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COVER STORY

The star we
don't know
Indian cricket's ultimate outsider is a
contradictory, complex figure, obscured from
view by his own choice. The only thing we know
about MS Dhoni for sure is that he will likely
always be unknowable

SIDHARTH MONGA
AUGUST 2014
32

D ays in Ranchi have the feel of one

long afternoon. Though a state capital, the city
fulfils the description "khali bore dopahar"
(empty boring afternoon) that the poet Gulzar
used in a song about escape from a small
town into the bigger world.
The commerce of the city is centred on one
road, called Main Road, in shops handed down
from one generation to the next. In one of
these shops you can find the stories of MS
Dhoni's empty boring afternoons before his
journey into the big world.
Paramjit Singh, one of many Sikh businessmen
on Main Road, owns this shop. He wears a
turban and a beard, but his jokes are Bihari,
his diction is Bihari, and his sensibility is
Bihari. He has a Bihari nickname too, Chhotu
bhaiyya. "Chhotu" means kid, "bhaiyya"
means older brother.
Chhotu bhaiyya runs Prime Sports, a small
sports goods store. It is more than just that,
though. Chhotu bhaiyya's friends treat it as
an adda, a place to sit and shoot the breeze.
Nobody smokes but endless rounds of tea are
ordered, with dhuskas (a local fried snack
made of rice and chickpea flour)
and shinghadas(the Bengali version of
samosas). If you need a railway ticket
urgently, chances are someone here will make
a call to a friend who is a friend of a booking
clerk. If a kid comes to buy cricket equipment,
chances are Chhotu bhaiyya knows which
tournament he played last week, and will ask
how he did before going ahead with the sale.
You can spend hours here without drinking tea
or eating snacks, just listening to stories.
Dhoni was one of the kids whose
performances Chhotu bhaiyya took an interest
in. Mahi they called him, not Maahi as people
do now. Paramjit and Dhoni played for the
same club. Mahi was the shy boy who bicycled
to practice with his kitbag tied to the
handlebar. By the time he was 17 or 18, his
heavy hitting had become famous in Ranchi
and he was earning a cricketing stipend from
Central Coalfields Limited. Cricket had only
just begun to look like a career option. Until
then, according to Keshab Ranjan Banerjee,
his school coach, who encouraged Dhoni to
move from goalkeeping to wicketkeeping,
Dhoni saw cricket just as a means of getting
into Delhi University or a college elsewhere.

Cricket, basketball, badminton and football -
Dhoni didn't play to become popular. You
couldn't tell from his quiet demeanour in high
school that he was the best sportsman around.
Nor was he consumed by sport. He hardly
watched cricket on TV. He didn't sleep with a
bat beside him, didn't want to emulate
anyone. Cricket just happened to him one fine
day, when Banerjee asked if he would like to
keep wicket. Cricket season was four months
away. Four months later Banerjee had
forgotten about the conversation but Dhoni
was there on time. "Sir, I want to practise
keeping."

For a son of a pump operator at Metallurgical
and Engineering Consultants, cricket - and
batting - was an expensive pursuit. However,
once his hitting began to get noticed, those
around him realised he was too good to not be
afforded bigger opportunities. Chhotu bhaiyya
knew a thing or two about Punjabi
persuasiveness and got him a basic contract
with a Jalandhar manufacturing company,
BAS, for equipment.

You couldn't tell
from Dhoni's quiet demeanour in high
school that he was the best sportsman
around. He hardly watched cricket on TV.
He didn't sleep with a bat beside him,
didn't want to emulate anyone

Early in 2001, Dhoni was selected to represent
East Zone in the Duleep Trophy. He had been
looking forward to playing it because Sachin
Tendulkar was available for the tournament.
Except, nobody knew Dhoni had been
selected. The Bihar Cricket Association (BCA)
had not forwarded the selection letter to
Dhoni. Everyone who knows Dhoni is
convinced it was deliberate: for no reason
save that, as they like to say at Prime Sports,
"If one Indian crab tries to climb out of the jar,
nine others will pull it down." Dhoni would not
have found out about his selection had a
friend of Paramjit's in Kolkata not phoned with
congratulations after reading a brief in the
papers. The call came at 8pm the night before
the team was to fly from Kolkata to Agartala.
The day's Kolkata-bound trains had left Ranchi
by then.

Chhotu bhaiyya was stonewalled by the BCA,
which refused to loan him a car. He raised
money from a few friends - one of them,
Gautam Gupta, would go on to marry Dhoni's
sister - hired a taxi, and rushed Dhoni to
Kolkata. The car broke down on the way, Dhoni
missed his flight, and Deep Dasgupta playedin
Agartala. However, Dhoni did travel to
Pune for the team's next match, as 12th man,
and watched Tendulkar lead West Zone to a
big win.
Steady progress over the next three years
earned Dhoni a spot in the India A side that
played in Kenya. The tri-series was televised,
and Chhotu bhaiyya recorded it on his old VCR
so that they could watch when Dhoni came
back. He has clippings of every article Dhoni
was mentioned in, from a brief to a feature,
Hindi and English. The collection, though, ends
when Dhoni became an India player. It's
almost as if a chapter of Dhoni's life ends
there.
Chhotu bhaiyya, Banerjee and others don't
know Dhoni anymore. They can't tell you what
makes him laugh, what concerns him, what his
political views or favourite movies are, who his
friends or enemies are, what his business
interests are. If they don't read the
newspapers, they won't know when Dhoni is in
town. Chhotu bhaiyya and Dhoni have not
spoken in years. Once, in 2008, Dhoni came to
the store, but was mobbed and had to seek
refuge in the loft - three-feet high - with his
tea andshinghadas.
As wild as he got: Dhoni in his long-haired youth © Associated Press
There is no animosity, no break-up. Just that,
in a way, Dhoni has outgrown Ranchi. The only
thing he does freely there now is ride one of
his 17 Yamaha 350Ds, anonymous under a
helmet, with a sling bag carrying his licensed
gun.

G reg Chappell, Dhoni's second coach in

the Indian team, tells a remarkable story.
Dhoni was only a few matches old when
Chappell took the job from John Wright in 2005
and set about achieving his vision - which
brought him into instant collision with the
incumbent captain Sourav Ganguly - of
building the team around young players. Along
with Suresh Raina and Irfan Pathan, Dhoni,
whose fifth ODI innings produced a 123-ball
148, was central to this vision. In Chappell's
first series on Indian soil, Sri Lanka were
beaten 6-1, and Dhoni was the top scorer with
346 runs at a strike rate of nearly 120. During
one match when India were chasing, Dhoni
told Chappell that if he could see out the first
13 balls, he would win the match.
"I don't know how he came to that number,"
Chappell recalls, "And I didn't ask him. But he
had the air of a man who knew he could do
the job."

This is not an isolated case of Dhoni's
certainty about random numbers. He used to
tell his close friend, confidant, and later
manager, Arun Pandey, that if his bank
balance reached Rs 63 lakh (about $105,000
now), it would be enough for him to retire on.
No one knew how he calculated those
numbers, but his self-assurance was palpable.

"He knew his responsibilities, he knew what he
had to do," says Rahul Dravid, his captain
back then. "He didn't need to be told what to
do. He had the maturity that other kids didn't
have."

Once, around then, Chappell organised a team
exercise where every player was asked to tell
the camera a bit about his background.
Chappell remembers being impressed by
Dhoni's introduction.

"It was just remarkable how at each stage he
had to improve," Chappell says. "At school he
was invited to come to their cricket, having
been noticed at a playground after school.
Then he succeeded there and was invited to
play for a club, and then higher and higher
tournaments.

"He talked about how he felt he had to prove
himself at each level, and he had to do it
frequently because of the dramatic progress
he made. He was modest, but it was an honest
appraisal of how he moved through the game.
It was remarkable in a country where you
didn't see so many young people with such
self-confidence. They had decisions made for
them by parents or schoolteachers or coaches
or older people. Dhoni obviously built that
confidence from having made his own
decisions."

Before the veil descended
The reclusive, cagey and cryptic Dhoni of today is unrecognisable from the
accessible, forthright and plain-speaking man I interviewed in 2006 and 2008.

The first interview, in Islamabad, was two months after his Test debut. What
struck me through the 45 minutes was his remarkable poise - rare among
newbies in the Indian team. He kept his responses short and didn't say things
like "control the controllables" and "all about the process" - trendy
catchphrases during the Chappell-Dravid years.

The next interview - and probably the last time he spoke at length to a print
publication - was after India's historic CB Series victory in Australia. Dhoni,
who was accused of axing Ganguly and Dravid from the one-day side, and for
sticking with Yuvraj Singh despite his rough patch, had prevailed. "I was
pretty clear about the players that I wanted in the side," he said. "That's what
I said to the selectors as well."
Many themes emerged during the chat, which lasted more than an hour, but
what was remarkable was his clarity of thought and his openness - a trait that
has rarely made an appearance in the years since. Some excerpts:
On the CB Series victory

"One of the best achievements from the victory was the dressing-room
atmosphere. It was very calm and cool throughout. If your dressing-room
atmosphere is great then most of the time you'll get a favourable result. That
was very important and I was actually marking it."
On cricketers from small towns

"If you are from a smaller place, where the cricket infrastructure is not good,
you have to struggle a lot. You don't get good practice facilities, you don't
play too many games on turf wickets, and even to get into your home side
you have to struggle a lot. All of these things do have an impact on the guy's
playing style, or the way he thinks of cricket. It's not like the guys from the
big cities are not good enough or mentally tough: the guys from smaller
states or smaller cities, they struggle a bit more."
On preparing for a match

"I don't really sit in front of a laptop and analyse everything. I attend the
bowlers' meetings and all, and most things get into my head. I don't have to
push anything into my head. Reading and getting anything into the mind is
tough for me. If I visualise something or if I see something, it gets more
quickly into my head. Instead of wasting four hours reading something, I
would rather see something in clips and get output out of it."
On his instinctive on-field decisions

"At times even if the bowlers are going for runs, if the batsmen are clearing
the infield and there are no catching opportunities, I would rather have one
slip and a floater instead of having a catcher at midwicket or a catching
cover. Because ultimately the batsmen are trying to go over the top, hitting
sixes and one-bounce fours. It's a bit different, but that's what I do. Some of
the guys come up to me and say, "Remove the slip", but I say, "What's the
need? Even if I remove the slip, the batsmen are hitting sixes. You can have
as many fielders but if they're going for a six it will still be a six."
On beating Australia in Australia

"I've always felt that if you're playing against an aggressive side you have to
play an aggressive game. Especially against Australia. You can't just look to
play and win - it's batting, bowling, fielding, aggression, everything.
Fortunately, this side has got a few players who can speak and do well at the
same time and won't get disturbed by it. I'm fortunate to have those players
in the side, rather than having to ask those who are not comfortable doing it
to do so. If you have a guy who is able to do it and who should do it, I make it
a point that he does it."
By Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

That Dhoni was different from the average
newcomer was evident in the team
environment too. "In a team meeting if the
senior players didn't speak, the juniors didn't
speak either," Chappell remembers. "Dhoni
was no different in this regard, but in a group
he moved quite easily between the senior
players and the junior players. Whilst he had
great respect for the senior players, he didn't
appear to feel out of place. I noticed others
who were conscious of being positioned in the
team. He wasn't disrespectful in any way, but
he wasn't going to be a junior player and sit in
a corner and keep quiet. Quite happy to
initiate a conversation with Sachin or other
senior players. He didn't feel the need to be
invited to participate, unlike others."

It was apparent to Chappell at that stage that
Dhoni would, or should, lead inevitably.
Decision-making and the ability to absorb the
consequences of his decisions were fostered in
him when he was growing up. His father let
him do whatever he wished, as long as he
didn't fail his exams. As batsman, keeper and
captain, Dhoni has been his own man, be it
bowling Joginder Sharma in the last over of the
World Twenty20 final, promoting himself in the
World Cup final four years later, backing
Ravindra Jadeja as a Test player, or at times
letting Tests drift.

And there was his acceptance of responsibility
too. During aChampions Trophy match in
2006, India were chasing only 126, but in
going for a big hit Dhoni exposed Raina, who
had been going through a rough patch that
had been made rougher by a duck. As he saw
Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh complete a
nervous chase, Dhoni absorbed a vital lesson
that would shape his ODI batting: finish the
job, never leave it for the next man.

T hose who know Dhoni closely vouch

that being given the rank of Lieutenant
Colonel in the Territorial Army in 2011, months
after he had led India to a World Cup win,
counts among the proudest moments in his
life. He wouldn't take the uniform off," Pandey
says. "He didn't sleep that night."
No one knows precisely how and when -
Pandey's guess is it was during the Kargil war
in 1999 - Dhoni's fixation with the army began,
but it is now a major theme in his life. He
travels in camouflage pants, with camouflage
luggage. His wicketkeeping gloves are a
tribute to the armed forces, made to order in
Meerut.

An army acquaintance rates Dhoni's
knowledge of fighter aircraft nine on ten, and
of the army, seven. Give him a firearm and he
will first understand it, without any outside
help; then he can hit a bulls-eye from 25m
every time. He enjoys improvising with
targets, not just paper ones. He likes
simulated situations, and he experiments -
right hand, left hand. Glenn McGrath is known
for his skill at skeet shooting. Dhoni has
beaten him in a face-off.

He takes his gun along during Test matches in
India and on off days tries to visit the nearest
firing range. He makes sure he shoots on
January 1, no matter which part of the world
he is in. This year the team came home from
South Africa on the night of January 1, and he
rushed off to the National Security Guard
range in Mumbai to complete the ritual.

Dhoni prides himself on being a survivor and a
resourceful, self-sufficient person. He likes to
be put in situations where he has to innovate
to survive. He owns daggers too. "He likes all
that commando stuff, living-off-the-land stuff,"
says one of his army friends. "Once, in a hotel
room he needed a pin but he didn't let me call
room service. Began to improvise to find a
sharp object. He said they all get a welcome
letter from the hotel's general manager
whenever they check in, and that envelope is
sure to have a stapler pin."

When food is ordered in his hotel room, Dhoni
makes sure everybody orders only a first
round. No food should be wasted. It is a
commando thing: they have to often make do
with little at their posts. Surely there is an
analogy here about having to make do with
India's thin bowling resources?

And perhaps from this fascination for the
army, he derives his respect for authority. It is
well known that he doesn't enjoy training
much - all his fitness work comes from
cricketing activities - but when Gary Kirsten, a
coach he respected immensely, called for a
swimming-pool session, Dhoni would be there
on time though he hated the activity.

"You can sense he respects achievement,"
Dravid says, "He will not say that overtly, he
won't fawn, he won't call you Rahulji, Rahul
sirji. You can sense he is a free-minded
thinker, but he likes that army- like structure."
There is a lot of the army man in Dhoni the
captain. In the lack of sentiment; in expecting
his charges to toughen up; in doing the job
without fuss; in being a stickler for punctuality
(though he is one of the captains most
frequently penalised for slow over rates).

T wo events within the space of a few

months in 2007 left a lasting impact on Dhoni
the captain and player. In April, he had to stay
put in Delhi because his home was being
attacked by angry "fans" after India's
ignominious exit from the World Cup in the
West Indies. A few months later when he came
back from South Africa having won the World
T20, it was the adulation, the mobbing, that
kept him away. He tells his friends that he
realised then that he couldn't afford to take
what happened on the field seriously and be
defined by it.

The ultimate
outsider of Indian cricket is also the
ultimate insider
In the years to come Dhoni would become so
obsessed with not showing any emotion that it
sometimes made you wonder if it was
artificial. Chappell remembers him as an
emotionally expressive man. "We were in
Jaipur, or possibly in Nagpur, and a friend of
the family, a young woman, died, and I was
touched by the way he reacted to that. He was
quite emotional, and not scared to show it."

Now he rations the time he gives to Indian
cricket. Dravid, who captained him, played
under him and has now observed him as an
outsider, hints at a deliberate detachment. "I
almost get the impression that he feels that if
he thinks and plans too much, his mind will
get cluttered," Dravid says. "I think he doesn't
want to understand the full weight of being
the India captain. He doesn't want to delve
into those things. He doesn't want to be
bogged down."

Dravid admits captaincy was a 24/7 job for
him, and the most worrisome part of
captaining India was being responsible for so
many different kinds of players. "Previous
captains were tense," says a player who has
played under Ganguly, Dravid and Dhoni. "You
could sense the pressure they were under, and
you could feel the same pressure. But with
Mahi it is relaxed, and that makes you
relaxed."

Pandey confirms the deliberate nature of it.
"He makes sure he doesn't think about the
game in advance at all," Pandey says. "Two
hours before the match, a switch comes on
and he gets into his game mode. I might have
spent the whole day with him until then, but
now there is no place for me there. It is a sight
to behold, the transformation. Even before a
big tour, he starts thinking of it only two days
before it. He just doesn't want to waste his
energies thinking about the game when he
can't do anything about it."

After the game is over, it doesn't take Dhoni
long to switch off. An acquaintance who spent
an hour with him immediately after the
Champions Trophy win in England last year
remembers not a single word spoken about
cricket in those 60 minutes. And this was one
of India's more emotional victories. Just before
departing for England, Dhoni had addressed a
press conference without being able to answer
a single question because they were all about
the scandal surrounding his IPL team.

Pandey remembers the atmosphere around
the team on the night of their departure was
marked by fear, insecurity, caginess. "What
will happen now"?

"He asked me, 'Have you done anything
wrong?'

"I said no.

"'Have I done anything wrong?'

"'No.'

"'Then why should we worry?'

"Five days later, when I reached England, he
had worked his magic on the rest of the boys
too."

Dhoni has been obsessed with keeping things
simple, with getting his team to do what it
knows best - as opposed to them trying to
become something else. One of his first moves
as captain was to get rid of blazers and ties
from India's off-field uniform. He said that
when some of them can't even carry off formal
trousers properly, they shouldn't be made to
wear ties. Dhoni's cricketing version of polo
shirts and jeans is short and sharp team
meetings. Sometimes they last as long as it
takes to say "good luck".

Not everything is straightforward, though. It's
not just the media - which Dhoni has
eliminated entirely as a source of pressure by
not consuming it, not engaging with it (and
replying in an ambiguous and self-
contradictory manner when he needs to) - and
fans who don't know what's going on in his
mind. Those seen as his friends can't say
much more than "He is Captain Cool" when
asked for a comment. RP Singh, a known
"friend", once had to ask other senior players
why he was being dropped.

Dhoni's obsession with keeping things simple,
not planning too far ahead, not taking
complete charge because it brings extra
pressure with it, has worked extremely well in
limited-overs cricket, but such an attitude
limits your ambition in Test cricket, a format
that is by definition limitless.
Protesters deface a poster after India's early exit in the 2007 World Cup.
Dhoni said that was when he realised he couldn't afford to be defined by what
happened on the field © Associated Press
In 2009 and 2014, he went to New Zealand
with the ambition of winning the series, but
didn't go all out to win the final Tests both
times, despite India having bossed the two
matches. New Zealand players from that 2009
Test in Wellington still joke about being set 617
in the fourth innings, which let them escape
with a draw. An Indian player on both those
tours says winning the series was the only
target.

The army analogy doesn't extend to when the
team starts losing Tests. On the 0-4 tour of
Australia in 2011-12, not only did India play
the same failing top six in each Test, they
batted in the same order, except when a
nightwatchman made a superficial alteration.
Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma spent the
tour giving throwdowns to each other in a
corner while the big boys did their thing with
Duncan Fletcher and Dhoni watching. The
message to the selectors was clear: "If you
give me these players in the XV, I will have to
play them in the XI. I am not going to
complicate my personal relationships with
them."
When Venkatesh Prasad, the bowling coach
under whom Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma
bowled best in tandem, was sacked without
reason, he did not hear from Dhoni. "I know
such decisions are not made without a
captain's approval," says Prasad, who too has
praise for Dhoni's calm leadership. "It's okay if
he didn't fight for me or if he suggested I be
removed, but he could have at least explained
the decision to me." VVS Laxman famously
failed to get through to Dhoni to inform him of
his retirement. Every player knows Dhoni
doesn't answer his phone.

Even in keeping his distance, Dhoni
confounds. Handholding might have helped a
player like Sreesanth, a difficult character, and
the only one Dhoni ever openly criticised. But
there are occasions when he reaches out,
though not always directly. Last year he
passed on a message to Irfan Pathan through
a journalist. The gist was: "I am not doubting
you but you are gaining a reputation for being
fit during the IPL and not during the Ranji
Trophy. If you get fit, I need you in England,
but you have to play first-class matches before
that."

For a man committed to simplicity, there is a
bit of grandstanding here. Dhoni's counter is
that his hotel suite - the captain gets a suite -
is always open. You don't even need to knock:
if the morning newspaper is outside, it means
Dhoni hasn't woken up yet; if you don't see
the newspaper, it is open house.

"All that is fine," says a player, "but what if
Pandeyji is there all day?"

P andey, a portly 35-year-old who once

played for Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is probably
Dhoni's closest friend. If Dhoni absorbs the
pressure so his team can express itself,
Pandey is Dhoni's buffer against the outside
world, managing everything around him.
Dhoni repeatedly said Gary Kirsten's appointment as India coach was "one of
the greatest things to have happened to Indian cricket" © AFP
A resourceful man, Pandey realised early
enough that he wouldn't be able to make a
proper career in cricket. He dabbled in various
activities before merging his friendship and his
career. He worked with T-Series, a popular and
controversial music label, where, he says, he
had the power to tell the biggest singers in the
country if they were out of tune. He says he
learned many of his business tricks there: how
to talk to people, how to carry out deals. His
brother-in-law is the famous Bhojpuri actor
and politician Manoj Tiwari, for whom Pandey
has canvassed in the badlands of Gorakhpur, a
city on the India-Nepal border infamous for its
gang wars and for providing safe passage out
of the country for wanted criminals.

Pandey's rise in the world of business has
been about as meteoric as Dhoni's in cricket.
The two met when Pandey used to coordinate
nets at the National Stadium in Delhi. Dhoni
practised there once. His hitting left an
impression on Pandey. When Dhoni came to
Delhi to play, he would stay in Pandey's
rented barsati (a basic room on a roof), like
other cricketers from UP and Bihar often did.
Pandey says Dhoni was the only one who
would come back with food and drink for him
when he went out. The friendship grew and
Pandey became Dhoni's third manager; the
previous two were dropped without ceremony.
Pandey is a friendly, jovial man. Observers say
Dhoni's trust in Pandey is so complete he
doesn't undertake any background checks on
the brands he endorses. Before Dhoni, the
unwritten advertising rule for India's cricketers
was: endorse no more than six or seven
brands, and be conscious of the images of the
ones you sign with. Dhoni has broken the rule.
He is not apologetic about making money in
the window he has as an active cricketer. Yet
he wears simple clothes and doesn't seem to
care about his looks. You won't find anyone
who has been around him describe him as
vain or money-obsessed.

After India won the 2011 World Cup, sponors
Amrapali Group increased the value of his
contract. Everybody's price, they said, had
gone up after the victory. "So if we hadn't won,
would you have reduced it?" Dhoni is
supposed to have said. "You have done a lot
for me when I was a nobody. I am not going to
take more now that we have won the Cup."

Yet Dhoni has turned a blind eye to, or at best
unwittingly walked into, an uncomfortable
situation to do with his commercial interests.
The year after Pandey signed Dhoni, his
company, Rhiti Sports, won a marketing
contract with Chennai Super Kings - a team
captained by Dhoni and owned by N
Srinivasan's India Cements. Dhoni may or may
not have had an actual stake in Rhiti Sports, or
he may have pulled out if he did, but it has
placed him in the position of being seen to be
taking to an extreme his obsession with not
wanting to acknowledge the full weight of
being India captain.

© Getty Images Say what?
Dhoni's greatest press-conference analogy hits
On reaching Napier only 18 hours before a Test once
"When it comes to the mind it depends on what you're feeding into the mind.
You come and say, 'This is Napier' and it believes it's Napier. If you see, it's an
abstract. When people say 'He's in form", nobody has seen form. It's a state
of mind where you are confident and you think very positively and everything
you think about, you think it's very achievable. It's about how you treat the
mind."
On what hurt more - the whitewash in England or the one in
Australia
"You die, you die. You don't see which is the better way to die."
On the DRS
"If I am going to buy a life jacket which does not come with a warranty, that's
a bit of a hassle for me. Especially with the huge amount of money you have
to spend for the DRS. I would prefer some kind of warranty for it. The moment
it comes, I will be happy."
On the Australian weather
"I was sitting at home and watching television. More often than not, you
watch some really strong advertisements in the lead-up to an India-Australia
series. The advertisement said: 'It is winter out there, and summer out here,
so get ready to feel the heat Down Under.' I took it very seriously. I didn't
pack a single jacket, only to realise it is pretty cold here."
On how extra pressure doesn't matter
"It's like having 100kg put over you. After that even if you put a mountain, it
will not make a difference."
On the lack of a break between the 2010 IPL and the World T20
"If you look at it, the two-hour bus ride from the airport was more tiring and
difficult for us than the last few weeks of the IPL."
On the transition from Test veterans to ODI youngsters during the
tour of Australia in 2011-12
"From Kishore Kumar, we have gone to Sean Paul."
On India's batting problems in Australia and why they were not to do
with the conditions
"You won't see a Sreesanth batting like a Don Bradman just because he wants
to bat like one."
On the eve of the 2011 World Cup final
"Till the full stop doesn't come the sentence is not complete."

Pandey scoffs at the term "conflict of interest",
seeming to suggest it is another Indian-crab
story. A share in a 20% commission earned off
some players is a pittance compared to what
Dhoni earns. He won't go through unfair
means to make that money, it is said.

Pandey's defence of the situation is based on
an ambiguous honour code. Soon after
Ravindra Jadeja was bought by CSK in the
2012 auction - for $2 million, plus an
undisclosed amount paid to the IPL - it
emerged that Rhiti Sports had signed him.
Pandey insists Dhoni has no idea about his
business, and didn't know Jadeja had been
signed until it became public knowledge. He
also says he is barred from talking cricket in
front of Dhoni. "Once I told MS, during a casual
conversation, that he bats too low, and he
shot back, 'Aaj toh bol diye ho, aage se mat
bolna.' [This is the last time you are going to
speak to me about my cricket or the team.]"
Dhoni's admirers will grant him the benefit of
the doubt, but to many it is staggering that he
is either indifferent to, or ignorant of, the
notion that when it comes to those in high
office, perceptions do, and should, matter.

In a panel discussion on Dhoni's captaincy,
Harsha Bhogle, not one for hurried
assessments, said, "You never know what he is
thinking. To that extent he might also be a
political animal… You have no idea what his
thoughts on Tendulkar going to South Africa
are. No idea at all. [Tendulkar eventually
retired before the 2013-14 South Africa tour].
You don't know which card he is playing
when."

Pandey probably knows him best, but even he
admits to not knowing him well. "He, as a
person, is on a different, higher, plane,"
Pandey says. "He has risen above sentiments.
Mother, father, brother, sister, friends,
relatives, he is above all of that. He talks to
them once a month or something. I have
known him for so long, but only now I have
begun to actually know him. He is not
emotionally attached to many things. Except
for his bikes and weapons, he doesn't desire
any material things. Nowadays, when I am in a
tough situation, I think in terms of what would
MS do in this situation and then do that."

Chappell offers a more concise, a more poetic,
explanation. "He's an old soul. He has been
here before."

T here is a story, perhaps apocryphal,

that Srinivasan, Dhoni's boss at CSK and at
the BCCI, gave him a special phone to serve
as a private hotline, but that Srinivasan still
has to call Raina if he needs to talk to his
captain, because Dhoni makes no exceptions
when it comes to not answering the phone.
Srinivasan's name evokes fear and awe and
contempt in many quarters, but for Dhoni the
man who has emerged as the most powerful in
world cricket reserves, by all accounts, a
mixture of faith, affection and borderline
reverence.
In matters of cricket, Dhoni has Srinivasan's
implicit trust. It is now well known that
Srinivasan's aversion to the Decision Review
System is, at least partly, rooted in Dhoni's
mistrust. Srinivasan's opposition to the two-
new-balls regulation is also guided by Dhoni's
belief that it limits the role of the spinner, and
thus is discriminatory towards teams from the
subcontinent. When the selectors, however
misguidedly, decided to sack Dhoni from the
ODI captaincy following India Test debacles in
2011-12, Srinivasan made unprecedented use
of his power of veto as the board president to
overturn the decision.

Dhoni can plead he had no choice in these
matters. He didn't seek to be bought by CSK
at the first IPL auction. By most accounts he
only involves himself in the franchise's cricket
matters. He has never attended an auction,
and is not known to make express demands.
He gives the owners two or three alternatives
for each slot in the side, and if they are not
successful in buying any of those players, he
doesn't really mind.

Still, no other cricketer has been so umbilically
tied to an IPL franchise as Dhoni has been to
CSK. Sachin Tendulkar stayed with Mumbai
Indians through his IPL career and he
continues to have a presence in their camp as
their symbolic icon, but he doesn't personify
the franchise the way Dhoni does CSK.
Perceptive observers haven't failed to notice
that on the rare occasions Dhoni has
expressed emotions, hurt or delight, at post-
match interactions, it has invariably been
when in the CSK yellow.
Wheeler dealer: Motorbikes and the army have been among Dhoni's few
constant off-field passions © Getty Images
And his silence over the recent match-fixing
and betting controversies, in which Gurunath
Meiyappan, Srinivasan's son-in-law and a
permanent presence in the CSK camp till his
suspension, is a central character, is
disquieting to many. While Dhoni's wariness
about commenting on matters under
investigation is comprehensible, his all-
conquering no-comments policy, even to
general questions, on match-fixing can appear
jarring.

Those close to him claim this has been a
source of further indignation towards the
press, because some of the questions had the
ring of interrogating an accused. But the
counterpoint is that it was reasonable to
expect an expression of hurt or condemnation
of match-fixing in general from a man who
also leads the Indian team.

Dhoni was one of the many witnesses
interviewed by the Mudgal Commission, which
was appointed to investigate the allegations.
He was later accused by the lawyer
representing the petitioner who challenged
Srinivasan's right to head the BCCI of having
been untruthful about Meiyappan. The BCCI
counsel challenged this, clarifying that Dhoni
had merely maintained that Meiyappan had no
role in CSK's cricket affairs.

To quote the Mudgal Commission report: "Mr.
M.S. Dhoni, Mr. N. Srinivasan and officials of
India Cements took the stand that Mr.
Meiyappan had nothing to do with the
cricketing affairs of Chennai Super Kings and
was a mere cricket enthusiast supporting
CSK."

During the panel discussion referred to above,
Sanjay Manjrekar, a supporter of Dhoni's
leadership, made this observation: "He likes
the position of being the India captain. He
enjoys it. If he feels that there is something
that is going to make that position slightly
rocky or fragile as captain, he might not
actually want to do that thing... [but] that's a
guess from afar."

"He is very smart with people," Bhogle said on
the panel. "There is a political being inside him
who knows what to say where, at the moment
he is in, whether he should say it or not say it.
He knows what to do in what situation. He is
not naïve."
M S Dhoni is the biggest outsider Indian

cricket has known - "known" is a bit of a
stretch, for he is the captain we have known
the least. But the ultimate outsider of Indian
cricket is also the ultimate insider, obsessed
with holding everyone at an arm's length. In
keeping with the two titles for the Albert
Camus book, Dhoni is also a stranger.
As if to feed the mystery, or because he might
have too much to lose, Dhoni doesn't protest
or deny or discuss speculation about him. He
gives no interviews. In press conferences he
always contradicts himself in response to
contentious questions so that he can't
seriously be quoted either way, and often
resorts to weird analogies (see sidebar above).
"My circle keeps getting smaller every day,"
he recently told an acquaintance, pointing out
mainly the invasiveness of the media and
what he no doubt sees as an unnecessary
controversy over his IPL team and his business
decisions. The man who has freed Indian
cricket of many a dogma by keeping things
almost pathologically simple has spun around
himself a web of complications.
Dhoni is a contradictory sort of hero, detached
yet entrenched, not available yet available,
but not quite, a complex man obsessed with
keeping things simple, instinctive in one form
of the game and stubborn in another, the most
successful Indian captain ever, yet the most
helpless when losing. For someone who has
brought immense excitement to Indian cricket,
Dhoni's story is not overly dramatic. Heroes
and villains don't roll off the pages. Which
makes it more compelling. The story is
grander than simple drama: small-town boy
becomes India captain, the best ODI batsman,
the richest cricketer in the world, the most
powerful too, and, always, beyond our reach.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.