MS Dhoni, the international cricketer, has been written about in-depth time and time again. But what of the cricketer away from the international scene? What was he like on the field before he made his India debut and rocketed up the charts? What did he offer later, when he quit Test cricket and started playing domestic cricket once again? ESPNcricinfo spoke to a selection of his seniors, contemporaries and juniors to get a sense of the player away from the spotlight.
The 'down to earth' superstar
Adil Hussain, former Bihar captain: I met him last 18 months ago, he had come home for dinner. I was excited, but when I met him, he was like "aap itna excited kyun ho, main koi mehmaan nahi hoon. Hamara ghar hi to hai." [Why are you so excited. I'm not a guest, this is like my own house]. He never lets anyone feel he is the star attraction even if he is.
Amir Hashmi, former Bihar player who played age-group cricket with Dhoni and debuted alongside with him in the Ranji Trophy in 2000: He was always a cool-headed person, never got much angry, never showed "attitude". He's down to earth now too. We had met in Ranchi sometime after India won the World Cup and it didn't feel like we were meeting a superstar, it was like we were meeting the same Dhoni we had played with. I can tell you that from his young days, one of the big problems with him was he would never pick up the phone (chuckles). Like if we called his hotel room when we were on a tour, he wouldn't pick up the phone. His room partner had to. We used to share rooms then. From the start, he didn't like being too much on the phone.
He likes players to be in his room, chatting and all. Travel-wise, if he didn't have any commitment elsewhere, he would travel with the team. There are no airs about him.
Shahbaz Nadeem, current Jharkhand player: We played Ranji Trophy and Under-25 together before he made his India debut. He was a very simple, normal kind of person, liked to crack jokes. I don't think there was any particular change in him when he came back and played domestic cricket with us [after his Test retirement]. Just that he would give us more inputs later on, especially during the game. But as a person, he remained the same. He would stay and travel with the team. He came with us in the train from Ranchi to Kolkata too. Not like there was lots of security too, just a couple of guys and us team-mates and the team manager and some people from the association. It was an overnight journey. If he wanted to, he could have taken a flight but he preferred to travel with us. He knows every player by name, his strengths and weaknesses.
Ishank Jaggi, current Jharkhand player: When he played with the team, he stayed in the same hotel as the team. He likes players to be in his room, chatting and all. Travel-wise, if he didn't have any commitment elsewhere, he would travel with the team. There are no airs about him. He was always ready to help anyone out, and anyone had the freedom to go and speak to him about the game. After a stressful day he would come and tell us, "chalo, ab FIFA khelenge" (come, let's play the FIFA video game). And four of us [Dhoni, Jaggi, Ishan Kishan and Pratyush Singh] would go play.
The raw talent
Saba Karim, part of the selection committee that fast-tracked Dhoni: I was part of a selection panel, chaired by Ashok Malhotra, for Bihar cricket. I had heard from a few people there about how he [Dhoni] had destroyed a strong Punjab Under-19 team [in the earlier season] and was quite excited to see him play.
He always came prepared for meetings; he had in his mind an XI or XV that he felt would be needed on the park or in the dressing room, and would fight [for it] with his logic.
His fearless attitude stood out. East Zone wasn't the strongest side, but even when he played against other quality sides, he would play his own game. I remember watching him tonk Ashish Nehra in a Duleep Trophy game against North Zone, where I think he either opened or went one drop. He was under no pressure. Around that time, Deep Dasgupta used to keep and MS played as a batsman. Because his batting was so good, he started changing the dynamics and used to be picked to keep for better balance.
The turning point for him was the remarkable India A tour to Nairobi in 2004. It was midway through that series that Dinesh Karthik earned a national call-up, and MS got his chance to keep. Javagal Srinath, Atul Wassan and I were commentators there, and in a game against Pakistan A, that had the likes of Misbah-ul-Haq and Kamran Akmal, he made an extraordinary century. His dominance stood out and all of us in the commentary box felt that his game was tailor-made for the one-day team.
Nadeem: I still remember one game in Chennai [Bengaluru], when we were playing an Under-25 game against Tamil Nadu in 2003. He made 68 or something  in that match, and all his runs were in fours or sixes. No singles. From that match, we started feeling that this is someone special. In the next season, we played together in the Ranji Trophy, it was my debut season. There, too, he was smashing the bowling. He used to open the batting sometimes then and I still remember there was one match in which we were about 110 for no loss and Dhoni bhaiyya was batting on 105! [Nadeem is most likely referring to Jharkhand's Plate Group semi-final against Haryana. Dhoni didn't open then though, but he dominated the fourth-wicket stand entirely while hitting 109 off 75 balls, with the scoring proportions in the partnership similar to what Nadeem describes.]
Hussain: I was captaining Bihar and Central Coal Fields Limited. Around 1997-98, the company decided to give out sports scholarships for promising players. Just around that time, this boy called Mahendra, who everyone called Mahi, had made a double-century in a school tournament. He didn't speak much then, but you could see he was confident and determined. He was built well and could hit them a long way even in the nets. In 1998-99, we went to Lucknow to play in a local tournament called Sheesh Mahal Trophy. There were a number of India players who played for different teams - Debasis Mohanty, Amit Bhandari, T Kumaran, even Manoj Prabhakar. Sitting outside, we used to feel "oh, an India player is playing", but he had no such worries. He hit all of them for big sixes in that tournament. If he made 50 runs, you would know he had hit at least four or five sixes. That was his reputation then.
Hashmi: His batting abilities were different, which is why we felt even then that he had the potential to do something big, even though his performances at the domestic level were not as "heavy" as they were to be at the international level. And his hitting ability... he used to break a lot of bats in the nets, he would hit so hard. He was a specialist at that (laughs). Nobody wanted to lend him their bats, because people used to say "if we give Dhoni the bat, he'll break it!"
Karim: I was a selector for four years when MS was captain and it was remarkable to see him discuss the finer aspects of the game. He always came prepared for meetings; he had in his mind an XI or XV that he felt would be needed on the park or in the dressing room, and would fight [for it] with his logic. I won't say we gave in but we absorbed whatever he said. He was open to new players coming in when he felt some of the seniors were not doing well. He was clear and precise in his demands.
Gautam Gambhir was part of the Delhi team. At that time, his leg used to go a bit across and Dhoni was the one who picked up on it. He told the bowler to change his plan, and we got Gambhir's wicket because of that.
Jaggi: We were playing against Saurashtra at Eden Gardens and it was a newly-laid wicket. It had really low scores for a while. I think we got all out for 120-130 . But the way he rotated the bowlers, the field setting - normally for such scores you need a miracle to win in one-dayers especially, but only he could pull it off. And we won. The way he was telling each bowler, "bowl to this batsman here, to that one there", he was reading the batsmen really well. And the bowlers responded accordingly. That game only he could have pulled off as a captain. Of course, the bowlers had to deliver, but the decision-making of which bowler to bowl when, to which batsman, and the field setting... we know how that win came.
Hashmi: Before the [Cooch Behar Trophy] final against Punjab, the semi-final we played against Delhi, and Gautam Gambhir was part of the Delhi team. At that time, his leg used to go a bit across and Dhoni was the one who picked up on it. He told the bowler to change his plan, and we got Gambhir's wicket because of that. Gambhir was one of Delhi's key players then too.
Nadeem: He doesn't talk much about my bowling, more about what I can do in particular situations. It's not about changing my bowling, but in dealing with situations. For example, in a Vijay Hazare Trophy match against Hyderabad, one of the left-handers [B Sandeep] was sweeping me every ball for a single. I was bowling around the wicket. Then I came over the wicket and he stopped playing the sweep shot. Then Mahi bhai came and told me to come from around the wicket again, but bowl a yorker first ball. So I did that and he got bowled while going for the sweep. See, bowling a yorker or a particular ball is not that tough, but to bowl it at the right time is the more important thing. That is how you get wickets. That is where he came in.