There is no bigger enigma in Indian cricket than M.S. Dhoni. He is a superstar who rarely keeps a mobile with him. Furthermore, he has been deliberately staying away from the media whirl to maintain the aura of mystery around him. When television news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai zeroed in on an XI to narrate India’s cricket journey post-independence through his book — Democracy’s XI — he knew the most challenging hurdle would be persuading Dhoni to talk. As Rajdeep ticked his list off one by one, the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Mohammed Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli, it was Dhoni who, as predicted, proved to be the toughest to get through to.
How Sardesai eventually tracked down Dhoni with incessant emails to his friend-turned-manager Arun Pandey and later SMSes to the man himself is a story by itself. “He is like a leopard in a jungle: a notoriously elusive animal who hides even as the world craves to spot him,” says Rajdeep, son of former India Test cricketer Dileep Sardesai. Having heard a story of how Dhoni was annoyed by another TV editor for using the political influence in a bid to get the cricketer on a prime-time show, Sardesai was cautious in his approach. “My texts to him went unanswered. I wasn’t surprised at all; even his wife couldn’t reach him during the 2015 World Cup to inform him of the birth of their daughter! I waited for my lucky break which came when Pune IPL franchisee owner Sanjeev Goenka invited me for a dinner in May 2017. The meeting there helped Dhoni remember my request and he asked me to come over to his hotel on a later date.
He spoke uninterrupted for three hours, which was more than I asked for. Had I asked Dhoni for an on-camera interview, I doubt he would have spoken,” Sardesai recalls. It was worth the wait. There were more surprises in store for Sardesai as Dhoni not only spoke with candour about his life but also opened up on topics that remained unanswered in the past. “I thought he would clam up the minute I ask him about the spot-fixing scandal that led to the suspension of Chennai Super Kings and his special bond with former BCCI boss N. Srinivasan. But he was more than happy to speak about it. He said he agreed to talk because of his respect for me as a journalist and for my father,” says Sardesai, who also convinced Srinivasan to talk about Dhoni in his book.
“People have told me that Dhoni also plays his politics and how he is careful and guarded about whom he talks to and is friends with. But I found nothing complicated about this guy. He is under the impression that the media has been unfair to him. Actually, the media has been more than nice to Dhoni,” he adds. Sardesai says the former India skipper’s inaccessibility is part of his unique way to maintain the ‘Brand Dhoni.’ “He has built himself as a strong and silent warrior. He wants to remain as someone who nobody knows. The more he remains out of scrutiny and the more he remains away from the media glare, there will be more effort to know about him. I believe, that’s Mahi way,” says Sardesai.
Dhoni’s journey from a ticket collector to World Cup-winning captain and one of the wealthiest sportsperson in the world en route is the ultimate fairytale and Sardesai believes only cricket can produce such scripts in the country. “Politicians get their positions, not necessarily through merit, but for cricketers there is no substitute for hard work. If cricket is about dynasty, like politics, I would have had a lot of success,” he adds. For a book that revealed quite a few interesting cricket anecdotes, the captain-coach controversy between Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble went largely untold. Sardesai said both Kumble and Kohli were unwilling to talk about it. “They didn’t want to come on record. Kohli didn’t respond to any questions related to the controversy, while Anil said ‘let’s leave it for now’,” Sardesai says. Sardesai expects either Kumble or Kohli to come up with a biography. “I would love to see Virat writing a book while he is playing. Australians and English cricketers do that; why not Kohli?”