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The goalie who became a keeper

- Schoolteacher opens up on Mahi’s bike jaunts, admirers

Ranchi, Jan. 18: For saving its face in literally every game it plays now, the famed Indian batting line-up should thank one Keshab Banerjee for spotting a goalkeeper in football and deciding to mould him into wicketkeeper in cricket.

Confused? Well then, please meet the senior section games teacher at Ranchi’s Jawahar Vidya Mandir, who wanted to groom someone to wear the big gloves as his school team wicketkeeper was in Class XI and his services were to be available for just one year more.

And who should that little boy be but national captain-to-be Mahendra Singh Dhoni. “Dhoni was in Class V then and he could not imagine I was already thinking of him representing the school. When I proposed he start focusing on wicketkeeping, he humbly asked me: “Hum ko chance milega kya, sir (Will I really get a chance to play, sir)?” said Banerjee. “Funny isn’t it, he can walk into any side in the world,” said the coach with a content smile.

So, that was the first time that Dhoni played with a leather ball and the going was not smooth from the start. “The first time he wore the keepers’ gloves, he was trying to catch the ball with his palms vertical, like a fish tries to catch its prey. But he was attentive and picked things up fast,” said the coach pointing to the area of the field for senior boys at Shyamoli Colony school, where Dhoni’s training had begun.

“I saw his batting could be technically stronger and that he could be a bit too adventurous but as he started formal training in cricket late and foundation had already been laid, I let him follow his heart,” Banerjee added.

Banerjee, originally from Chittaranjan in Burdwan district of Bengal, graduated from Lakshmibai National University of Physical Education in Gwalior before going on to get a National Cricket Academy accreditation.

Like any good coach, he sensed early that Dhoni was a natural. And so he didn’t push him on technique.

Dhoni’s success as a batsman, he said, came a little while after joining formal training as he took time to adjust to the leather ball. But once he got the hang of it, the big shots started flowing. Banerjee remembers Dhoni, who was called Mahi even then by friends as well as teachers, had hit a towering six in an Under-16 inter-school match at the Mecon ground near his school. “We had measured it. It was a stunning 96 metres,” said the coach, half in disbelief.

Banerjee vouches that Dhoni has not changed a bit even in the face of “untold success” as far as his equation with friends and close acquaintances goes just as he has remained as cool and composed as he always was. Even erstwhile neighbour Nagalakshmi Pani, a college teacher, at the Mecon Colony he used to stay briefly with his parents said that Dhoni used to be quite relaxed when at home, even though it was after his international debut.

“One of my daughters, who goes to the same school he used to, is quite a serious badminton player. Learning that, Dhoni, who himself was a very good badminton player, took her aside one day and gave her tips on how to train. He even told her how the Indian players stay fit,” she said. The coach also said that something else that had not changed about Dhoni was his love for two-wheelers.

Standing at the school field, he recalled how his own son, who was only five then, had got hurt during practice and needed to be escorted home, which was a few blocks away. He asked Dhoni to take the child to his home because the practice was still on.

“At first, he was reluctant but when I offered my then new Bajaj Chetak scooter, he readily took up the job. The funny part was that he did not return the bike for quite a few hours. His excuse was that he had become hungry and gone home for a snack. I knew he just wanted to ride the scooter and did not tell him anything,” said the man who still rides that scooter.Dhoni, of course, now has at least 10 bikes, including Suzuki 1200 CC Ninja and Harley Davidson imported from the US.And what about the girls in school, especially because the fairer sex is crazy about him now? “Well, I remember some girls not letting him leave class for a school match. They were telling the teacher that he should sign autographs for them lest he become too famous later. All this while Mahi remained calm and waited for some teacher to intervene. It was all in banter but see how the prophecy has come true,” said Banerjee, who had rescued Mahi that day.