By Ameya Ranade:
Back in January 2001, a full strength Australian Team, riding on the record success of 15 consecutive Test wins, toured India raring to go for the ‘Final Frontier’. Neither Indian players nor the selectors were willing to leave any stone unturned in shaping up for ‘The Series’ and the Duleep Trophy Tournament. Cricketing stars like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Srinath, Prasad had all turned up for crucial preparations. Their only hope – Australians had never won a series in India since 1969!
Far from this tumultuous environment, Chhotu Bhaiyya, a sports goods shop owner in a small and lazy town where nothing exciting ever happens, received a phone call from a friend in Kolkata congratulating him for his friend’s selection in the East Zone team for the ongoing Duleep Trophy Tournament.
The twist in the story, of course, was that nobody, not even the player himself, knew about this miraculous selection. Some said that it was bureaucratic negligence of state Cricket Association while some blamed it on conspiracy – one can’t really be sure. Anyhow, the promising 20-year-old cricketer had no time to speculate or celebrate for he was left with just 20 hours to join the East Zone cricket team in Kolkata from where he would then board a flight to Agartala with the rest of the team and stand against the South Zone.
The last train going to Kolkata had already left town. Chhotu Bhaiyya promptly hired a car for an overnight journey to get his friend to his destiny. But fate had other plans or maybe it’s the duty of cars rented from sleepy towns to break down in the middle of the road. The journey had to be abandoned that night.
Deep Dasgupta replaced our 20-year-old protagonist and played for the East Zone at Agartala that time. And just a few months later he even went on to make his Test and ODI debut. But what about Chhotu Bhaiyaa’s friend? Well, that ‘unlucky’ young man is now ironically hailed as a ‘luckiest’ captain of Indian by some sections of the media and people in general.
Considering the crisis of wicketkeepers in the Indian team back in the days, it would have been relatively easy for Mahendra Singh Dhoni to make his debut for the national team if he could have made it to Agartala that time.
Instead, he joined the team as the 12th man in Pune against team West Zone led by Sachin Tendulkar. Sachin and Kambli scored massive centuries that time to crush East Zone by an innings and a mountain of runs. Dhoni was a huge fan of Tendulkar and had a life-size poster of him besides his bed. He dreamt of one day playing with or against Sachin. Dhoni recalls an incidence from that match wherein he handed Sachin a bottle during the drinks break. This was the only interaction he could manage with his hero. Of course, then neither of them knew that exactly ten years in the future Dhoni will captain Sachin along with the rest of Team India.
Deep Dasgupta remained the first choice keeper batsman for East Zone the next couple of years denying Dhoni further opportunity (he already had bleak chances to make it big playing with Bihar Cricket Association). It was only when Pranab Roy, former national selector, put his own reputation, sleep and relations with other selectors at stake to push Dhoni into the East Zone team in the 2003-2004 season that things seemed to move forward.
If not flamboyant, then with steady performances Dhoni went on cementing the faith showed in him and earned himself a spot in India-A Team bound to Nairobi for the 50 over Triangular Series featuring Kenya and Pakistan-A sides. Dhoni scored two quick-fire centuries and a 50, all against Pakistan-A, including a ton in the Finals of the tournament to help the Indian team win the tournament. Being the top scorer, Dhoni was awarded the Man of the Series. The Triangular series was televised, and Chhotu Bhaiyya even recorded Mahi’s innings on his old VCR so as to watch it with his friend when he returned.
It was only after establishing himself as a hard hitting batsman and a useful wicket-keeper in the domestic circuit that he finally made his ODI debut late 2004. Considered to be the fastest runner between the wickets, he was run out on the first ball he faced in international cricket. Easily amongst the smartest wicketkeepers in the world, he was not able to grab even a single catch in his first match. An explosive batsman, he was able to gather only 19 runs in 3 matches from that series. But within a year he took the cricketing world by storm, scoring a blistering 148 off 124 balls against Pakistan and then breaking the World Record of Gilchrist’s 172 runs as highest ODI score by a Wicket Keeper when he scored 183 against Sri Lanka. From there he catapulted himself in the international arena grabbing Test berth, T20 Captainship, Inaugural T20 World Cup, ODI Captainship, Test Captainship, ODI World Cup, one after the other.
He surely had his limitations with batting outside the subcontinent, especially in Tests. The lack of technique to bat in conditions where the ball seams, swings, bounces and does all kinds of un-Indian things lead the bowlers to capitalize it against him. As a captain, he has faced some embarrassing losses in International Test series where the conditions were not suitable to Indian bowlers and was often criticized for his defensive captainship. But let us judge his character by his ability to rise above the weaknesses and failures in this fiercely competitive sport. Today he stands as one of the best Wicket-Keeper batsman India has ever produced winning the most number of ICC trophies as an Indian captain.
I feel surprised when people attribute these achievements to his ‘luck’. Where does one buy that stuff? Or does someone gift it to you? Or does one manufacture it on their own with the hard work that remains visible to very few? This wonderful cricketer has made his way into the Indian side against all obstacles, defying all odds and emerged as someone who will be admired and adored for generations. This Midas has ‘smithed’ his way, toiled with heavy hammers and hot bellows, to yield the gold that sparkles so bright that what commoners get to see is only the ‘Touch’!