My journalism career coincided with the formation of the state Jharkhand in November 2000 emerging from the shadow of erstwhile Bihar. I never thought that a cricketer from my newly formed state would play for India, let alone dominate and become a leader. Such was the sorry state of cricket in that part of the world. The domestic giant Saba Karim had to switch to Bengal to fulfil his ambition to play for Team India. In the case of MS Dhoni, he was unperturbed by the past.
Meeting him for the first time in Delhi sometimes in 2002 I introduced myself as a fellow Jharkhandi. He asked about my place (Dumka) and just smiled. Nothing more, nothing less. Over the years, we kept meeting because of our professional paths were inter-linked. In the very beginning, he made it clear to me that if I was expecting any professional help (interviews or news leaks from the dressing room), forget it. However, he always maintained if ever I needed any personal assistance, I could approach him even at 2 AM. I just wondered at that time what personal assistance ever a professional sports journalist will require from a cricketer. However, Dhoni remained true to his words even though it took me years to realise that.
It is a privilege to cover cricket when Mahendra Singh Dhoni played. It is an honour to known him (only a bit since no one can claim to know him!) for nearly two decades. It is fascinating that the man hasn’t changed coming from the hinterland of Jharkhand to become the legend of the game. As MS Dhoni announces his international retirement from cricket, for a follower of his career, some part of you dies within.
There have been many anecdotes with the great man that once I thought of writing a book on him. I still keep reminding him that my next book is on him. Typical of him to be non-committal in every interaction so that one can never be sure of what to make of his smile. He just won’t let you know what he thinks of your proposals and ideas, no matter how good or grand they may sound.
It was India versus Australia Test match in Hyderabad in March 2013. I was there for professional assignments and also to invite the then Indian captain formally for the launch of my debut book “Sachin- Cricketer of the Century”. One morning during breakfast in the hotel, I caught him and requested for his confirmation. Neither yes nor no, just a smile, and he is gone! India won the Test and Dhoni is about to leave for airport in his private car. He waits for me (I was busy with my TV assignments just at the front gate of the hotel) to come and then listens to my request again. I was desperately wondering to know if he is coming or not as I have to book the tickets for my Babuji (father). Ab toh aana hi padega, emotional blackmail kar raha hai babuji ka naam lekar!(Now, I will have to come as you are now emotionally blackmailing by mentioning your Dad, said Dhoni).
Dhoni’s manager was stunned that he was going to appear in a book launch event, which was going to be telecast LIVE on a national television without even charging a single rupee!
Dhoni comes along with Sachin Tendulkar at the Taj hotel in Delhi on 20th March evening. Tendulkar comes out first from the car. I receive him and start moving towards the entry gate. Dhoni was perhaps a few seconds late and was coming to the lobby alone. I was overwhelmed by Tendulker’s presence and was frozen in the moment. I forgot to receive Dhoni! Blasphemy? Maybe in the eyes of his ardent fans but certainly not in the eyes of the man himself.
I just realised my mistake and turned back to greet Dhoni as I thought he might have been offended by that treatment. Dhoni promptly said in his typical style - aaj tum moojhe bhool sakte ho, chalta hai! (I don't mind, it's ok to forget me at such a moment.) What Dhoni actually meant was that when Sachin is around, anyone could be forgotten no matter whoever the persona may be.
He understood that the book was about Sachin. He also knew that my foolishness was due to the pressure of handling two legends alone at one time!
Tendulkar left early and did not speak a word on the stage as he was contractually not allowed to talk on any book related to him (as his autobiography was on its way). However, Dhoni stayed for close to three hours (he was supposed to stay just for 10 minutes!). He was so magnanimous with his gestures with my family members that they got the impression that Dhoni was my best buddy! (That, of course, is farthest from the truth). He made me feel like a king on that day!
However, the best part of the evening was yet to come. As soon as my father reached the stage for a photo-op with the book’s unveiling, Dhoni walked up to him and touched his feet as he would do to any elders in his family. The media in the room was stunned by this gesture. He could have easily done the namaskar (with folded hands) and that would have been just as fine but coming from Jharkhand he knew what that gesture meant to our family and the society we grew up. Later I realized, perhaps he had just agreed to come to the event because I had mentioned my father and maybe something touched a chord.
The best quote of the evening was when Dhoni said- “Normally I charge money to take part in events. This one is a weird as I am supposed to pay for the flight tickets and hotel stay (in Hyderabad) to this reporter for his invitation. Because forget paying my professional fee for appearance even that cost to him is way beyond his budget!”
Dhoni first agreed to write a special chapter on Sachin for my book. For that, he was supposed to speak for just 5-10 minutes with me and ended up by chatting close to an hour. His unexpected generosity with time made me greedier and I pushed him for the book launch. Never for a moment, did I feel that he was doing me any favours. I guess that is what personal help meant.
Thank you, Mahi