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Captain Cool: 8 Questions with Mahendra Singh Dhoni

India's most successful cricket captain of all time reminds students about the so-called 10,000-hour practice makes pro rule and value of hard work.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   03-10-2016

At one level the sports biopic, "M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story," represents the story of India over the last 25 years and of every small town boy who dared to dream. Born in Ranchi, Mahendra Singh Dhoni beat great odds to become India’s most successful cricket captain.

Dhoni is as cool and unruffled a sportsman on the field as he is self-effacing off it. He laughs off a comment from a sharp elbowed reporter in New York suggesting he has the good looks and charisma to have played himself in "M.S Dhoni — The Untold Story."

“I am a professional cricketer, not an undercover actor,” Dhoni, 35, deadpanned in a press conference at Fox headquarters in New York.

“Sushant Singh Rajput who plays me in the movie is a fantastic actor with strong theatre experience,” said India's one-day captain.

Everyone talks about Dhoni's spectacular rise, but the biopic spends time charting the rise of India's limited-overs captain from boy to train ticket collector to World Cup glory. It gives an insight into the kinds of challenges Dhoni faced while growing up: He wasn’t a natural like Sachin Tendulkar; he started out playing football at the state level, he was rejected by the Railways Ranji Trophy team; bureaucratic disorganization almost sabotaged his rise and the 2001-02 season was an unmitigated disaster. The film makes us appreciate how Dhoni put everything on the line, including the safety of a government job, to slog it out in cricket’s dusty domestic circuit.

The attacking right-handed batsman and wicket-keeper, widely regarded as one of the greatest finishers in one-day cricket, has a humble background. Dhoni’s father worked as a pump operator with MECON Limited, a public-sector engineering firm. Dhoni grew up in a crammed one-bedroom apartment near the city’s MECON Stadium.

"If you come from a middle class family job security is very important. It can be a tough decision to choose between job security and your dream," said Dhoni.

Dhoni's father wanted his son to get an education and a job. In 2001, a struggling Dhoni turned his attention to finding an income. He moved to Kharagpur in West Bengal, where Animesh Kumar Ganguly, then a divisional manager of the South Eastern Railways (SER) was trying to build a cricket team. After traveling cross-country to arrive at Ganguly’s bungalow, the SER boss bowled a spell at Dhoni. It took just three balls for Ganguly to decide he liked what he saw — he gave Dhoni a job as a railway ticket collector and a spot on the SER cricket squad.

Dhoni knew he couldn't remain in the railways forever because cricket was his dream. He went onto lead India to victory over Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final. The skipper hit an unbeaten 91 off 79 balls, including a match-winning six.

Dhoni talked to about daring to dream and the value of hard work.

  1. Can you share your secret for staying cool under pressure?

    Being prepared will always keep you cool. Whether you are a student or a pro athlete you have to get into the zone. The zone is a state of performing with zero friction. Practice and preparation will always help you perfect your skills and get you in the zone. If your skills go up, stress goes down. Psychologists say that 10,000 hours of practice will always get you to your goal! There's this scene in the movie where my dad lets me go off to play a cricket tournament just before my exam. I still remember what he said to me: "If you've studied and worked throughout the year, then there's no problem if you go off to play today. If you haven't studied every day then one day is not going to make a difference."

    My dad used to wake me up at dawn every day to study for two hours throughout my years at DAV Jawahar Vidya Mandir because my evenings were crowded with football and cricket practice. Being regular and deliberate with your preparations keeps the pressure away at crunch time.

  2. Some critics have accused you of taking gut decisions.

    It might appear to some people that I am going with my gut, but I have done a lot of research, put careful thought into probable outcomes. Look at it this way, if someone puts down a stock 38mm carburetor in front of you and you know nothing about bikes then you won't know what it is and won't do anything. On the other hand, if you are a adept at carburetors then it will take you seconds to tune it and have a bike running. The more you pay attention to the outcome of trusting your intuition in combination with studied facts, the better your decision-making.

  3. You faced a tug-of-war between job security and playing cricket.

    You know the kind of importance middle class families give to job security. And, it's fair enough because as a sportsman you have a 8 to 12-year-long career, but how are you going to take care of the other 40 years of your life? Naturally, it was a very tough decision for me. When I was 18, I got a job in the railways as a ticket collector. It was a good job. In India, it is difficult to get a government job, but it is even more difficult to get fired from one! My parents did not want me to lose the security of a government job. So it was a tough decision. Once job security enters the frame you really have to weigh everything carefully.

  4. Can you use criticism to give yourself a competitive edge?

    The film touches on our victory at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai in the 2011 World Cup final, but I want to talk about something else. The criticism that the Indian team received after the defeat in the 2007 World Cup was a big turning point in my life.

    When we landed, we had to get out of the airport in a police van. I was sitting next to Viru [Virender Sehwag] paaji. It was late in the night and we were travelling at a decent speed...but media cars followed us with their cameras and big lights, it felt as if we had committed a big crime, maybe like a murderer or terrorist. We were actually chased by the media and ducked into a police station. My house in Ranchi was pelted with stones.

    That criticism actually had a big impact on me. Rather than sitting and cribbing about it I decided to channelize the aggression to become a better cricketer and a better human being. Sometimes you can definitely use criticism to give yourself a competitive edge.

  5. Any tips for student-athletes?

    Dare to dream.

  6. What's your personal mantra?

    What works for me is to keep things simple in life. Cricket is a simple sport: You see the ball, you hit the ball. But you can make it complex: is it an inswing or an outswing, is it a yorker or a bouncer? You can keep on adding layers of complexity to the game and this applies to your life too. But if you are honest to yourself, you will take good decisions.

  7. What can India do to become a good sporting nation?

    You can't get results with a short-term approach to sports. Money doesn't directly translate into gold medals in the Olympics. How it works is that nations have to build infrastructure, provide nutritional information and then spot talented athletes, supporting them financially and with first-class training, coaching and scientific expertise.

    To become a great sporting nation you can't be result-oriented. We also can't watch more sport than we play. You have to educate and draw young people into sports. When we were growing up I played at least five sports: football, cricket, badminton, hockey, table tennis. When I interact with children in school nowadays and ask who plays football? There are a lot of hands. Then I point out that I am not referring to playing FIFA online. Immediately a lot of hands go down. Parents are happy sometimes to let their children play video games all the time, but they must think of their child's fitness. If you don't play any sports when you are young, you are not going to pick it up at 30. If you play sports you will do better in your academics. It is important for schools and parents to push for sports and that is how we will win medals in the Olympics. With enough passion for sports I am sure we can become a good sporting nation.

  8. What did you think of the biopic?

    It's a deeply emotional movie. I was shown the unedited, raw footage without a soundtrack and was stunned. Silent. All these things that had happened so long ago suddenly became vivid — where I lived, my school, where we played. I went blank. It was nice to be in the past for a moment.



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Rohini Roy
Love this interview with Dhoni. So much to learn from him about keeping cool under pressure and channeling criticism.
17 October 2016

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