Just the day before, images of Dhoni landing in Chennai for the IPL preparatory camp were everywhere. It was the first glimpse people of him in months.
Dhoni has been out of the public eye since India’s heart-breaking semi-final loss to New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup. In early 2020, he was dropped from the BCCI’s list of contracted players. But the man himself was silent. Everyone speculated that the IPL would be his launchpad for his return to international cricket.
Then a pandemic brought the world to its knees. And now he has announced his retirement.
There are a few good ways to make a dramatic announcement.
In 1993, after the Chicago Bulls won their third consecutive NBA title, Michael Jordan announced his retirement. It would be the first of his three retirements. After a couple of years playing baseball in the minor league for the Chicago Sox, Jordan decided to return to basketball. The documentary ‘The Last Dance’ on Netflix describes the plans to announce his comeback. Drafts were written and re-written and Jordan wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Finally, he took him upon himself to tell the world about his return to basketball. He said it with two words:
Nearly three decades later, MS Dhoni announced his retirement using 16 words. “Thanks – Thanks a lot for ur love and support throughout. From 19:29 hrs consider me as Retired.” More than two words – but short nonetheless.
MS Dhoni’s ascent to the stratosphere has been recounted countless times. A lad from Ranchi who moonlighted as a ticket collector and then went onto become one of the most successful captains in the history of Indian cricket. In his 5th ODI, he smashed 148 against Sri Lanka. It can be said that in a single swoop, he cut short the wicket-keeping dreams of Dinesh Karthik, Deep Dasgupta and Parthiv Patel. His 183 against Pakistan a year later sealed the deal. Dhoni was the Adam Gilchrist like figure India had been looking for all along.
Then 2007 happened. India suffered an ignominious first-round exit in the 50 over World Cup and mobs in the guise of fans took out their life’s frustrations on the players. Dhoni’s house in Ranchi, which was still under construction was attacked by mobs. A tired Rahul Dravid announced he was quitting captaincy and Dhoni was appointed captain for the limited-overs formats.
The BCCI, which didn’t even want to send a squad to the inaugural T20 World Cup, finally relented. Those two weeks in September would go on to redefine cricket as we know it. India won the first T20 World Cup and cricket changed forever. Dhoni was now the toast of the town. A few months back, he had to stay back in Delhi until they found a safe passage for him home. Now, he couldn’t go home because everyone wanted a piece of him.
In their book ‘The Power of Moments’, the Heath Brothers write about a phenomenon called ‘The Reminiscence Bump’. According to this theory, some of the most memorable moments in our lives happen during the ages of 15-30. This is only an estimation and doesn’t apply to everyone. The reason is simple – most of our firsts happen during this time period. Leaving home. First job. Falling in love. Getting married. Having children. “Novelty changes our perception of time,” they say.
It’s true. While everyone remembers him finishing off with a six to give India its first World Cup win, here are some Dhoni ‘reminiscence bumps’:
a) Dhoni smashing 148 against Pakistan and 183 against Sri Lanka
b) Dhoni handing the ball to an untried Joginder Sharma in the final over of the 2007 T20 World Cup
c) Dhoni leading India to victory against Australia in the CB series in 2008
d) Dhoni rushing to the stumps to run out Mustafizur Rahman in the 2016 T20 World Cup
e) Dhoni exalting after India won the 2013 Champions Trophy
f) Dhoni walking into bat for CSK and the crowd losing it
g) Dhoni stealing another single
i) Dhoni falling short of the finish line in the 2019 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand
Just as our most memorable moments occur relatively early in life, Dhoni’s greatest highs came in the first six years of his captaincy. He led India to wins in T20 and 50 over World Cups in 2007 and 2011 respectively. India reached No.1 in the Test rankings in 2009. In 2013, he led India to victory in the Champions Trophy. He was captain when India lost the T20 final to Sri Lanka in 2014 and the Champions Trophy finals to Pakistan in 2017. In 2015, India lost to Australia in the 50 over World Cup semi-finals after being unbeaten throughout the tournament. In 2016, they were hot favourites to win the T20 World Cup at home but lost to West Indies in the semi-finals.
For the longest time, one of the preconditions for greatness was being a test great. While Dhoni played 90 tests, it wasn’t his preferred format. It is a known fact that then BCCI head honcho N Srinivasan stepped in to stop him from being axed as captain after disastrous overseas tours against England and Australia in 2011-12. In many ways, 2011 was 2007 for Dhoni all over again. In 2007, an incredible low was followed by an exalting high. In 2011, an incredible high was followed by forgettable lows. While he didn’t let in on why he quit test cricket, the multiple overseas losses must have bogged him down.
It can be said that after Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni is the most popular cricketer that India has produced. How else can someone from Ranchi find a second home in Chennai? And after Kapil Dev, he was the next person from small-town India who gave an entire generation the license to dream.
So that’s how one of India’s greats pulls down the curtains. With an Instagram post in the midst of a pandemic. This means he is in a bio-secure bubble somewhere, away from the media hounds and die-hard fans. Even a glittering ceremony, if it ever should be conducted, is some time away. So all we will have to live with are the memories.
In Michael Jordan’s eulogy to the late great Kobe Bryant, he said: “When someone dies, a part of you dies.” Something similar happens when a sporting hero retires – a part of you goes with them. It’s an inexplicable feeling. In some strange way, your life and their deeds on the field are intertwined.
I keep thinking – why is it that when some players retire, it hits us hard? I think it’s because we trust them with our dreams. We hinge our happiness, peace of mind and a good night’s sleep on how they play on the field. It’s a huge responsibility and our dreams and wishes don’t always come to fruition. That’s life.
But we wake up the next day and put our dreams in their hands again. That’s why we watched as long as Dhoni was at the crease. That’s why the rising run rate didn’t matter. As long as Dhoni was there, there was reason to keep dreaming.
Dhoni will go down in history as a great captain, fantastic finisher and astute keeper.
But more importantly, he was the keeper of dreams.
Author: Pawan Ram | Edited by Vinayak Hegde
Pawan is a writer, blogger, podcaster, and masala dosa aficionado based in Bengaluru. Article originally published in Pages of Sport