NEW DELHI: MS Dhoni‘s public life is like those one-way window films in the AC compartments of Indian trains. From the inside, Dhoni, a former railway ticket collector, can see us just fine. From the outside, we rarely, if ever, get a glimpse of the man. This is the bargain which has sustained his enduring myth. For who can claim to have actually known MS Dhoni?
Certainly not the fanatical social-media cult of Dhoni. Certainly not his fellow cricketers or ‘old friends’, many of whom will attest to the former India captain’s cold professionalism or icy demeanour. These are platitudes. Few, if any, will know exactly what drove him to the lofty heights of professional sport.
The global media contributed to the myth, only to discover Dhoni had mastered the art of keeping scrutiny at arm’s length. The white superstar cricketers, meanwhile, were always overawed and “quite aghast,” as renowned social scientist Shiv Visvanathan puts it, at the range and scope of Dhoni‘s super celebrity.
At times it appeared not even his own wife, Sakshi, had her pulse on the moment. In late May, when #dhoniretires began to trend out of the blue, she took to social media to term Dhoni’s critics “mentally unstable”. She quickly deleted the tweet.
Now Dhoni is retired, just as suddenly, tempting us all to peer into the one-way window again. To try and make sense of the inscrutable. To look back at the many myths which framed the rise of this small-town cricketer with humble roots.
Dhoni, is, uniquely, part cricketing, part sociological and part social-media phenomenon. He is an intuitive new paradigm of the small-town heavy hitter. “Dhoni was never an agent of transformation. He was the new myth, an alchemy of himself. He was meant to be this instant brand which kept deriving longevity from its own self-sustaining myths, one of which was the small-town image,” says Visvanathan.
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and author of the ‘Tao of Cricket’, says, “MSD realised that while Indian cricket had changed, expectations had stayed the same. He was more cosmopolitan coming from Ranchi than many upper caste, city-bred middle-class cricketers. I don’t think he ever had self-esteem issues.”
Dhoni could never have come out of Bombay Gymkhana, so he knew that to make his mark in a Brahminical, middle-class Team India, he had to think global. He knew that before he could be the mainstream small-town icon, he had to be Dhoni the international batting phenom.
MS Dhoni’s remarkable international career
“Dhoni is not national or local. Paradoxically, this is precisely why club games are so important to him. Dhoni understands that the small truly magnifies the global. To make his mark, Dhoni had to become impossible to imitate, without genealogy. His myth represents the democratic dream, like Bollywood. He is the new stainless steel,” says Visvanathan.
So how did Dhoni acquire the ‘stainless steel’ sheen? Social media works as a memory marker, and Dhoni, while not possessing the individual glory of the Tendulkars and Gavaskars, had something of even greater value in society: the trophies. First came the World T20, which changed the rules of the game both for him and India, then other titles like the Champions Trophy and the Holy Grail, the World Cup. Dhoni became a symbol of collective achievement, the permanent winner of the ‘selfless cricketer’ award.
He had the likes of Gary Kirsten in the backroom and a solid team, but the perception remained that it was always about Dhoni, the leader. Like the sudden decisions which would turn out to be masterstrokes. The swag to promote himself up the order in a World Cup final. The nous to not only lead the likes of the Gangulys and Tendulkars but to decide when to end their careers as well.
Dhoni also knew how to speak in silences. Social media provided him the voice, but silence became an important part of the Dhoni myth. Says Nandy, “The silence gave him the polish, the acceptability to lead. He already had the ability. The silence helped him fight the assumptions.”
Moving to the Chennai IPL team too was a great move, since the city takes readily to romantic notions of hero worship. But what now? “Retirement may pose a problem. Dhoni’s myth is continuously developing, and that helps sustain Brand Dhoni. The alchemy has always been self-centered,” says Visvanathan.
Dhoni can either become a sell-out and cease becoming the legend, like many ageing Bollywood actors. Or he can be content with a career in politics or a Rajya Sabha nomination, though both seem boring options in Dhoni’s context. Alternately, he can simply do nothing, and we would all think it’s typically Dhoni.
Whatever road he chooses, it is time for ‘Captain Cool’ to confront the power of his own myth. Peer into that one-way window, this time from the outside. He may see the need to fill his own sudden void.