Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

MS Dhoni: Past Perfect, Future Tense?

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has carved his own path to success. Can he stay in control over the last part of his career and after?

Published: Jan 30, 2013 06:36:51 AM IST
Updated: Jan 30, 2013 08:34:29 AM IST
MS Dhoni: Past Perfect, Future Tense?
Image: Gareth Copley / Getty Images
In 2004, when he arrived on the scene, he had his bold helicopter shot and a natural affinity for hitting the ball

Forbes India Celebrity 100 No. 3

Watch any TV channel for an hour, at most, and you’re sure to see at least a couple of suave cricketers in custom-made suits, hair styled, seasoned models with an attitude to match—nothing like their sweaty, muddy facades on the field—telling you why they prefer to ride a certain motorbike, drink a particular cola, brush their teeth with only that toothpaste, or use precisely that fairness cream.

Way back, appearing in adverts was believed to be a film star’s prerogative; a cricketer trespassing into that domain was a rarity. Vijay Hazare, Abid Ali, Farokh Engineer, Sunil Gavaskar all appeared in ads while they were playing, but Kapil Dev, post his World Cup-winning effort in 1983, brimming with rustic charm, saying ‘Palmolive da jawaab nahin!’ or holding out his mug to reveal the secret of his energy, was probably the first to make an impact on TV.

Cricket is now a strong metaphor for middle class aspirations and amusement, and riding on its success, sport star endorsements have come a long way. They seem to have a much better connect with the youth, or so we are told; after all, cinema is scripted and sport—mostly!—isn’t. Today’s cricketer doesn’t just play the IPL, represent the nation and earn millions in playing fees: He is also a youth icon and a pin-up boy.

Change in societal attitudes towards sports—and cricket in particular—has made marketers and brand managers sit up and take notice. Cricketers, too, have made most of the superstardom, via product endorsements, as an obvious sequel to the brand equity built playing for the country.

That though, is only a part of the story, glossed up and ready for prime time. How do they get there?

It starts with practising, after school, a couple of days in a week. As the passion grows, so do the hours. As competition increases, it becomes imperative to practise seven days a week, and for far more than a couple of hours a day. While their peers take tuitions to get better at studies, these lads bury themselves completely in cricket. Bunking classes to play matches and attend trials, not finishing homework, even missing exams becomes a norm. Their grades take a hit, but if the kid is halfway decent in cricket, parents ignore the decline.

Young cricketers go through a montage of complex experiences, and, en route, they cross the Rubicon, sometimes wilfully, often in sheer ignorance. Plan B never really exists. They train and groom for one dream: Donning India colours. For a few, very few, that dream does come true, for others, it’s an endless wait for Godot. If you’re any good, let me not even mention the pressure of unyielding media scrutiny, and the pain of disappointment, leading to bitterness, cynicism and a complete disenchantment with the game. Many talents have been lost in the yellowing leaves of cricket memoirs, erased from public memory.

And yet, with all its charming uncertainties, cricket continues to lure thousands of little kids who, with a twinkle in their eyes and hopes in their heart, scamper off each day to cricket academies.

It’s a huge gamble, but what isn’t? Perhaps that’s why playing the ‘game’ well has become more important than playing the ‘sport’.

Boy from the Boondocks
MS Dhoni was the quintessential small-town boy. He was expected to peter out even before he could exert a pull on the cricket-crazy crowds. Many of us thought he would give in to his inhibitions, insecurities, wither away with time. But MS has, quite unremorsefully, made us eat our words.

How has he been able to sail through it all? The metamorphosis from long-haired pinch-hitter to suave captain couldn’t have been more fascinating, particularly for those who have seen him from close quarters.

In 2004, when he arrived on the scene, he had his bold helicopter shot and a natural affinity for hitting the ball. I remember first meeting him—reticent and self-conscious back then—on an India A tour to Kenya and Zimbabwe. We shared a room for over a month, which gave me an opportunity to understand why he was an extraordinary player. He was extremely shy, to the extent that he wouldn’t even order room service himself. But the moment he donned cricket gear and crossed the boundary line, he transformed into a completely different person. On the pitch, he was the most adventurous guy I’d come across hitherto; he would go after the bowler regardless of the situation of the match. He always backed himself to pull off some of the most innovative and audacious shots. Like, playing a reverse sweep off a fast bowler in the crucial death overs!

He was special, right from the onset.

Over the years, I’ve come across many cricketers from Tier-2 and -3 cities, and, at the risk of sounding patronising, I’d put them in two categories: 1) Hyper-cautious of their surroundings (because of their little exposure), sceptical (they’ve been told not to trust big city people), preferring the road that’s travelled a thousand times (cricket is their only ticket to a better life), yet daring to dream big; and 2) Go-getters with very little concern for the risks involved in their pursuit, needing very little to survive back home, so likely to get satiated with a little success.

Dhoni mostly belonged to the second category, but with big ambitions, perceptive vision, and the rare ability to remain unflustered. He gambled without the slightest worry about the odds. In the one-and-a-half month that I spent with him, I realised the man badly wanted to make it big in international cricket, but if it went wrong, he was quite ready to pack his bags and go back to Ranchi to ride his bikes and play with his two dogs. This extraordinary mix made him different from everyone, even the ones from big cities and big dreams. Any youngster—not just sportspeople—can take this leaf out of Dhoni’s book: Dream, chase your dreams with all your might, but don’t get so obsessed that you lose sight of the reality.

MS Dhoni: Past Perfect, Future Tense?
Image: Venket Ram
Dhoni has carved out his own distinctive ‘Captain Cool’ style

The Making of MSD
During that Zimbabwe tour, I remember pulling his leg about his long locks and how cricketers must look a certain way while playing for the country. In jest, I went to the extent of suggesting that his long hair might prove detrimental to his selection prospects! After listening to our banter for a while, he simply said he might well be a trendsetter. And boy, hasn’t he been one! He changed the way a generation of youngsters preferred styling their hair.

He made a smooth transition from the shy boy who spoke only when it was absolutely necessary to someone who now comfortably addresses the nation. I saw some of that intriguing journey from close quarters.

A keen observer, he learnt from the likes of [Sachin] Tendulkar and [Rahul] Dravid the importance of always doing the right thing. ‘Somebody is seeing me for the first time and hence I must make the right impression, and somebody is, perhaps, seeing me for the last time and hence it’s even more important to leave an ever-lasting impression’ — he followed that principal to the T.

He also seems to have made a conscious decision to develop an extremely cool facade, unfazed, unchanged and unruffled regardless of the situation. Looking at him on the field, it is almost impossible to gauge whether his team is losing or winning. He’s found a Zen-like stillness in his behaviour, which is a breath of fresh air. It’s a complete departure from his predecessors: [Sourav] Ganguly was known for his liberal show of aggression, Dravid for his serious approach and Tendulkar for his over-involvement in the game. Dhoni has carved out his own distinctive ‘Captain Cool’ style; he won’t shout when someone drops a catch, just as he didn’t jump outrageously in joy when he hit a six to win the World Cup final. He plays an all-new brand of cricket, ultra-aggressive on the field, yet calm even in the most trying circumstances.

Brand Dhoni, a first of its kind, had well and truly arrived. Herein lies an important lesson for other celebrities: If you win a rat race, you’re still a rat. It’s imperative to carve your own niche, take the road less travelled and be secure about your place in the world. Dhoni’s ability to remain unfazed stems from his confidence in his abilities.

Beyond huge success, what’s left? For some, it means working tirelessly to achieve immortality. While they work on keeping their current record intact, they are equally consumed, if not more, by the thoughts of the legacy they’re leaving behind; what people will think of them when they aren’t around becomes far more important than what people think of them right now. These thoughts make people cling to whatever they have with a firm grip, which, at times, explains a dip in their performances towards the end of their career.

Dhoni, quite miraculously, doesn’t seem to bother too much about his legacy. He is acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and makes no attempt to camouflage what he doesn’t have. He’s a very successful limited overs player, but his Test cricket record is nothing to boast about. Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he’s already hinted at quitting tests by the end of 2013.

It’s not that he isn’t aware that cricket history has traditionally put people who’ve excelled in Tests on a higher pedestal, regardless of their ODI exploits; MSD simply doesn’t care beyond a point. He intends to keep playing the format he’s really good at, and hopes to create history by defending the World Cup title in 2015. He understands that it will be impossible for his body to sustain the workload of three formats for the next two years, and hence is likely to take a judgement call soon; he knows when to let go. Of course, his absence from the Test arena is likely to dent his brand value, but in professional sport you need to think more about the value you’re adding to the team, and not how much the market values you.

Who knows, Dhoni being Dhoni, he might just set a new trend and change the way cricket greatness and brand value is judged!

Ever after
‘I won’t be criticising cricketers to make a living’, said Dhoni a few years ago when asked about his life post cricket. It might have been a snide dig at cricket experts, but it also told us a lot about his mindset. While everyone, including the very best cricketers, doesn’t rule out anything at the outset, Dhoni seems to have perfectly planned his life after cricket, and media isn’t featuring on that list.

He already owns a motorbike racing team, and has plans to open a chain of gymnasiums across the country. One has also heard he wants to acquire land to open cricket academies and grounds.

He’s not only managing to safeguard Brand Dhoni during his playing days, but has also envisaged a future in which he’s likely to go from strength to strength. Making his own path all the way.

MS Dhoni: Past Perfect, Future Tense?

Aakash Chopra made his debut for the Indian team in 2003. He continues to play domestic cricket, and is one of the highest run-getters in the Ranji Trophy circuit

(This story appears in the 08 February, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)