name for himself in Ranchi on his sheer ability to hit the ball out of the park. As Dhoni piled on the runs, a local boy would run around the town saying, “Mahi maar raha hai (Mahi is hitting).”
A number of wicketkeepers had been tried by the national selectors but not one of them could cement his place. Among the names was the (now recently appointed) chairman of the national selection committee, M.S.K. Prasad. Others included Ajay Ratra, Saba Karim, Deep Dasgupta, Sameer Dighe, Vijay Dahiya and Parthiv Patel. Even Dinesh Karthik had debuted before Dhoni. The inability to find a good wicketkeeper who could bat decently in the lower middle order forced Rahul Dravid to pad up behind the stumps.
But Dravid was not a specialist keeper. Dhoni solved that problem by his debut against Bangladesh on 23 December 2004. The last match Dravid played as the designated wicketkeeper was against Pakistan on 13 November 2004. The chairman of the selection committee then was Kiran More, one of the best India has had behind the stumps.
A few of the names above might have been better wicketkeepers than Dhoni but none could challenge him even remotely in batting prowess. In wicketkeeping too, Dhoni didn’t do badly. He ended his Test career with fifth highest number of dismissals among the wicketkeepers.
The greatness of the wicketkeepers above him in the list—Mark Boucher, Adam Gilchrist, Ian Healy and Rodney Marsh—is beyond a shred of doubt. In ODIs, Dhoni stands at number four with only Kumar Sangakkara, Gilchrist and Boucher ahead of him.
The next Indians behind Dhoni in Tests and ODIs are Syed Kirmani (198 dismissals in 88 Test matches as opposed to Dhoni’s 294 in 90 Test matches) and Nayan Mongia (154 dismissals in 140 ODIs as opposed to Dhoni’s 350 dismissals in 278 ODIs).
More than statistics, Dhoni has grown into a modern day wicketkeeper: smart, sharp and alert. To effect run-outs, rather than collecting the ball cleanly in the gloves, he just deflects them on to the stumps. While stumping, he often doesn't whip the bails in a flash but waits for the moment when batsman’s feet go up in the air.
In tense finishing moments of the game, he removes the gloves so as to ensure better chances of the run out if the batsman misses the delivery. Rather than throwing the ball, he charges towards the stumps backing his ability to run faster than the non-striker.
Despite his heroics behind the stumps, he was primarily feared in the opposition ranks for his sheer ability to hit the ball out of the ground almost at will. As noted, Dhoni was famous for this right from his school days.
Early in his international career—in just his fifth ODI appearance—Dhoni hit a swashbuckling 148 off 123 deliveries against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam. In his 22nd ODI, he scored a 183 not out off just 145 deliveries against Sri Lanka in Jaipur. More importantly the innings was played while chasing a stiff target of 299 runs. This target may not seem much by today’s standards but this was still a lot to chase in the year 2005.
What this unbeaten Jaipur innings did was to open the floodgates. Dhoni never looked back and went on to establish himself as one of the world’s greatest ever finishers in the limited-overs format.
If the early wickets fell quickly, Dhoni could come in and consolidate the innings. In the death overs, he could pull out all stops to get the team across the victory line.
With Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina later, Dhoni would become the batting spine of the Indian cricket in limited-overs games. Soon enough, Dhoni was being compared to Michael Bevan of Australia, a pioneer as far as finishing ODIs are concerned.
Bevan, who played 232 ODIs for Australia between 1994 and 2004, was never a big hitter like Dhoni. But Bevan was a reassuring presence in the middle; he managed to get Australia across the line more often than not.
While chasing, Bevan’s average (56.50) was better than his overall batting average of 53.58. Dhoni’s average in second innings (51.07) of ODIs is roughly the same as his overall average of 51.25. But finishing the match is a very specific responsibility, not just having an overall good second innings average. For instance, a middle or a lower-middle order batsman is more likely to finish matches than an opener, regardless of how the averages of the two compare.
There are only 48 cricketers who have batted in more than 40 ODI innings at positions of five, six, or seven while batting second. Among them Bevan has the highest average of 49.97, followed by Dhoni at 47.24. In terms of number of runs scored at these positions while batting second, Bevan falls down the ladder at number 10. Arjuna Ranatunga of Sri Lanka tops the list with 3,200 runs in 124 innings. Dhoni is a close second with 3,071 runs in 101 innings and counting.
If the list is further shrunk to include only those who have played in 50 or more innings at these positions while batting second, only 30 players remain. These are as good a match-finishers as you can find. This list, however, has averages ranging from 49.97 of Bevan to 21.03 of Shahid Afridi. The number of not outs—an essential statistic to decide if the finisher is indeed finishing the game—vary from Dhoni's 36 to Keiron Pollard's 5.
Moreover, match finishers need to show their magic while winning matches for the team. Among the players who have batted in more than 25 innings at fifth, sixth or seventh positions while chasing in a winning cause, Dhoni leads over everyone else in a list of 25 players. His average balloons to a mammoth 98.93. Bevan is at number five with an impressive average of 73.50.
Out of 50 such innings, Dhoni was not out in 34. Bevan was not out 13 times in 25 such innings. But this list of 25 needs to be reproduced in full. It has, apart from Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Kapil Dev from India. And from Australia, Bevan is supported by Andrew Symonds and Steve Waugh. Other notable names include Inzmam-ul-Haq, Shoiab Malik, Saleem Malik and Shahid Afridi (Pakistan), Ranatunga and Angelo Mathews (Sri Lanka), Hansie Cronje, Jonty Rhodes, J.P. Duminy and Mark Boucher (South Africa), Jeff Dujon, Gus Logie, Carl Hooper and Dwayne Bravo (West Indies), Craig McMillan and Chris Cairns (New Zealand), Eoin Morgan (England), and Shakib Al Hasan (Bangladesh).
Of course, Bevan and Dhoni played cricket in two different periods of time with different rules and facing different quality of bowling attacks. Dhoni started his ODI career 10 months after Bevan finished his. But one thing can be said for sure: Dhoni is one of the world’s greatest, if not the greatest, ODI finishers. Bevan has himself said so.
Aiming for the world
While promoting The Untold Story in New York, Dhoni recounted the story after the World Cup of 2007. India had, under Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy and John Wright’s coaching, finished runner-up in the previous edition of 2003. The expectations in 2007 with Dravid (captain) and Greg Chappell (coach) in command were higher.
But the World Cup in the Caribbean proved to be a disaster. India crashed out of the group stages after losing to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The sole victory they registered was against Bermuda.
The India cricket fan is known for his extreme emotion. In success, the cricketers would be treated as demigods; in failure, their homes can even be attacked. The latter happened after the 2007 World Cup.
Irate fans threw stones at Dhoni’s house. At the press conference in Fox Building at Manhattan, Dhoni narrated the events after the team landed in Delhi. “At that point of time, when we landed, we had to get out in a police van. I was sitting next to Viru (Virender Sehwag) paaji. It was evening or night-time. We were travelling at a decent speed—60 or 70 km—and that’s quite a bit for India, that too on the narrow roads.
“And, you know, media cars around us with their cameras and the big lights on top, it felt as if we had committed a big crime, maybe like a murderer or terrorist or something. We were actually chased by them. After a while, we entered a police station. We went there, we sat for a while and then we left in our cars after 15-20 minutes. That actually had a big impact on me and I channelized the aggression to become a better cricketer and a better human being.”
Dhoni would soon get to rectify the mistakes of that World Cup. He was made the captain for the inaugural World T20 as the senior players pulled out of the team. Here was the Indian captain, with “a long, coppery mane” standing out “on a field full of sensible haircuts”—to use the words from Caravan profile—leading them to victory against the arch-rivals Pakistan in the finals. He was soon given the reins of the ODI team as well.
Dhoni began to eye the 50-over World Cup—2007 was to be avenged. Ahead of the Commonwealth Bank series in Australia, with Sri Lanka as the third team, Dhoni asked the selectors to drop some of the senior players who were not good on the field.
The only controversial part in The Untold Story is on this episode but was ruined by poor dialogue writing. The names of the senior players were also beeped out. One only gets to know that there are three of them and they are too big to be fiddled around with. But our hero does the impossible and gets them flying back to India after the Test series.
The only possible guess for this trio is: Sourav Ganguly, Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman. But here is the problem. The last ODI Laxman had played was more than a year before the team for Commonwealth Bank series was selected. Dravid was not selected for even the previous ODI series India had played against Pakistan at home. Fielding (one of the reasons mentioned in the movie) was not the only reason for Ganguly’s ouster.
The Indian team was already facing the problem of four openers in Tendulkar, Ganguly, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Selecting Ganguly and then benching him, as his batting form and fielding would have warranted, was becoming difficult for Dhoni.
Besides, Tendulkar was not electric in the field either. He was a safe fielder, so was Dravid.
It was alright for Dhoni to have begun phasing out senior players with an eye on the next World Cup but to use this episode for pushing his image with the help of sanctimonious dialogues in a biopic he himself greenlighted, was definitely not in sporting spirit.
Nevertheless, Dhoni's choice to retain Tendulkar while phasing out others proved to be a masterstroke. To be sure, Tendulkar could not have been phased out even if Dhoni wanted. Tendulkar went on to play two consecutively brilliant knocks in Sydney and Brisbane to hand over the trophy to India in the first two matches of the best of three finals. Dhoni was spared from some difficult questions.
Dhoni was off to a flying start in his role as the India skipper. After Anil Kumble’s retirement later in 2008, Dhoni assumed the captaincy of Test team as well.
In about a year, India had ascended to the top rank in Test cricket, their first time ever. Then onwards, he went on to achieve the dream of every Indian cricket fan. India won the World Cup in 2011 after a gap of 28 years.
Dhoni is the only Indian captain to have won India all of the following: the World Cup, the World T20, the Champions Trophy and rank one in Test cricket. No one even comes close.
Having led the Indian team in 60 Test matches and 194 ODIs, Dhoni is the most experienced captain in the history of Indian cricket. Among players who have captained India for 25 or more Test matches, Dhoni’s win-loss ratio (1.5) is second best after Ganguly’s 1.61. Dravid follows at number three with a win-loss ratio of 1.33.
If one compares the outcomes in ODIs for all the captains who led the Indian team in more than 50 ODIs, Dhoni is perched at the top. Dhoni’s win percentage of 59.56% (this methodology counts ties and no results as half-wins) is ahead of Dravid’s at 56%, Azharuddin’s and Dev’s at 54.16% and Ganguly’s at 53.90%.
But it was Dhoni’s Test captaincy, especially when playing overseas, that came under a lot of criticism. His listless approach when the opposition batsmen were tanking runs was widely panned. He obviously did not have the best pace bowlers that are required in those conditions but he didn’t help himself by defensive field settings and lack of a plan B when things didn’t work out.
The win in the 2011 World Cup was followed by humiliating whitewashes in England (0-4) and Australia (0-4).
But there were other whitewashes happening with touring teams during the same period of time. Australia was given a taste of 0-4 loss in India (2013). Sri Lanka lost 0-3 to Australia when travelling down under (2012-13). Sri Lanka returned the favour with the benefit of home conditions earlier this year. A travelling Pakistan was thrashed by South Africa 3-0 (2013). Australia humiliated England 5-0 in 2013-14 again taking the advantage of the home conditions.
The Caravan profile defends Dhoni on this point: “In the decade that Dhoni has been an international player, no country, with the exception of South Africa, has travelled well at all.”
But till India’s West Indies tour of 2011, Dhoni himself had maintained an impressive win-loss ratio of five. Out of the 27 Tests, Dhoni had captained, 12 had been played abroad. Out of these 12, India won 5 and lost 2—not such a poor travelling record.
It was after the West Indies tour that Dhoni’s win-loss ratio began falling and halted finally at 1.5. It is true that most of the teams have been poor travellers during this bad phase of Dhoni’s captaincy, which begins on 21 July 2011 with the match against England at Lord’s and ends with his last Test against Australia in Melbourne on 30 December 2014.
During this period, in away matches, Australia won 6 and lost 9, England won 3 and lost 7, Pakistan won 4 and lost 7, Sri Lanka won 3 and lost 6, New Zealand won 3 and lost 11, and West Indies won 3 and lost 9. But India’s performance is much poorer; Dhoni’s team lost 13 and won just a solitary match at Lord’s in 2014.
That Dhoni has still ended with second best record in Tests (among Indian captains) is because his team was virtually unbeaten at home. Under Dhoni’s leadership, India played 30 matches at home and lost just three. It won 21.
In comparison, at home venues, the Ganguly-led Indian team won 10 and lost 3, Azharuddin’s team won 13 and lost 4, and Dravid’s won 3 and lost 2.
In away matches, the numbers stack up differently. Here, Dhoni’s team won 6 and lost 15, Azharuddin’s won just one match and lost 10, Dravid’s won 5 and lost 4, and Ganguly’s team performed the best, winning 11 and losing 10.
Dhoni’s batting record in Tests is also not much to write home about. In 90 Tests, he made close to 5,000 runs with a mediocre average of 38.09. The Untold Story has almost nothing about his Test career. Whether the scriptwriter is to be blamed or the subject of the film himself is not clear.
While he has been brilliant in ODIs as noted earlier, his performance in T20s has been good as well. Being a new format, there are not enough metrics to evaluate greatness in T20s. Given the size of the format, T20 is not the best format to build records for someone coming lower down the order. T20 needs a better combinatorial index of runs scored, batting average and strike rate to reach a metric to evaluate a batsman’s utility. (An aside: Dhoni’s strike rate in ODIs is much better than Bevan’s but there is no point in comparing strike rate of one batsman who played between the years 1994 and 2004 with the other who started his career in 2004.).
If a minimum of 20 T20 international innings is taken as a qualification, Dhoni’s average (37.52) is the eighth highest. Virat Kohli is at the top with 57.13. In terms of number of runs scored in T20 internationals, Dhoni is at number 28. Brendon McCullum is at the top.
In terms of strike rate, Dhoni is nowhere near the top. With the highest score of 48 not out, Dhoni has clearly not had a demonstrative impact in T20 internationals as players like McCullum or Chris Gayle have had. But Dhoni’s reputation preceded his performance and he grabbed the highest price at the first auction of IPL in 2008.
Another aspect of his performance in limited-overs formats, especially T20s, is his last-over heroics. But his reputation to win matches in the last over has been increasingly coming under attack.
Eight runs required off the last over with seven wickets left in a high scoring T20 match should be a cakewalk for the chasing team. With Dhoni on the crease with all his reputation of a finisher, the match should be a sealed deal.
Yet India lost the match by one run against West Indies on 27 August 2016 at Lauderhill in Florida. The great finisher, it is now often said, leaves it for too late and things don’t always work out in his favour in the end.
In a slightly dated but relevant analysis, Bishen Jeswant concludes that Dhoni’s ability to win matches in the last over of international matches is a bit overhyped. However, he has done well in this regard in the IPL.
Why not in international matches then? Jeswant has an answer: “The quality of bowling is generally higher and the conditions tougher (in international cricket).”
Evolution of the man
In one scene, The Untold Story shows his boss in the Indian Railways asking Dhoni to work on his speaking English. During his days playing for India A, Dhoni is seen speaking English but haltingly. Switch to any post-match presentation today and Dhoni is fluent in his answers. His answers are also lengthier than most others.
The Caravan profile quotes Ashish Dhal, a gym instructor in Kharagpur, saying, “During rainy season, he (Dhoni) used to take a football and run alone on the ground to increase his lung capacity, and strengthen his thighs.”
Those sessions have indeed proved useful as one can see from his extremely agile running between the wickets. Indian cricket team was never famous for quick runners between the wickets before Dhoni. Today, India has plenty—Dhoni and Virat Kohli are the two quickest.
His formative years did indeed shape Dhoni, the cricketer and the athlete. But it is less clear how those years shaped Dhoni the person we see today. The Untold Story falls short again.
On 21 February 2016, Dhoni tweeted: “As v have this debate on freedom of speech our forces r making sure v stay in position to keep debating.”
He followed it up with another tweet: “Spl forces and commando unit’s r normal ppl like u and me who r highly motivated and trained to put the interest of the nation before self”.
While Dhoni has been conferred an honorary rank of lieutenant colonel in the Indian Army—this too found no mention in The Untold Story—these tweets came in a specific context. Earlier that month, few students or outsiders or a group of both (the details are not clear, the case is before the courts) shouted some slogans inside the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The sloganeering was part of a protest against “judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat”. Both Guru and Bhat were terrorists convicted with death penalty by the Supreme Court.
Following this event, the Delhi police launched a crackdown and few students including the leader of the university students’ union Kanhaiya Kumar were arrested. A debate on freedom of speech ensued in the media and among the commentariat-class.
In many debates, the sloganeers were pitted against the soldiers who defend India against terrorists like Guru and Bhat. Thus came Dhoni’s tweets.
In another of his tweets on 24 March 2016 Dhoni merely endorsed a tweet of actor Amitabh Bachchan by saying: “Nothing to add.” Bachchan had tweeted his observation on Indian commentators: “With all due respects, it would be really worthy of an Indian commentator to speak more about our players than others all the time.” This tweet, many insinuated, was a reason behind dropping Harsha Bhogle from the commentary team of the ninth edition of IPL.
While Dhoni may not have answered tough questions in the press conference of 28 May 2013, but it did not mean that he had nothing to offer. As is clear from his tweets, he certainly has a view on freedom of speech and a clear answer of who protects that freedom. Dhoni also has an opinion on how an Indian commentator ought to cover the matches involving Indian team.
In another press conference after India was eliminated from the sixth edition of the World T20 (2016) in the semi-final against West Indies, Dhoni was asked a question a player at his stage of career would invariably be asked—the retirement question.
Dhoni immediately asked the journalist, a foreign scribe, to come and sit beside him. Dhoni then asked if he was unfit and hinted the answer as well by referring to his running between the wickets. Dhoni asked the poor reporter if the latter thinks he could survive till the 2019 World Cup. Having been put in the centre of the room and being quizzed by the Indian cricket captain was too much for the journalist. He relented, saying yes.
Of course Dhoni could continue till 2019 World Cup, was the answer. But Dhoni had got this statement made through a nervous ventriloquist. But he was not done. Dhoni added that he really wished the journalist asking the question belonged to Indian media. Dhoni could then ask him if he had a brother or a son who could replace Dhoni as a wicketkeeper in the Indian team.
Less than three years after that press conference in which Dhoni echoed the silence of Srinivasan, here he was beating his own drum with the subtlety of a master craftsman. The drum beating was not new, the subtlety was.
In a commercial for a soda brand Dhoni is seen recalling the 2011 World Cup final. Chasing 275—a high target for any pressure game, leave alone a World Cup final—India’s third wicket fell at 114. India was—in the words of commentator Ravi Shastri—in a spot of bother.
The Untold Story starts with Dhoni watching the first two wickets fall early and deciding to go in at the fall of third. The coach Gary Kirsten is seen cautioning: “But Yuvi (Yuvraj Singh) has already padded up.” Dhoni had, however, taken the final call.
In the commercial, Dhoni is seen boasting his choice of promoting himself. The experts would have, Dhoni mocks, chosen to go with an in-form batsman (hinting at Yuvraj who was adjudged the man of the tournament).
“But I had other ideas because to be successful, you have to be different,” added Dhoni. He was right in his decision—hence the ad script—and was later adjudged the man of the match.
He would go on to play a delightful innings but so did Gambhir. The latter was not part of this ad script. Dhoni was special that day and so were his horizontal bat shots that regularly found the boundary, much to the surprise of Sangakkara and his boys, in front of square rather than behind.
In another commercial for the same brand, Dhoni recounts the 2013 Champions Trophy final against England. In a rain-curtailed game of 20 overs each, England required 28 off three overs with six wickets left and two set batsmen in Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara in the middle.
Again, Dhoni recalls that the experts would have wanted him to go with the in-form spinner but obviously he had other ideas. Ishant Sharma was called in and the over produced two wickets—both Bopara and Morgan returned to the pavilion—even if it conceded nine runs. The match had changed.
This is obviously making a mountain of a molehill. There are other commercials as well in which cricketers are roped in, for example, to show how well they bat after applying a particular brand of back-pain relief crème. Dhoni’s ads were only slightly more boastful.
But once seen with The Untold Story, the pattern is unmistakable. It is not just that The Untold Story flunks the objectivity test, but that it pretends there wasn’t anything else to show. Whether it was the failure in Test captaincy or the deposition before the Mudgal committee, they were perhaps no more than conspiracy theories hatched by journalists who have their sons or brothers waiting in the wings to join the Indian team as a wicketkeeper.
Whether Dhoni is a puppet of the BCCI was never expected to be answered in The Untold Story, but what it definitely lets us know is that Dhoni is good at beating his own drums.
It will, however, be churlish to forget that between the puppetry and the drumbeats, there is a man who will walk into the sunset as one of India’s finest cricket captains, one of India’s best ever wicketkeeper-batsmen and one of the best ever match finishers in ODIs.
Kunal Singh is a staff writer (Views) at Mint.
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