September 18, 2007: It was one of flamboyant Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s biggest days – he had just been named captain of the Indian cricket team for 12 ODIs – and he was acting coy, unwilling to appear before the strong Indian media contingent at the ICC World Twenty20 in Durban. He ostensibly wanted to focus on the games against England and South Africa.
On the eve of the match against England, India fielded opener Gautam Gambhir for its mandatory media session and while he was most welcome, everyone was disappointed that Dhoni hadn’t made an appearance. “He is focusing on the T20 games,” manager Sunil Dev told us. And we were stunned, because he understood the needs of the media, too.
We waited for more than an hour for him to finish warming up and complete his fielding session so that we could have a word with him. Sunil Dev tried talking him into having a meeting with us and cricket manager Lalchand Rajput said Dhoni wasn’t keen to appear before the media. Some ICC media officers sought to help but to no avail.
It was left for us to win the day for ourselves. The moment of reckoning arrived when he finished fielding practice and walked towards the nets outside the Kingsmead Cricket Ground. There was reluctance written all over his face and we had to brace ourselves to an uphill task – it may be easier to bowl to him in a T20 game.
“I don’t want to expose myself to the media so much,” he said when I asked him why he was reluctant to meet us on a big day. “I have met you guys so many time in the past few days in Durban and in Johannesburg. I am due for at least two more interactions with you after the matches against England and South Africa.”
The senior-most of the Indian journalists waiting to speak with him, I explained to him that there would expectations of a reaction from him to the announcement from readers, listeners and viewers not only in India but elsewhere. He showed his first signs of giving in. And when promised him that we would not take longer than five minutes, he relented.
Once he agree to speak to the waiting Indian media, he was his usual self – cheerful and laced his chat with the typical sense of humour. “It feels quite good,” he said of the responsibility given to him. “I have been captain of the T20 side and now am captain of the ODI team for 12 matches. The T20 games here are important. The coming series against Australia and Pakistan are also important. It is critical for the team. It has been a long tour of England and here and it will be nice to play some games at home. It is vital for us to perform well in those matches.”
Asked if he thought that Indian captaincy is one of the most high pressure jobs in world cricket, he said: “Yes, I think it is. It seriously is, I am telling you. Hopefully I will have the smile. I don’t know how I will react to it, though. If the team does well, nobody bothers you. The main thing, the motto, should be to do well. In every match.”
It has been less than three years since he started playing for India and asked if he was expecting it so soon, he was candid. “I never expected to play for India. So I didn’t expect captaincy either,” he said, adding that he had not aspired for captaincy even after he started playing for India. “Captainship was not an issue for me all. I just wanted to play cricket and enjoy it.”
Some of his joy will be tempered by having to lead a side that is inconsistent and by the presence of three big guns in the side. “I just heard the news in the afternoon and haven’t had the time to reflect on leading the ODI team since I am preparing for the T20 games against England and South Africa. That is crucial for us,” he said when asked if he had braced himself up to lead a team that included three former captains, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar.
“Then there is a gap of three or four days and that is when I will think about it. I think I said something similar when I was coming from England. I had just two or three days before the T20 World Cup. It is the same over here. We have to finish this tournament before I think of the ODIs,” Dhoni said.
India’s newest ODI captain said it was not difficult to understand why some players went out of the team and others came in. “All the guys are talented and it is just that some of them are not in the best of their form. It is matter of being in form or not,” he said. “Those who are left out are not really at the peak of their form. So they earn some points by playing domestic matches and can get back to the Indian team. It is our National team and whoever is in the best form has to play for the team.”
As we walked away, all of us reflected on how it was a media session that almost never was.