x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dhoni: small-town boy to big-time star

The India captain has never lost sight of the things that matter - discipline, commitment and a quiet confidence in his teammates.

The first India captain I interviewed was Gulabrai Ramchand, who led the team to a first victory against Australia in 1959/60. Listening to his anecdotes was like being transported back in a time-machine to a world that I didn't fully comprehend. By the time I started watching cricket, the top cricketers were superstars. They may not have made the money that the NBA's Magic Johnson or the NFL's Dan Marino did, but they were celebrities.

The world Ramchand spoke of involved some adulation, but little else. In his day, players had to work for a living. The fee for playing a Test was Rs250 (Dh19). There was no trainer or masseuse accompanying the team, and five-star hotels were for the obscenely rich. When India toured Pakistan in 1954-55 and played at Bahawalpur, their accommodation was a railway carriage in a siding. Today, MS Dhoni's side are slumming it at the Heritance Ahungalle on Sri Lanka's picturesque south coast. The cheapest room will set you back more than US$200 (Dh735). Dhoni could probably buy the entire property if he took a fancy to it. It was last week that he signed what was the most lucrative contract offered to a cricketer. Rhiti Sports Management and Mindscape One have guaranteed him $42 million over the next three years, and have in effect promised to make him the sort of icon David Beckham became during his glory years.

"Our company's head, Arun Pandey, has known Dhoni for some time, and we were the only agency looking at more than just brand endorsements," said Rhiti's Sangeet Shirodkar in an interview with the Hindustan Times. "We are planning to take Dhoni beyond brand endorsements to licensing and creating brands around him. That is what swung his decision in our favour." Dhoni's advertising portfolio already features more than 20 brands and the word is that it will set you back at least $1m a year if you want him to endorse your product. Many corporations will see it as good value, given Dhoni has a pan-Indian appeal second only to Sachin Tendulkar. Also, with his love of bikes and the coloured streaks in his hair, he strikes a chord even with the "edgy" kids who otherwise find cricket passe.

If you bother to look beyond the numbers though, the Dhoni story is about the coming of age of small-town India. The boy who grew up in a mining town in an area that Arvind Adiga called "darkness" in his Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, now has a fan following matched only by Tendulkar and the top Bollywood stars. Most importantly, Dhoni climbed the steps to the top without being ashamed of where he came from. There was no put-on accent, no airs and certainly no pretensions to Big-Time Charliedom. If anything, he was proud of his roots, mindful of the fact that there had been no yellow-brick road from Ranchi to stardom.

The hard yards also taught him to keep his cool in any situation. Greeted with Show [Pony] Dhoni jibes at Lord's in 2007, he saved the Test and responded to the same journalists with disarming smiles and simple answers. It's no surprise Ravi Shastri recently picked him as captain of his all-time Indian one-day XI. "Bear in mind that this was a team with Kapil, Azhar, Tendulkar and Ganguly," says Shastri. "I didn't think there'd be anyone better to handle the egos involved."

He may make the sort of money that Ramchand and others couldn't even dream of, but Dhoni has never lost sight of the things that matter - discipline, commitment and a quiet confidence in his teammates. "I feel we are tougher than players from the metros [India's biggest cities]," he said in one of his earliest interviews. "In Ranchi, there were no academies, good gyms or high-profile coaches, so we had to learn cricket the hard way." There is no better way. sports@thenational.ae

Test Country Tests Points Rating 1 India 38 4719 124 2 South Africa 42 5042 120 3 Australia 42 4979 119 4 Sri Lanka 31 3574 115 5 England 50 5417 108 6 Pakistan 25 2008 80 7 New Zealand 33 2632 80 8 West Indies 33 2542 77 9 Bangladesh 29 272 9 ODI Country Tests Points Rating 1 Australia 59 7711 131 2 South Africa 34 4041 119 3 India 57 6760 119 4 New Zealand 33 3773 114 5 England 44 4940 112 6 Sri Lanka 49 5337 109 7 Pakistan 36 3656 102 8 West Indies 36 2548 71 9 Bangladesh 46 2399 52 10 Zimbabwe 42 1413 34 11 Ireland 11 337 31 12 Kenya 15 1 0