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Mahi of Midnapore

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By Mahendra Singh Dhoni checked tickets at Kharagpur station and played khep cricket for local teams. His old buddies remember RITH BASU
  • Published 9.11.08

In 2003, Sourav Ganguly was at the helm of the Indian cricket team and Yuvraj Singh was becoming adept at preventing even a fly from slipping through point. The same year, a 22-year-old was standing on the longest railway platform in the world at Kharagpur, trying to prevent ticketless travellers from giving him the slip. He was also the toast of para cricket in this part of the world.

The little-known story of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s stint as tennis ball cricketer lies in the small towns of Bengal. The man who would bring home the T20 cup joined the South Eastern Railway as a ticket collector in its Kharagpur Division in March 2001.

He would be seen at his post on the platform till the end of 2003, when he started to play for India A.

During these years, though he was already playing for Jharkhand and the East Zone, he played tennis ball cricket matches (khep khela) in Kharagpur or Digha as well as official matches for the South Eastern Railway team. He played the khep matches when there were no first-class matches to be played for Jharkhand or the East Zone, which was most of the time.

He was the star of khep cricket. He would reach the cricket grounds in style then too, on his friend’s bike, forcing the friend — South Eastern Railway team captain Robin Kumar — to ride pillion. Kumar is still the South Eastern Railway captain.

“Till 2003, Mahi used to get Rs 2,000 in the tennis ball matches, as did pace bowler Jai Shukla. They were the stars of khep khela in these parts. The rest of us got Rs 500. People were hired even for Rs 100 or Rs 70 in the smaller tournaments,” says Prasenjit Sinha, 29, who played a number of khep tournaments with Dhoni, some as teammate and some in the opposite team.

Now Dhoni earns Rs 60 lakh just from his annual retainership with BCCI, plus match fees and earnings from endorsements. He was the highest-paid IPL player, with Chennai Super Kings paying $1.5 million for him.

Having a ball

Dhoni, the boy from Ranchi, came to Kharagpur with his first job and stayed there for two years. Sinha and other mates of Mahi are still stunned by what followed.

“He rode the bike with us, played with us, ate with us, spoke our language…We fought amongst ourselves and then made up. And then suddenly he makes it big in no time, like a fairy tale. We never imagined he had it in him,” says Soma, who used to keep wickets to Dhoni’s bowling for the para team, Durga Sporting. Yes, Dhoni also bowled then. “He used to bowl pretty fast. When he bowled with a leather ball, it even swung,” adds Soma.

His friends remember Mahi as the simple boy who would spend as much time as possible on the cricket field.

Field focus

Dhoni began to play for India A from 2003-04 and did well consistently, after which he got his call for the national One-Day team in December 2004. By then Rahul Dravid, Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel had been tried for the role of a globally compatible wicket keeper-batsman with unsatisfactory results.

Dhoni slipped into the role with ease, blasting a 148 against Pakistan in his fifth match and proving that he knew his job behind the stumps.

“He is an uncomplicated lad. We used to have a good time, playing cricket or football as much as we could. It helped that we lived close to this field,” says Kumar, pointing with his bat at a one-room tenement that he used to share with the Indian skipper and another friend, Deepak Singh.

“He used to take his bath outside, at this well,” Kumar added.

The current tenants are the Prasads — Keshav sells biriyani and his wife Rita, a homemaker, looks after their two little daughters. “It feels great whenever I think Dhoni used to stay here. It gives us hope. May be my daughters, too, will do something great one day,” said Rita.

What fascinates his Kharagpur friends more than his game is how Dhoni carries himself off the field now. They are also astounded by the fact that he speaks so well. “Once, after he received the man-of-the-match trophy from Bengal spinner Shiv Sagar Singh at the tournament finals in Panskura in 2002, Mahi was asked to say something. But he just told the organiser apologetically: Mujhe bolna nahin ata (I can’t make a speech).” This same guy is so articulate now. His speech is so polished. It’s like magic,” says Sinha.

Kumar recalls how they used to pull his leg because he would keep his distance from girls and no girl showed any interest in him either. “Now just look at him. His female fan following is like that of movie stars.” (Dhoni had been linked with actress Deepika Padukone.)

Myth and milk

Kumar and the others want to bust a few myths about the man. “Contrary to popular belief, he did not always have long hair. It’s only in 2003 that he gave it a thought after his friend Mihir Diwakar, who now plays in the ICL for Royal Bengal Tigers, began to wear his hair long. Also he does drink milk, but is not obsessed about it,” says Somu.

Rather, he says, Dhoni was obsessed about aerated drinks and used to gulp down a couple of bottles every day. “There was this friend of ours who would drink alcohol a lot. Mahi once asked him not to drink, at least that evening. He in turn asked Mahi to stay off his drink. So that evening they both had lassi.”

Bikes fascinated Mahi then too, confirms Kumar. “He did not have one. But when we went to play tennis ball matches in Mecheda, Panskura, Dhantor or Digha, he would insist on driving my Bajaj Pulsar and I would have to ride pillion,” said Kumar. Because Robin Kumar had a dark complexion, Dhoni fondly called him “Kallu”.

The friends find some reports about him hard to believe. “We used to sit up in bed watching cricket on TV. He used to admire Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy and then we read in the papers he was pivotal in dropping Dada from the ODI team. It was really difficult to believe,” Kumar said.

Star turn

The Kharagpur cricket fraternity agrees that it never saw someone as disciplined as “their” Mahi. According to South Eastern Railway coach Subrata Kumar Banerjee (Baghada), Dhoni would find some way or the other to stay match-fit, even during the off season.

“If he did not have a match he would come up to me in the afternoons and nag me to allow him to keep wickets at the under-15 practice session, though he was much older. Then after a while he would say: ‘Thoda bat bhi kar lein Baghada?’ ”

On the field, his friends remember him as an aggressive player. The Dhoni one sees in India colours is a tempered version of the original, they feel. “You still don’t know how explosive he can be. Not only in cricket, he would blast the ball as a striker in football and hit the ball very hard in table tennis and even in billiards. He is made that way,” Kumar said.

But the guys do not get to meet their hero often now. The last time he came down was two years ago and they secretly took him to a compartment of Gitanjali Express in the car-shed, where they had dinner.

“Mahi doesn’t take calls on his mobile, so we just leave a text message and he calls back,” said Somu.

His Kharagpur mates came to Calcutta in November 2007 for the last Test match that was played at Eden, just to watch Mahi.

“We arrived in the evening and sent him a text message but he was on his way to a party at Ranadeb Bose’s house. Next day, there was such a fuss over security that despite a fever Mahi had to come down to the hotel lobby to meet us as we were not being allowed upstairs. But once with us, Mahi was his old self. He hadn’t changed a bit,” smiles Kumar.