MS Dhoni departs cricket with the sport now shaped to his image
And so it goes on. In the past week there has been a surge of Pharaonic tributes, ritual farewells, and apparently genuine shock at the retirement from international cricket of MS Dhoni.
Dhoni is 39 and hasn’t played a game in more than a year. He has been a brilliant player, not to mention a luminous, transformative presence. It is a process that has now found further expression in the luxurious depth, volume and emotional reach of his retirement tributes, from former pros lining up to offer tearful social media posts, to gushingly phoney corporate high-fives, to pundits, journalists and fawning corporate interests.
Naturally, retired Australian cricketers with an eye on a subcontinental second career have been in the vanguard of this Dhoni-dolatry. Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting got in there smartly.
Best of all, and most nauseatingly soppy, was probably Adam Gilchrist, who stapled a cardboard Dhoni mask across his face, lit 1,000 Dhoni-shaped candles and sat weeping inside his private India Cements branded replica shrine, before typing with a single finger: “You did it with style, flamboyance and above all else, calmness. Your own way. The Dhoni way. Glly” and throwing himself out of a 17th-floor window.
Does any of this seem a little odd? Or a little off-key? Reading the Dhoni farewells in isolation it would be tempting to conclude a combination of Pelé, Charlemagne and Spider-Man had departed the scene; as opposed to, say, a world-leading wicketkeeper-batsman and fine all-round captain.
The point being the tone here is not only overblown and ingratiating. It’s also inaccurate. In reality Dhoni has been a sharp rather than soft-edged presence. The rise of Dhoni-ism has been about the assertion of will, about Indian empowerment, Indian fearlessness, an unapologetic celebration of Indian might – in itself a reflection of the shifting tides of the sport itself.
The landscape Dhoni entered was red ball, Ashes coloured, high elbowed, a slightly fraying colonial sport. He departs with the world shaped to his image, the most important figure in cricket’s commercial landscape.
Others will now reap the benefits. Dhoni, World T20 victor, king of the IPL, mould-breaking performer, has lived this process, coloured it and given it a human face. So yes, those retirement cards are going to be gushing, awestruck and even a little fearful.
This loss of scale is separate from Dhoni’s greatness as a sportsman. Forget the leadership, the multiformat all-rounder stuff, judged as a white-ball batsman his numbers are astonishing. Dhoni took risks, chased totals, played without fear and still averaged 50 in ODIs over a 15-year career.
As with most famous athletes there were various career phases but even these seemed iconoclastic and punkish. This was key to early Dhoni. When Sachin Tendulkar, his predecessor as lord of all things India, batted you felt the presence of this cold clear square of light, the platonic ideal of high-functioning orthodoxy. By contrast Dhoni has been entirely himself. My favourite Dhoni incarnation is the long-haired breakout star.
There was a wondrously brutal 148 against Pakistan in his first year with India, an innings that felt in itself like a rejection of what had gone before, a torching of the reedy-voiced handbook.
In time Dhoni was more remote, more obviously consumed by leadership, a life spent in the captain’s suite, phone ringing off the hook. But his technique became more insistently unorthodox, a cricketer who seemed to create different angles and noises, a different set of textures.
I was in Cuttack three years ago to see Dhoni score his last international century, an innings of sculpted violence marked by the deep thud of the Dhoni bat.
Even his wicketkeeping style seemed pointedly his own. Most wicketkeepers are artisans, below-stairs figures tied to their scullery. Dhoni kept wicket as an act of command, stopping the ball with pads, knees, any available part of the Dhoni presence. Dhoni does not bend for the ball. The ball bends for Dhoni.
With this in mind much is made of his small-town roots, the willingness to face down India’s structures and hierarchies. Dhoni’s refusal to bend the knee seems to have opened up the talent pool in that dressing room.
After which he was ready to face down the rest of the world too and with a waspishness and a certainty of will that was abrasive, often irresistible. Asked about India’s batting failures on the 2014 tour of England and the pernicious influence of T20 cricket, Dhoni sat back, smiled and told the English media: “Don’t be jealous of the IPL.”
There were snorts of admiring laughter but also a sense of destiny in the room. Sport will often produce these notable figures during times of cultural and economic revolution. It is fascinating as an Englishman to feel that recentring of sporting culture, to spectate on an industry regeared around its largest, most vibrant market. And to feel how it might have been cheering from the outside during cricket’s Anglocentric centuries.