Now that the Indian Premier League (IPL) season is on, bombastic commentators keep us informed until midnight about how greatness lies at the end of the soaring arc of boundaries. This is the 15th year of the IPL, but no one has dominated the league, at least in terms of greatness thrust upon him, like MS Dhoni. Though he retired from international cricket four years ago, Dhoni at 41 is the much-talked-about hero of this edition of IPL. Commentators and writers alike shower him with effusive praise, adding to his aura.
We were witness to an incredible scene at Chepauk on May 14 when Sunil Gavaskar, mike in hand, ran like a schoolkid behind Dhoni and Chennai Super Kings (CSK) players as they did a farewell lap after their last league encounter in Chennai, hoping to get an autograph. Gavaskar, who has signed plenty of autographs himself, hasn’t been seen asking for anyone’s autograph before. In this instance, he could have easily summoned Dhoni to the box to get an autograph. There was both humility and a bit of craven hero worship in this act by Gavaskar. Nevertheless, these images help keep alive the enduring saga of super heroes in sport.
A captain less ordinary
Gavaskar, who spent the last 40 years creating icons and pulling down others as a commentator, has been an admirer of Dhoni and a couple of weeks back had this to say about him (he has said much the same every time Dhoni appears on screen): “There hasn’t been a captain like him and never will be one like him in future. CSK knows to get out of tight situations. This has been possible under Dhoni’s captaincy. Captaining 200 matches is very difficult. Captaining so many matches is a burden and it could have affected his performances. But Mahi is different. He is a different captain. There hasn’t been a captain like him.”
Even as sports fans were busy celebrating Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar’s 50th birthday celebrations sent the nation into another frenzy of hero-worship. Almost all national newspapers interviewed him, seeking yet another glimpse into his illustrious career, despite everyone being well acquainted with every detail of his life. As usual, most papers referred to him as “God.” Both Sachin and Dhoni are inspirational national icons, and we will spare no effort in continually celebrating their remarkable contributions.
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Though every country has sporting heroes, many of them fade away after retirement but we cling on to our heroes, fearing we may not get another. Consistent adulation of Dhoni and Sachin and a few others has also helped us keep alive the notion that we also produce world champions in a jiffy. Only recently, the Mumbai cricket Association decided to build a memorial for Dhoni in the stands of Wankhede stadium, where his World Cup-winning six had landed. Dhoni, quite embarrassed, cut the tape in front of a row of empty chairs, which will be replaced by his bust or maybe the ball on a pedestal.
Why are we so good at creating sporting heroes and sustaining them over decades? Are we short of heroes from other walks of life? True that the youth need such heroes too as lessons and yardsticks to compare their own mediocrity with.
When sporting heroes emerge on a global scale in any game, it is common to attribute various supernatural qualities to such players. The same can be said for Dhoni, who possesses the ability to spot talent, read the pitch perfectly, make astute team selections, outsmart opposing captains, and much more. The Gavaskar’s comment mentioned earlier fits precisely within this category of awe-inspiring attributes associated with Dhoni.
The creation of icons
The creation of such national icons begins with sports journalists favouring specific stars in their writings. These narratives become accepted truths and conventional wisdom. There are various factors involved in this. In India, sub-nationalistic and nationalistic biases contribute significantly to elevating a good player to greatness and establishing him as an icon in the collective consciousness. Sports fans worldwide accept this unquestioned, unmitigated adulation as the truth, viewing these stars as divine figures who alleviate the agony and hopeless mediocrity of everyday life.
To create and worship human gods and human idols has become a national pastime that transcends various segments of society. So, it is easy to fashion a ‘cricketing god’ or a ‘Bollywood god’ and then engage in regular worship on occasions like birthdays, national anniversaries, and pivotal moments in the sport’s history, such as an old World Cup win. In advanced nations, a similar phenomenon exists, but in those cases, such icons are swiftly transformed into global brands. A prime illustration of this can be seen in the extraordinary worldwide triumph of Nike’s Air Jordan line of basketball shoes and sneakers.
The glowing narratives surrounding these personal heroes are then transformed into books, documentaries, and other mediums. Dhoni and Sachin were elevated during the pre-social media era about 25 years ago. This is not to suggest that they were not exceptional players, but it often resulted in sidelining or dismissing the contributions of their teammates.
An important factor is attributing superhuman qualities to such players. Dhoni, for instance, was supposed to have the ability to stump a player in 1/16th of a second. “It took just 1/16th of a second for the entire sequence to play out. Jadeja’s slider whizzed past Chris Morris’ bat and MS Dhoni whisked the bails. In the interim, Morris’ back heel had been fractionally airborne,” an article in The Indian Express typically titled Stumper MS Dhoni: Fast hands, faster brain. Indian fielding coach R Sridhar, like many other experts, also joined in this national creation of demi-god Dhoni: “It’s the speed of the mind that stands out the most. While he’s looking at the ball, the corner of his eye has always gauged where the stumps are and where the batsman’s foot is.”
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Every top-class wicketkeeper can stump as fast and there is no evidence to suggest that any one player has a faster working brain or hands for stumping. All top keepers develop these qualities mentioned above. Also, the speed of stumping depends most on what level the ball reaches the keeper’s gloves and nothing else. Everyone, including non-sportsmen, have the peripheral vision that Sridhar is talking about here. But when it comes to superheroes, only superhuman qualities not seen in other sportsmen will do. In this game of creating and sustaining superheroes, everyone contributes.
Time to move on?
Dhoni, of course, has done his bit as finisher, wicketkeeper, and most of all, Captain Cool with long hair, but he has been a major beneficiary of this adjectival overplay over the last two decades. During his reign, the careers of two equally good wicketkeeper-batsmen, Wriddhiman Saha and Dinesh Karthik, who were not even given a look-in, suffered but they are still soldering on in the hope of recompense. Both of them, good keepers and batsmen, are still around but no one is willing to thrust greatness on another wicketkeeper as long as Dhoni is around.
For a long time, Dhoni has not had a big score in the IPL or in international cricket. But who is listening? If he gets out after scoring five, it is an aberration. This is the advantage of being a superhero in sport. No reporter will dare as much as bring in a negative note in his description of Dhoni’s batting. The swashbuckling 183 against Sri Lanka by which Dhoni announced his arrival has never been recreated, but to be fair to him, he has been part of many victory stories and, as captain, he has been a sterling example.
To be a superhero is also to be super-burdened. For instance, Lionel Messi, who is a global icon, has had to bear this burden throughout his career, but has borne it well: “In Argentina and Barcelona, they even had a word for it, Messidependencia,” Jonathan Clegg writes in his new book Messi Vs Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game (2022). Dhoni, too, has borne it well. In Indian cricket, it has been Dhonidepencia for some time now. It is time to move on.
Binoo K John is the author, among other books, of the recently published Top Game: Winning, Losing and a New Understanding of Sport (Speaking Tiger)
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