It has been close to a decade and a half but to the most ardent followers and fans of Indian Cricket, especially the millennial, this might just feel like yesterday. Since for most of the passionate followers of the sport here in India, it is a day clearly etched in memories.
5 April 2005- India were playing arch-rivals Pakistan in the second One Day International match of a bilateral series and were batting first on a relatively flat Visakhapatnam surface. India got off to a poor start losing Sachin Tendulkar in just the fourth over of the innings.
Everyone expected the then captain Sourav Ganguly to come in at number three. But to their surprise, in walked at number three Mahendra Singh Dhoni and changed not only the course of the match but the face of Indian Cricket.
After his unbelievable knock of an unbeaten 148 against Pakistan that day, I, being a young fan of the sport at that time distinctly remember asking my mother a question that may still be very difficult to answer for some- Who is Mahendra Singh Dhoni?
The need to ask that question had emerged since Dhoni had announced himself on the World Stage. Prior to that he had a string of low scores including a duck in his debut innings but when he was trusted to go up the order he did not fail to disappoint his skipper and took only 123 balls for his 148.
It might have been the thunderous knock that almost single-handedly won India that game, but, it was the Ranchi boy’s calmness that helped him change the face and the approach of Indian Cricket.
India has had a lot of captains and batsmen in the past but none with Dhoni’s outstanding acumen and sharpness behind the wicket and his exceptional ability with the bat as he slaughtered the best of bowling attacks from across the world.
Dhoni ended India’s long search for the wicket-keeper batsman who could be agile as a cheetah and audacious as a tiger both behind and on the wicket. MS, with his unorthodox technique, was criticised by a segment of cricket experts who believed that textbook technique is the only way to play the game- perhaps that was the first of the many myths that he busted during his 15 years long (and still running) international career.
As a captain, Mahi did not go by the statistics. In fact, some of his decisions that have gone on to create history for India were heavily scrutinised and frowned upon when they were being taken on the field. But perhaps his hallmark as a leader was not to hide behind the curtains of excuses rather his ability to stay in the moment-cool, calm and composed.
Among all the players of the present generation, it is perhaps Mahi who comes close to defining what this new India is all about- a dreamer who does not get intimidated when opportunities come and follows his instincts, his heart.
Dhoni’s sense of timing has been admirable too and nobody could ever know what exactly is going on his mind. Just like that, he gave away captaincy when he thought the time was right. No farewells, no emotional speeches- and having achieved all that he could as a captain he handed over the responsibility to Virat Kohli.
90 Tests, 349 ODIs and 98 T20Is for India- arguably one of India’s most successful captains and one of the best wicket-keepers in the world, Mahi is in the twilight of his career playing yet another World Cup but only as a wicketkeeper-batsman.
People know just like how he retired from tests and how he quit captaincy, he will retire from all forms of cricket but will he be able to be a central part of another historic India win at the Lord’s on 14 July?
On his birthday today, fans are praying and hoping for just that.
Thanks and best wishes to an absolute legend of the game. Happy Birthday, Mahi!