Faded Memories: Playing Cricket circa 1994, with Mahi.. or… Dhoni(?)

It was 1994. One year since I moved from Kendriya Vidyalaya, the government school that I was used to studying at, to DAV Shyamali in Ranchi. End of my standard 9th exams, a below average academic year by the standards set for myself, in a new school, and a notice on the notice board which talked about an upcoming cricket camp during summer vacations, I joined the camp. I guess more because it was cricket, and twice a day, than the fact that it was a camp.
That was first time I changed from being a backyard gully cricketer which probably 90%+ of school going boys were in those years, to someone who took (or wanted to take) cricket a little more seriously. And that was the time I met my cricketing quad – Anil Singh, Niraj Singh, Mahi (Mahendra Singh Dhoni) and myself. The camp was for 12-15 year olds. I was 14 then, and Mahi was 13. Niraj and Anil were my classmates.
Note: We still remember him as Mahi. His earlier cricket records from school league would mention Mahinder Singh. Not Dhoni. And yeah, it’s not the punjabi way of saying MAAAAAHI. It was Mahi, simple, with a very very short emphasis on ‘a’ (the ma of Maa – mother vs. the ma of Mandir). Or more ruggedly, “ka re, ee mahiyaa kahan hai”, which was not the mindblowing Maahiya kinds. It was the bihari Mahiyaa (with a very short emphasis on the first “a”).
The quad? because the four of us played for the DAV cricket team the same year. Anil was a left arm fast bowler, with a very nice angling run-up (Mitchell Johnson kinds) and had a natural outswinger. But too inconsistent, and too prone to nautanki (like trying to invent a left arm version of Kapil Dev’s vintage bowling pose). Niraj was a leg spinner who also batted up the order. Mahi was a keeper batsman (used to come in at 1 down or 2), and I was an off-spinner (the most lowly of breeds in the game of cricket).

In a short stint, I did well (I had my own off-spinner’s version of Anil Kumble – run up to the crease, jump, and pace – full package deal). That was the era, when India used to have spin trios all the time (Raju, Kumble, Chauhan kinds). So, having bowlers like me, Niraj et al in school league, which was more about slam, bam, thank you ma’m, was not a misplaced error from the selection committee.

Those of you who’ve followed ‘Dhoni’ would remember K R Bannerjee, the school teacher who moved him from soccer to Cricket. Though, in my memory from 1994 onwards, I don’t remember Mahi ever playing football/soccer that seriously. All my memories of him are of him playing cricket with me and the school team folks, or of him playing cricket with the team which had my brother and the likes of Tunna. But then, I must be wrong about his simultaneous calls from district level cricket and football being an urban legend.
We used to live in Mecon colony in Ranchi, and Mahi’s house was in the lane behind our house. J block. And, my brother was his tennis ball cricket team-mate ( they won a few local tournaments together), and I was his leather ball/school league cricket team mate (we also won a few tournaments together).

Back then, like his earlier years in international cricket, he was a mercenary batsman. Few snapshots I remember very vividly from 1994-1997 era- hitting Subroto Banerjee (who had just come back from an India team outing) for a six towards the square leg boundary (the ball landed on top of a huge water tank, several storeys tall a couple of blocks away from the stadium), hitting the double ton in school league final (a 35 over match), hitting 5 sixes in the space of 10 balls in a day-night tennis ball tournament (where for some weird reason, he had not come in at his usual 1 down, and had come pretty late down the order). One of those sixes was a hoist over cover boundary (and believe me, its not very easy with a tennis ball, when playing under dim lights).

The only thing I had in common with him was the devil may care attitude about our game. Hit me for a six, and I would hardly be flustered. Get him out first ball, or beat him three balls in a row, he would hardly be flustered. And he would have the widest grin for everything. That is something still seen on TV. Though I dont remember seeing him get angry about anything back then. He does now. Guess the stakes are too high now.

A batch junior to me in school, and with our limitations limited to the cricket ground and thereabouts, he was the usual 9th standard Ranchi kid back then. Always up to some mischief or the other, had a wise-crack for almost everything, was interested in the girls around, but probably hadn’t talked to more than a couple, loved batting more than keeping, loved taking a single off the last ball to keep the strike, and avoiding doubles even when the opportunity would be for a quick three. Don’t remember him as someone who’d walk away with his bat if he got out early. He also wanted to hit more boundaries than take runs. And he could run the first run really quickly, if it was the first delivery of the over.

There aren’t a lot of outings we had together. Why? I was from a background where hopes resided on my academic abilities more than my athletic abilities. My brother anyways was a much better cricketer than me, and had succumbed to the ways of preparing for engineering entrance examinations long before me. Though, to be fair to myself and everyone else, I did play a few important matches during that year’s school league, and had the call to join the district team. Its a different matter that the final round of NTSE exams on 14th May 2005 coincided with the district team training and selection camp. That being said, the outings we had together, we never dropped a game. And in some of them, I did play my part as well.
So, starting with the camp, I took 7/12 in the final match of the camp, and Mahi scored 43 of 30 odd balls. I think he took 30 odd balls because Jitendar Bhaiya (the wicketkeeper of Mecon cricket team who was running the camp) had threatened him with repercussions if he threw his wicket away.
In the school league finals (under 15), I took 3/22 in 6 overs, after he scored a double ton against my earlier school, Kendriya Vidyalaya. School league finals (with oldies), I had taken 4/23, while he scored a half century.

We went to the DAV east zone selections together, where we both got selected. It was the year, when the trials had happend in torrential rains. For one of the catches during fielding trials, I had skidded a distance of over 15 feet, involuntarily I must add. Anyways, I was considered as a bowler who had pace variations, a nice loop, and a nice dip. It’s a different matter that I took up off-spin bowling because I did not have the height or arm for pace bowling, and unlike Kumble I was conceptually against building a career in spin bowling, unless I could actually turn the ball. For him, there were no adjectives. He came, played for his trials in the nets, and there was a tick. No one asked a question, no one gave any answers.

By the way, the only time I remember batting in a match in those scattered matches across two years (I did not play much after 1995), was in an internal match where he was in the other team. For the record, I did not get him out in that one, but conceded only 15 runs from 4 overs for 2 wickets. Some achievement, huh?

Fading memory – me and my brother talking about him in 1999, when he had started playing for Bihar/ Railways. Our fear back then was that even if he survived the politics of Bihar cricket (you had to be a favorite of Deval Sahay to be in the Bihar team), it would be difficult for him to survive the national cricket/zonal cricket politics and reach the Indian team. And this was the era, when the teams world over had brilliant wicketkeeper-batsmen (Andy Flower, Alec Stuart, an emerging Gilchrist, etc.), and we wanted to place our bets in him. Bhaiya felt that he was not as good a wicket keeper, but his batting should have been enough to get him the slot, if there was no politics.

BTW, that just reminded me of an incident that a colleague of mine narrated about Devang Gandhi. When he got selected for the Indian team as an opener, apparently, Sadagopan Ramesh missed out. At that time, the culture of Ranji was that you played more cricket within the zone, which mean that DG (from Bengal) would play more against Tripura, Orissa, et al. DG was scoring heavily at that time in Ranji. SRamesh quipped – against teams like that, even Mahatma Gandhi would have scored a double century.

Anyways, almost everyone that we know from those years in Ranchi, like Kaushal or Deepak et al, they’ve all met him post his rise to stardom, and they all say that he is still the same. The wickedness and the nicety in the same pack. And its good to see him rise so much. It’s a small town story that we see in movies. He really did not have a kit full of bats, or a car dropping him for nets or a set of boots (one for batting and one for keeping). He often played cricket wearing canvas shoes (or chappal, for tennis ball cricket). But he was brilliant then. And he is excellent now, in a different way.

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