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How a young Dhoni stunned cricket fans

There have been many vantage points to the Dhoni story, but how about one that encapsulates his unseen essence? From behind-the-scenes stories to radically attentive analyses of iconic matches, Joy Bhattacharjya and Amit Sinha have created the ultimate handbook for M.S. Dhoni fans.

Here’s the first chapter of Do Different: The Untold Dhoni, ‘Glimpses of a Superstar’.

Do Different||Joy Bhattacharjya & Amit Sinha

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On 19 August, two days before the senior team’s first match of the tri-series against Pakistan in Amsterdam, a young MS Dhoni was greeted by chants of his name in a small Nairobi ground. This was the result of a knock he had played against the same opposition a couple of days ago where he had scored 120 runs out of a total of 330 in India’s first innings. Today, the situation was different as India had lost a wicket early in the innings in the pursuit of 235 runs when Dhoni walked in. For Dhoni too, who had gotten this chance largely because Dinesh Karthik had been selected to play for the senior team in Amsterdam, this was an opportunity to show that the 120 in the previous outing against Pakistan was no flash in the pan.

Waiting for him at the other end was the familiar sight of Gautam Gambhir, with whom he had stitched a 207-run partnership in the earlier match. Commentator Atul Wassan introduced him as the ‘find of the tour’ even before Dhoni faced his first delivery and went on to discuss his purposeful walk with fellow commentator Javagal Srinath. The Jharkhand cricketer, despite having been overlooked for the senior team promotion, was making quite an impression in Nairobi.

Facing his fourth ball of the innings, he cut fast bowler Riaz Afridi for his first runs of the innings. Javagal Srinath was just beginning to talk about how young cricketers need to be put through the ‘process’ despite having displayed their talents. The powerful cut seemed like an assurance sent to the commentary box. Such was the impact of the youngster on the audience that had been watching him for so long, the discussion revolved around his talent and how to ensure it didn’t get wasted. On the panel was Saba Karim, a prodigy from the same region whose career didn’t really blossom despite all signs of it at the corresponding age levels.

Facing Iftikhar Rao in the sixth over, Dhoni misjudged the length and edged the ball to the slips. However, luck was on his side that afternoon as Pakistan skipper Misbah-ul-Haq grassed a tough chance. In Anjum’s next over, Dhoni was back to his attacking self as he picked the length early this time and pummelled the short ball to the mid-wicket fence. In the same over, the ball found itself in the same place again, although this time it was pitched full and on the batsman’s legs.

The Nairobi Gymkhana, one of the highest cricket grounds in the world thanks to its location 5,500 feet above sea level, saw Indian cricket transform four years ago when an unheralded Indian team made it to the final of the ICC Knockout Trophy, only a few months after the match-fixing scandal. What started in that tournament reached its peak with India’s success in the 2003 World Cup and on tours of Australia and Pakistan. By mid-2004, however, the wheels had stopped turning for Indian cricket as the team suffered losses in both bilateral and multilateral competitions. The mantra that had worked for John Wright and Sourav Ganguly for four years seemed to be missing the mark now and it would all culminate in all the drama that unfolded in Indian cricket in the subsequent year.

Strangely, as the senior team was giving another listless performance in Amsterdam, on the rugged grounds of Kenya, the story of Indian cricket’s future was being forged by two men who would play a huge part in taking Indian cricket to its peak seven years later.

Riaz Afridi, the elder brother of current Pakistan sensation Shaheen, was a nippy customer who was the star of Pakistan’s win of the U-19 World Cup that year. However, against Dhoni and Gambhir, he found the going difficult. In the 11th over, Dhoni rocked back to hit him for a 4 through covers that proved the man was more than a spinner killer. He was quick to punish any error from the fast bowlers, be it Afridi or his bowling partner, Junaid Zia. The first lofted shot from the youngster’s bat came in the 15th over when Iftikhar made the mistake of pitching it right in the slot for Dhoni to send it flying over covers. The small crowd gathered at the stadium was overjoyed. They seemed to have come exactly to witness this kind of shot making from the long-haired batsman. Even the commentators could barely hide their excitement.

Once the half-century mark was crossed, Dhoni went after the Pakistani spinners and hit both Qaiser Abbas and Mansoor Amjad for massive 6s that went out of the ground. A mere teaser of what was to follow in the next one and a half decade. Neither pace nor spin could trouble the duo as even Gambhir crossed his half-century and took India A closer to the target. Batting on 96, Dhoni decided to go for the glory shot against Junaid Zia, a bowler who had shoulder barged him earlier in the innings. The straight hit over the bowler’s head came off spectacularly and another century was reached in 124 balls, the second in two matches. With 11 runs needed of the remaining 32 deliveries and a leg spinner bowling, even those who had not seen him before knew what was coming. Mansoor Amjad, the leg spinner, was launched into the stands for Dhoni’s fourth and fifth 6 of the innings. The match was won. With two centuries in two matches against the Pakistan A side, the required stamp of confirmation was acquired. Everyone who watched Dhoni on those two days was left enamoured by his nonchalance and power play. In the unlikeliest of places, a star was born.

Two days later, the senior team suffered a defeat against Pakistan in the tournament opener. The wheels of change had started moving again in Indian cricket.

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