MS Dhoni: Indian cricket's first mega-brand

Rajdeep Sardesai's new book looks at, among other things, the man who ushered in the era of the all-powerful player agent

Rajdeep Sardesai
MS Dhoni's shadow falls upon an advertising campaign board as he announces the details of the city's second Fashion Week in Kolkata, August 13, 2009

MS Dhoni: camera-friendly but media-shy  •  AFP

It wasn't just his on-field showing that was under the scanner; the IPL spot-fixing scandal that broke in 2013 brought Dhoni under scrutiny too. He was accused of protecting his Chennai team owner and then BCCI president N. Srinivasan's son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan, who was arrested in a betting case. Dhoni was also vice president in Srinivasan's company India Cements, leading to accusations of 'conflict of interest'. Would it not be difficult for the India captain to testify against the BCCI president's son-in-law when he was also a vice president in the BCCI chief's company? Meiyappan was routinely in the Chennai Super Kings dugout during matches. Dhoni was accused of not revealing the true extent of his involvement in the team before a Supreme Court-appointed panel that was investigating the betting and spot-fixing scandal. 'Let me tell you, it is an absolute lie that I told a probe panel that Meiyappan was only a cricket enthusiast, all I said is he had nothing to do with the team's on-field cricketing decisions. I can't even pronounce the word "enthusiast",' he says with a touch of sarcasm. A Supreme Court committee didn't buy the attempt to delink Meiyappan from CSK. In 2015, the team was suspended from the IPL for two years and Meiyappan banned for life from any involvement in cricket matches.
An unapologetic Dhoni defends his equation with Srinivasan, claiming that the former board chief was a true supporter of Indian cricket. 'I really don't care what people say, I found Srinivasan as someone who was always there to help cricketers,' he argues. Dhoni's loyalty to the former BCCI chief is revealing. It suggests a strong personality who is not swayed easily by criticism. But it also exposes Dhoni to the charge that under the outward image of rustic innocence lurks a sharp political mind. 'Make no mistake, Dhoni knows which way the wind is blowing, he knows how to manoeuvre his way through the BCCI's corridors of power when required,' says a board official.
The Dhoni-Srinivasan relationship had blossomed during the early IPL years when he was picked for the Chennai Super Kings. It looked to be an unusual equation; an iconic player from a Hindi-speaking state was now Chennai's favourite son. The 'Whistle podu' team song had earned Dhoni a new legion of fans across the Vindhyas, a genuine connect that highlighted how India too was slowly shedding its linguistic parochialism. A Hindi-speaking hero was now a pin-up boy in a Tamil-dominated city.
'It was a bit like those Hindi films, boy from north meets girl from south and falls in love,' laughs Dhoni. Like the team song, Chennai's cricket too was a superhit; the IPL franchise won two titles and reached the finals on three occasions in the tournament's first six years. 'The people of Chennai are serious cricket followers. Dhoni embraced our cricket culture so readily he really was the fulcrum of our team's success. We gifted him a bike when he joined CSK and he would take it for a spin, stop at traffic lights and just smile at passers-by,' recalls Srinivasan. The former board president tells me that when Dhoni once invited him to his house in Ranchi, he ensured masala dosa was on the menu. 'We appreciated his cricket, he gave us respect in turn, what is wrong with that?' asks Srinivasan.
"Don't get taken in by his soft-spoken nature. When it comes to financial dealings, Dhoni can be ruthless. He even put the Ranchi police on to me and my family when we fell out"
Sports marketing consultant Jeet Banerjee
But there are persistent accusations that Chennai players were given special privileges by the cricket board during the IPL. Lalit Modi claims that Srinivasan arm-twisted him into allowing Dhoni to be retained as Chennai's Icon Player in 2010 without being put through an auction. 'It was illegal since Icon Player status was meant to be only for the first three years of the IPL and yet Srinivasan was allowed to get away with it,' says Modi. Veteran cricketer Mohinder Amarnath tells me that as national selector in 2012 he wanted to drop Dhoni as captain but Srinivasan shielded him. 'We were told that the board president and not the selectors will decide who the India captain is,' says Amarnath. 'Yes, it is true that I vetoed the decision to drop Dhoni as captain. How can you drop someone as captain within a year of his lifting the World Cup?' argues the former BCCI president.
Srinivasan's admission that he did veto the attempt to remove Dhoni as captain is significant. It only confirms that the India captain and the cricket board chief had a 'special' relationship that went well beyond the normal player-official equation. From an earlier era where players were subservient to the board, Indian cricket had entered an age where 'star' players called the shots and board officials were happy to pamper them. 'What you call favouritism I say is my respect for a top class cricketer's achievements,' says Srinivasan sharply.
The Dhoni-Srinivasan 'friendship' extends to off-field financial benefits. In 2013 details emerged of how Rhiti Sports, a sports management company in which Dhoni had a large stake, was handling the contracts of both CSK and India players, leading to serious conflict of interest charges. That a captain who had an influence over team selection was also the owner of a management agency representing players is further evidence of how 'star' players in Indian cricket could now get away with tweaking the system for personal advantage. Rhiti Sports was also allowed a share in the endorsement deals signed by CSK as its marketing agents.
Rhiti had been set up by Dhoni in partnership with Arun Pandey, a close friend from his Bihar Ranji Trophy days. Pandey is a brawny, paan-chewing toughie from Varanasi who acts as Dhoni's personal gatekeeper and now handles all of his businesses. By 2014, the business empire was large enough for Dhoni to be listed as the fifth most valuable sports brand, with his annual earnings pegged at $30 million and endorsements valued at $26 million. 'Apart from managing more than two dozen cricketers, we now have our own sports shoe brand called 7; lifestyle apparel, gymnasiums, football, hockey and super-bike franchise investments,' says Pandey.
The diversified portfolio suggests that Dhoni is an astute businessman but the cricketer insists that money doesn't drive him at all. 'I have more than I will ever need for one life. All these investments are handled by Arun and others, I don't have any role to play,' he claims. But Kolkata-based sports marketing consultant Jeet Banerjee, who once managed the cricketer's contracts and with whom Dhoni fought a messy court battle, argues that the former India captain is hard-nosed in contractual negotiations. 'Don't get taken in by his soft-spoken nature. When it comes to financial dealings, Dhoni can be ruthless. He even put the Ranchi police on to me and my family when we fell out,' he warns.
The player-agent equation is a more recent trend in Indian cricket. When Farokh Engineer advertised for Brylcreem in the 1960s, he claims to have negotiated a decent 2000-pound contract on his own. Even Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, the two big stars of the seventies, didn't have agents to assist them in framing advertising contracts. The transformation came with the rise of the Tendulkar brand in the 1990s, Dhoni just took it to another level. 'Player agents are a new power centre in Indian cricket,' a board official tells me. 'They can sometimes dictate terms on behalf of their client.'
But perhaps the most troubling moment for Dhoni came in 2013-14 with the insinuation that he was involved in 'fixing' IPL matches. 'That is where I really have to draw the line. Please criticize me but how can you accuse me of something like fixing a cricket game after all that the game has given me. For mediapersons to say things like "there can be no smoke without fire" is crazy. That is why I don't want to even talk to the media,' he says.
The relationship between Dhoni and the media has been a peculiar one. No cricketer with the exception of Tendulkar has been so celebrated since the turn of the century, and yet no other player has so deliberately stayed away from the media whirl. No interviews, one-line staccato answers in press conferences, the odd witticism; Dhoni has managed to keep the prying media at bay. 'You can call it my "satyagraha" against the media. I don't want to speak when I do badly. I won't speak when I do well either, the media can write what they wish,' he emphasizes. After the World Twenty20 semi-final loss in 2016, when an Australian journalist asked him about retirement, Dhoni invited the journalist on to the podium and then cheekily told him, 'If you were an Indian, then maybe I would have asked you whether you have a son or a brother who is a wicketkeeper and can take my place.' As Dhoni smiled, the press lounge burst into laughter.
'Sometimes it is best to meet criticism with humour,' says Dhoni.
Is the irreverence simply a mask to hide the real Dhoni, or is this part of a well-considered strategy to keep the fans on his side? There is undoubtedly an air of mystery, an enigmatic edge due to his sheer inaccessibility. This is a cricket superstar who lives a shadow-like existence, who rarely keeps a mobile with him, or even if he does, won't respond to calls or SMSes. (When he became a father just ahead of the 2015 World Cup, he wasn't carrying a mobile so his wife sent an SMS through his close cricket mate Suresh Raina to inform him of the new born!). Many Dhoni fans believe that an incident in 2007 when India lost the World Cup and his house in Ranchi was targeted was the turning point. 'Actually, it was a new house that we were constructing so no one was living there. Some people entered and just pushed a few bricks that we had laid out for the construction, that's all. But yes, it deeply affected my family. Now, you can visit my parents, they will give you chai, but won't speak to the press any longer,' he says.
Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from Democracy's XI by Rajdeep Sardesai, available in bookstores and on www.juggernaut.in

Rajdeep Sardesai is consulting editor and lead news anchor with India Today TV. He played first-class cricket for Oxford University