LIFE WAS TOUGH FOR YOUNG PAAN SINGH, IN TALASAALAM VILLAGE in Almora district, which rests in the shadow of the Kumaon hills of the Himalaya range.
Though there is now a bus that reaches the village in Uttaranchal state, back in 1964 (when it was part of Uttar Pradesh) there was no road to speak of and the only way to get there was on foot through rough and rocky terrain.
No wonder the tourist brochure claims the inhabitants of the land are ‘amazingly fit and strong with the ability to perform highly arduous tasks’. Paan inherited strong, healthy genes–which he passed on to his children.
Farming was a tough grind and unprofitable too and that is what drove the young Paan–armed with very little education but loads of determination–first to Lucknow in vain search of a job.
From there he crossed the country to Bokaro in Bihar where Hindustan Steel Limited was building a new steel plant, then finally to Ranchi where he landed a job with the Metallurgical and Engineering Consultants Ltd (or Mecon). Initially he was taken on as an unskilled worker on daily wages. He worked his way up and eventually retired as a work supervisor.
In 1969 he was married to Devki Devi, from Nainital. Their son, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, was born in Ranchi (then in Bihar, now Jharkhand) on 7 July 1981. He was preceded by his brother, Narendra, and his sister Jayanti, four years his senior.
Narendra till recently lived in Almora, where he looked after the property the family owned there, before moving back to Ranchi to work on projects connected to his brother’s cricketing career. There is still a considerable family presence in Almora.
In his role as a pump operator it had been Paan Singh’s task to supply water to the Shyamali colony where the DAV Jawahar Vidya Mandir School is located. It was here that Narendra, and Mahendra, whom everyone called ‘Mahi’, studied and where Jayanti now teaches (her husband Gautam Gupta too studied in the same school).
Paan’s early connection with cricket was to ensure adequate water supply to the first proper turf wicket in Ranchi at the Mecon Stadium for the November 1984 Ranji Trophy match between Bihar and Orissa.
It was a time of water rationing and the turf would have withered away without the precious moisture. Things were made even more difficult as a curfew had been imposed due to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi just days earlier. Call it karma, or what you will, but it was at this stadium a few years later that his youngest child would first make a name for himself, raining sixes all over the ground–early steps on the steep ladder to international fame and fortune.
Mahi was a natural at sports, excelling at hockey, table tennis, badminton and as a football goal-keeper. After he had reached the top of the cricket world he was asked what he would have become if not a cricketer and he candidly replied he would probably have become a famous footballer, playing for one of the top Kolkata club sides.
It was while studying in Class VII that football’s loss became cricket’s gain. It was only due to the regular wicket-keeper being unavailable that Mahi was asked by sports instructor Keshab Ranjan Banerjee to try his hand at wicket-keeping.
The logic was that a football goal-keeper would find it easier to adapt to wicket-keeping. It was his powerful batting that surprised everyone. He was neat, too, behind the stumps, though not a natural, and it took a year of hard training before he got the hang of it. During this tough grind he did not play a single competitive match. It was 1994 when he donned the ‘keeper’s gloves for the first time. And a decade later he would assume the same role for the nation.
Three years after that switch he became the school sensation, smashing a stunning unbeaten 213 from 150 balls with 26 boundaries and six sixes. He and opening partner Shabbir Hussain (117 not out from 116 balls) batted the whole day for 378 runs to lift the inter-school trophy.
Asked years later about his aggressive style, Dhoni explained: ‘I used to hit balls right from the start. I loved the feeling. There was nothing else on my mind. When I started with tennis ball cricket, there was no leaving the ball and stuff like that. It was just scoring from each and every ball. (Sportstar, 3 December 2005).
Ranchi’s clubs began to take notice and Dhoni turned out for Commando Cricket Club from 1995 to 1998.
Among his benefactors in his teenage days was Paramjit Singh, owner of a small sports shop, who persuaded a cricket equipment manufacturer in Ludhiana to supply bats and other gear free to the promising schoolboy.
Today Singh’s Prime Sports sells, on an average, 80 bats a month, thanks to the small-town hero’s success, another example of good karma in the amazing M.S. Dhoni story.
In 1998 Dhoni joined the Central Coalfields Limited (CCL) team where he got a monthly stipend of Rs 2,200. It was with this money that the eighteen-year-old bought a second-hand motorbike–the first of many, newer, grander ones to come.
Club cricket in Ranchi those days consisted mainly of 15-overs games and his number seven slot meant he had few opportunities to display his batting prowess. At CCL he gained a promotion in the batting line-up and began to flower.
Destiny lay before him but for the moment, like millions of schoolboys around the country, his studies took up a lot of his time, though cricket remained an integral part of those youthful days.
School at 7.30 a.m., back home at 1.30 p.m. for lunch, then off to ‘nets’, followed by studies from 6.30 to 9 p.m., as well as for one hour early in the morning.
Though so much of his time was spent out on the cricket field, his parents were proud that their youngest child was a bright student, invariably securing a first division. In his Class X board exams he scored a creditable 66 per cent.
Strong family genes and a youthful appetite for rice mixed with milk (and a love of chicken too) helped build up his strength as a youngster. They gave him the energy to play endless games of cricket.
That his childhood hero was Sachin Tendulkar comes as no surprise. During the 1992 World Cup in Australia, he would get up early to watch Tendulkar bat–and then go back to sleep when he was out. Tendulkar’s memorable ‘desert storm’ display in Sharjah in 1998 was another abiding memory.
Of course, just a handful of schoolboys grow up to play alongside their youthful heroes, let alone captain them.
Dhoni’s father was a strict disciplinarian and Mahi admits to being scared of him as a boy. His mother was more of a friend, protecting him and praying for his success. It was his mother more than his father who encouraged him to play cricket. (His father and brother had been keen footballers in their younger days.)
In 1999, Mahi passed out of Class XII, though it was a tough time shuttling between matches for CCL and sitting for his board exams.
After that he applied to Gossner College, a minority-affiliated institution under Ranchi University, as a B. Com (honours in accountancy) Part-I student for the 1999-2002 batch. He captained the college cricket team during his short stint there but never had the time to sit for his exams.
By then his first-class career was taking off. Studies would have to take a backseat.
M.S Dhoni success story : The Early Years