MS Dhoni, the flag-bearer of small-town cricketers

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07 Jul 2020 | 01:55 AM
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Hardik Worah

MS Dhoni, the flag-bearer of small-town cricketers

We look back at MS Dhoni's early days and how he inspired players from the interiors of the country to aim high

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As a captain, MS Dhoni won everything! It all started in the year 2007 when he led an inexperienced Indian side to a World Twenty20 title. Then came that magical night in Mumbai when India, once again under his leadership, won the World Cup after 28 years. In 2013, the Men in Blue won the Champions Trophy in England and Dhoni became the first skipper to win all three major ICC trophies. Apart from these big three wins, India also became the top-ranked Test team for the first time, and it was once again under his captaincy. And to add to that, two Asia Cup titles, three IPL trophies, two Champions League T20 wins, Dhoni has won it all.

The former India captain turns 39 on Tuesday (July 7). His international career might be over but every single Indian cricket fan will remember him as someone who carried himself with dignity and pride, and brought joy to their lives. What makes his achievements even more special is that he attained all these aforementioned things coming from a small town in Jharkhand called Ranchi, which was not known for its cricketing history. Most Indian cricketers were from big cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad, but ever since the arrival of Dhoni, many international cricketers have started to emerge from smaller cities and towns.

The wicketkeeper-batsman is one of the most popular and respected players India has ever produced, but he had to fight through many roadblocks in his early days to achieve his goals. The story of him being the goalkeeper of his school team and then getting scouted by his P.E. teacher is well documented in his biography 'M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story'. It didn't take him much time to make his presence felt and soon started making a lot of noise in the cricketing circles of Ranchi. A quiet lad with solid upper-body strength and the ability to clear boundaries at will soon became the talk of the town.

Dhoni played a lot of cricket at the Mecon stadium in Ranchi and worked on his game under the guidance of his childhood coach Keshav Ranjan Banerjee. "He was always a confident boy. Not many words – if you asked him his name, he would say his name, and nothing else. In the classes he was quiet. At the beginning he was not that talented, he had an odd style of catching the ball – sometimes with a clap, you know? But then when he came to standard eight [about 14], he started hitting the ball. He already had the helicopter shot, that round of the bat, and the paddle sweep – he had learned these things playing tennis ball and tapeball cricket on the rough grounds," Banerjee told the Guardian about a young Dhoni.

Dhoni became a phenomenon in tennis-ball cricket and used to get lots of invites for local tournaments. Despite playing international cricket for over 15 years, if you look at Dhoni batting even now, you could still easily relate him to someone playing 'gully cricket'. Having played lots of tennis-ball tournaments, Dhoni developed a bottom hand-dominant technique and that same technique fetched him over 17000 runs in international cricket.

Coming back to his early days, Dhoni played for various junior representative teams in Ranchi which was in Bihar back then, until Jharkhand was granted its statehood in October 2000. Despite doing well at the state level, Dhoni couldn't graduate to the next level as players from the more affluent A-tier states were picked ahead of him. By then he had already made his first-class debut for Bihar but was constantly ignored by the East Zone selectors despite performing well. That's when he decided to join the Railways Ranji team and started to work as a ticket collector at the Kharagpur railway station.

Back then, there was hardly any focus on developing infrastructure at the grass-root level and unearthing talent from the state’s cricketing outposts. In 2002, inspired by the Karnataka State Cricket Association, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) started a country-wide Training Research Development Wing (TRDW) to spot talents from beyond the established cricketing centres, basically from the more financially backward states. The initiative served as a perfect platform for Dhoni and the wicketkeeper-batsman soon caught the eyes of the scouts and was included in the India A side that toured Kenya in 2004. On that tour, Dhoni impressed everyone with his aggressive game and was selected for the tour of Bangladesh in November 2004.

The right-hander made his international debut in an ODI against Bangladesh in Chattogram but was run out for a duck. His international career started with a run out and even ended with a heartbreaking run out, this time against New Zealand in the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup. However, between those run outs, Dhoni did wonders for himself and for team India, and is still the captain of Chennai Super Kings. In these years, a milk-drinking, long-haired and swashbuckling batsman transformed himself into this mature and ever-cool character. It was not just on the field, but Dhoni also made a huge impact on players coming from the interiors of the country. Just the thought of some young boy coming from a small town becoming the captain of India would serve as a perfect morale booster for some random player playing at some random non-descript playground.    

"I firmly believe that the next generation of young cricketers will surface from smaller towns and cities as powerhouses of talents,” said the former India captain and the current head of the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, Rahul Dravid. Prior to this, Dravid was the head coach of the India Under-19 and India A sides and both these teams were and are filled with players coming from small cities. If we talk about the Indian team that lost in the final of the 2020 Under-19 World Cup, they had many players who emerged from small towns, and had a humble background. From captain Priyam Garg to Yashasvi Jaiswal to Sushant Mishra, the entire team was filled with players who emerged from small cities.

"It's a great trend. That's where (small towns) the future champions are going to come from. They are not going to come from the metros, the big metros, like they have in the past. It's got to be good for the future of the Indian cricket," said Greg Chappell after he was appointed as coach of the Indian team in 2005, and he wasn't wrong. Apart from Dhoni, the TRDW also recognised players like Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan, S Sreesanth, RP Singh and Piyush Chawla who all were part of either the 2007 World T20 squad or the side that won the World Cup in 2011.

States like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, and few more started producing world-class players and the Indian cricket team was no more dominated by players dwelled in the major metros. The likes of Raina, Munaf Patel, Chawla, Praveen Kumar, Sreesanth, all played for India and many of them went on to have a successful career. Then came the likes of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Parvez Rasool, the Pandya brothers, Varun Aaron, Ambati Rayudu, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Siraj, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and many more cricketers from every nook and corner of India who went on to play international cricket.

All these players ooze confidence and are not afraid to go toe-to-toe against world-class players in pressure situations. When IPL was introduced in 2008, it gave many small-town players an exposure to showcase their skills. Quite a few of these players made their debut under Dhoni and are still part of the Indian team. All these players managed to make it big because of their sheer talent, but Dhoni did play a small role in changing the perception of the cricket fraternity towards players coming from the cricketing backwaters.

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