"from 1929 hrs consider me as Retired"
These words need to be reproduced as is. If he thinks the "retired" at the end of a sentence should have a capital R, so be it. Don't remove the rogue "as". Posterity won't care for all this. For thus ended the most incredible India career ever. Just like that. Why this career is the most incredible is for another day to expand on, but this "announcement" will at least explain one part of it.
That MS Dhoni was done was a foregone conclusion once the Covid-19 pandemic pushed this year's T20 World Cup to the next year. That was a bridge too far for even Dhoni. He would be 40 by then. He last played any official cricket in July 2019, when he had just turned 38. Even the most ardent of Dhoni fans had stopped hoping. Yet there remained one final question: How would he still manage to surprise everyone with his announcement?
Surely not in the middle of a pandemic? Not just before starting training for the IPL? Possibly after it. Who knows, with the trophy in hand? You and I were all wrong.
I, for one, thought he would never announce it. I can't claim to know the man - nor do I know anyone who can make such a claim without second-guessing themselves a little - but I have experience of working at the matches he played.
On the penultimate day of the year 2014, Dhoni ended a routine post-match press conference as India's captain trying to rebuff an analogy that India's tail was like a Doberman's to Australia's Hanuman-like appendage, which India had failed to dislodge. "Now even PETA has said you can't cosmetically remove the tail," Dhoni said.
We all had a laugh and went back to filing our pieces only to see, 44 minutes later, a BCCI press release saying India's winningest Test captain, most successful wicketkeeper and most prolific keeper-batsman had retired from Test cricket mid-series. No farewell match, no announcement, gone. Just like that.
"How would he still manage to surprise everyone with his announcement? Surely not in the middle of a pandemic? Not just before starting training for the IPL? Possibly after it. Who knows, with the trophy in hand? You and I were all wrong."
It was not as if something had happened on his walk from the press conference to the team dressing room that made Dhoni's mind up. He knew he was done, but he still did two interviews without saying anything about his future. We all look at things in hindsight, and attach significance now to three events from that day. After a long time, he was again diving in front of first slip in this Test, a sight that had become rare even though other aspects of his wicketkeeping remained top notch. Then, after what turned out to be a comfortably drawn Test, Dhoni had actually plucked out a stump to keep as souvenir, which he usually did only after winning. And finally, on the sidelines of the post-match presentation, he was seen talking on the phone, which he has never done before on a cricket field. We can only assume he was speaking to N Srinivasan in Chennai, to at least let the board president know.
If you are interested, Mitchell Johnson bowled a bewitching slower ball to end Cheteshwar Pujara's resistance, but couldn't break through India's resolve on a dead drop-in MCG pitch. It didn't matter now. No other story mattered.
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Melbourne is a city of four seasons in one day. A sunny hot afternoon had given way to a chilly evening. Shivering while walking on the William Barrack bridge to get to the team hotel to find out more, I remember feeling wistful. Dhoni had become a habit. He had been a sensational player for India. Even in Tests, which wasn't probably his favoured format. We were going to miss him. It was getting colder, and going to rain anytime soon. By the time I got to the other side of the bridge, I was smiling to myself, and it was not the effect of piped chants from all over the world that you hear on the bridge.
If Dhoni didn't want to make such a big deal of it, why should we, I thought. A couple of players who walked out of the hotel for dinner told me and two other journalists they were just as shocked as us when he gathered them just as they were all packed up and ready to board the bus. Last year, Wriddhiman Saha told me that Dhoni had kept it brief and told them that he saw that team staying together for a long time, and that it was now their duty to take Indian Test cricket forward.
Dhoni's relinquishing of his limited-overs captaincy in 2017 was also similarly prosaic. A press release landed in our inboxes with the announcement but without a word from Dhoni himself. The BCCI CEO spoke more about the decision than the man himself. Never mind that it led to speculation over whether he had jumped before being pushed.
By then we knew Dhoni was a man who didn't see, or didn't want others to see, his to be a public job. He possibly felt acknowledging the gravity of it would only weigh him down, and thus keep him from giving it his best. This wasn't a job or station that he craved, rather took upon as a responsibility. So he didn't like being questioned. He didn't like explaining himself.
Even during the 2013 IPL corruption scandal, he didn't seek to clear his name when it was dragged into the controversy. He found it insulting to go out there and make a show of his love and commitment for cricket and Indian cricket. He was fond of the "enigma" tag that stuck with him. He was not bound by worldly convention that you let your close friends know beforehand so that they don't find out through media that you have retired. He didn't seem particularly emotionally attached to a job that made him what he was, that took the prime of his life, one that he was surely going to miss.
As captain, Dhoni enjoyed unflinching support from the BCCI president. And cricket enjoyed unflinching patronage from the public. So he did the bare minimum by way of public relations. He made, through BCCI releases, announcements that absolutely needed to be made. If Dhoni hadn't turned up for the New Year's SCG Test, or if suddenly Virat Kohli had become India's ODI captain, people would have WTF-ed.
Which is exactly why I made the mistake of assuming Dhoni wouldn't announce his retirement and would just slowly disappear. Just like he prefers. People have been speculating over his future for more than a year now. It has made no difference to him or Indian cricket except perhaps made his successors a little insecure. Then again, if a 39-year-old not announcing his retirement makes you insecure while you have all the chances to make that slot your own, then maybe you are in the wrong profession.
I didn't see any reason for Dhoni to make any announcement. He didn't owe the BCCI or anybody an explanation now. Nobody has any right to demand a retirement announcement anyway. I will be shocked if he needs to, or wants to, play in any other league at this age. The world was slowly moving on.
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There can be only one reason why he made this announcement: that he cared more than he liked to admit or let us know. The montage that he announced it through is rough around the edges, but it is earnest. If it is tacky to some, it only unwittingly hides the emotion of the message. The choice of photos is instructive. It starts with the lows of a debut duck and early World Cup ouster in 2007, goes on to the highs of the three ICC titles and No. 1 ranking in Tests before ending with the poignant frame of his getting run out in the World Cup semi-final. India fell short that day. Dhoni never played again.
The Bollywood song to go with the montage says, "I am only a momentary poet. These few moments define who I am, they tell my whole story. That just like there was a poet before me, there will be many more after me, better than me."
Typically it has left things open to speculation. Dhoni's IPL team's Twitter handle suggests he chose the cryptic time so as to end his career on India's Independence Day at the exact time that the sun sets on its southernmost tip. Why not west, I ask, where the sun logically sets. Again, why am I using logic here?
As someone not good with farewells, I can imagine why Dhoni made the announcement moments before his first training session for his IPL team. Whatever havoc was being wreaked by his notifications was not his problem now. There was no BCCI or formality to take care of. Not that newspapers have ever managed to reach him, but there was extra guarantee of there being fewer editions the next day because of Independence Day. He was in a bio-secure and a PR-secure zone now.
On the way Dhoni has told us he cared. Damn, MS, that it mattered to you so much makes me question my reconciliation with your Test retirement on that chilly evening.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo