Captaining the Central Zone in 2004, I had my first chance of meeting a strapping youngster from the hinterland of Jharkhand. Our eyes met the first time in the team bus. But, words were not spoken.
Cut to a year later, and MS Dhoni is run out in what is his debut for India. I am the man at the other end. Once again, we don’t speak a word to each other.
Months passed, as I learnt that he was indeed a man of few words. Not arrogant, just shy. It became common sight to see MS sit at the back of the team bus, speaking only to a fixed set of players, his close friends. An introvert, who preferred the company of a few.
Though it wasn’t long before he started expressing himself in the middle, by playing the attacking brand of cricket only he could play. But team meetings remained a place he would hardly ever speak. He would listen attentively, but seldom talk.
It then came as a huge surprise to me to see the same shy, reticent, youngster go on to become India’s most successful captain; and I don’t need stats to back me up on this. In my view, he is the sharpest cricketing brain I’ve seen on the cricket field. I’m not sure how he did as a student of math in school, but his calculations on the field were 10/10. From his unorthodox field placements, to his unusual bowling changes, to planning his run chases down to a T, he had all the angles covered.
But what makes him a leader par excellence is how he mastered the art of administering from a Sachin Tendulkar to a Yuvraj Singh and mentoring the likes of a Hardik Pandya.
However, his rise to a successful leader from a shy youngster wasn’t the only thing where MS had me stumped.
One of my Under-16 days team mate Musi Raza, who had also played alongside Dhoni in junior level cricket, had defined him as a ‘Gunda’. Not because he was brash, or a bully. On the contrary, he was none of that. What made him a ‘Gunda’, was how he bullied bowlers with a bat in his hand. Evidence of which I saw first hand in just his 5th match for India.
As a young MS Dhoni, sporting a light browned coloured mane, put the Pakistan bowling to sword, hitting them in every corner of the ground, I sat in dressing room rubbing my eyes, wondering if what I saw seeing was for real. I had seen batsmen clearing boundaries with such ease in gully cricket, but never before had I seen someone do it with the consistency that MS was doing in Vizag that day. Mind you, I say this having played alongside some of the most destructive batsmen in one-day cricket; the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. That was the day, the legend of MS Dhoni was born.
Here’s hoping the man who’s surprised me more than once during his playing career, has one final trick up his sleeve. Go on MS Dhoni, at 35 years of age, prove to us that age is just a number.