Trust Mahendra Singh Dhoni to provide the joie de vivre that seems to have been sucked out of the cricket world in recent times.
Seven years to the day that he became only the second Indian captain to lift the 50-over World Cup trophy, Dhoni received his Padma Bhushan honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan from Mr Ram Nath Kovind, our president. The Padma Bhushan is the country’s third highest civilian honour, and as Dhoni awaited his turn on April 2, 2018, to walk up while the president was conferring the honour on Pankaj Advani, the multiple-time cue sports world champion, his chest was already swelling with scarcely concealed, justifiable pride.
Advani sported the traditional attire that is quite the norm on such solemn occasions, smart and business-like. Dhoni, of course, has always believed in doing things his own way – the Mahi way, as they say – and therefore it was no surprise to see him in military colours, donning the uniform that is his by right after having been inducted into the 106 Infantry Battalion of the Indian Territorial Army in November 2011.
As he briskly marched on for his date with the president, you could see how much it meant for him to be able to sport the uniform, how much effort he had taken to ensure that the gesture wasn’t seen as merely symbolic tokenism. To applause that was thunderous by Rashtrapati Bhavan standards, he humbly received the medal and the citation from the president. The uninitiated – there aren’t many, needless to say – wouldn’t have guessed that this was a cricketer in the garb of an army-man. There was nothing to suggest that Dhoni was anything other than what he looked, and that in itself is credit not just to his preparation and his work ethic, but also to the seriousness with which he is taking his Lieutenant Colonel status.
Dhoni is the most visible and charismatic of the celebrity sportspersons to be conferred an honorary Territorial Army rank. Kapil Dev, the other World Cup-winning skipper, and Abhinav Bindra, still India’s only individual Olympic gold medalist, too have been commissioned as Lieutenant Colonels, but with due respect to them, Dhoni commands an attention and a following all too unique. And, he had done more than enough to ensure that his choice of attire for the Padma Bhushan occasion was well merited, that he wasn’t just milking his military status.
The former Indian captain has spoken passionately of what the Indian Army means to him. There is every possibility that, had cricket not been fortunate enough, Dhoni would have served the country in the uniform that is the pride and joy of every single one of us. Our soldiers are the actual heroes, largely unsung and often anonymous, fighting elements and forces of nature as well as ill-advised human forces who stray beyond the straight and narrow. Oftentimes, we only see the smart attires and the wonderful drills, the mellifluous synchronicity with which they march on important historical dates in our calendar. For the large part, we are ignorant about their lifestyles of discipline and self-denial, of honour and pride, of selflessness and sacrifice. Lifestyles of choice, by choice, driven by a sense of duty and responsibility so that we can all exist peacefully, knowing that our lives are secure in the hands of committed men and women who voluntarily, silently and unflinchingly put the country above themselves.
As a people, we are used to taking their presence, their service and their extraordinary acts of valour and courage – often unrecognised on a larger public forum – for granted. Their restraint under extreme duress and provocation is glossed over because ‘that’s what they are supposed to be like’, but we are quick to jump on them for perceived breaches of discipline and alleged insensitivity without being fully informed of the ground realities.
If Dhoni has gone some way towards opening our collective eyes and allowing us to appreciate what the defence forces are doing day in and day out, then we owe him further debts of gratitude. His exploits on the field are the stuff of legend but, at the end of the day, cricket is just a sport, however emotionally we might be drawn to it. Cricket might be a way of life in extreme cases, but it is definitely not life in itself. Sport in general is not, as Boris Becker put it after his shock second-round loss to Peter Doohan at Wimbledon in 1987. “I didn’t lose a war. Nobody died. Basically, I just lost a tennis match,” the then two-time defending champion pointed out, after being savaged by the media for his tame surrender.
Given his fascination for and affinity to speed, it is no surprise that Dhoni is in the elite Para Regiment of the Terrirorial Army. So deep-rooted is his passion that he made time during the preparatory camp for the 2011 World Cup to make it to the Aero India show in Yelahanka. Post his induction into the Territorial Army, he has trained with his colleagues, and completed his first parachute jump from an Indian Air Force aircraft in August 2015 in his bid to become a qualified parajumper.
That jump was preceded by two weeks of training – physical as well as classroom — at the Paratroopers Training School as Dhoni took it upon himself to justify his rank. He was then, as he is now, an active and professional sportsperson, so for him to put limb on the line without prodding is evidence enough of how seriously he has taken the honour and how determined he is not to merely bask in borrowed glory.
“I had the choice of four regiments but chose a fifth, the Parachutes, because it is a hundred per cent volunteer regiment,” he had told Mark Nicholas in a wonderfully revealing interview in September 2014. “They are derived from the British SAS and I felt I would be able to contribute more with them later in life. I believe I know enough to justify the honour and was worthy of it. One day, I will train with them and I will jump with them too because I am keen to truly earn my wings.”
With his cricket, Dhoni has pushed a couple of generations of aspiring players to lift their games and aim higher. He has set standards that others are striving to emulate, be it with his bruising ball-striking or his lightning quick hands behind the sticks that defy science. He is an outstanding example of a calm mind under extreme pressure, of retaining his composure when, in the heat of the battle, it is far easier to just roll over and surrender.
That Captain Fantastic – to me at least, he will always be that – has found his inspiration in the wonderful warriors that keep us safe is brilliant. If he can motivate even half as many people to turn to the armed forces as he has done to cricket, he would have done a greater service to the nation than through the multitudes of trophies he has stacked up with his excellence on the cricket field.
Lieutenant Colonel Dhoni will make way for captain Dhoni over the next seven weeks as Season 11 of the Indian Premier League kicks off. His heart will beat for the yellow of Chennai Super Kings, but we all know what his first love is, don’t we?