When you arrived in the international scene, I never really thought that I will be penning this letter. A non-descript cricketer with glamorous long hair, hailing all the way from Ranchi, making his debut against Bangladesh and failing miserably, what else could have been a more ludicrous start to one’s career?
You still managed to retain your spot in the national team in the following series, thanks to some ugly howlers from the remaining wicket-keepers whose mediocre flair behind the stumps evoked nothing but sigh. Saurav still had his faith in you, I didn’t. However, the Pakistan series was the first time that you proved me wrong, when you smashed that blistering century against our arch-rivals. Everyone around me who were cricketing fanatics gave in to your awe. That was just the beginning.
Finally arrived that glorious moment where you would cement your place in the national team. It was a day prior to diwali and India was up against their neighbours, Sri Lanka.
India was chasing a steep target of 299 and we already had our best hope in Tendulkar removed. You came in at number three and I honestly didn’t have many expectations from you either. That is when it all began. It started raining boundaries and sixes. The Sri Lankan bowlers were thrown into arrant disarray as you navigated your way through a maze of those nasty deliveries hurled at you. A target considered to be way too much for India to chase in those days, seemed like straw in front of a cyclone. You were the cyclone that the Islanders couldn’t comprehend. You were the first spark of firecrackers that came before we started taking out the real ones from the box. That was also the first time you bagged the man of the series award and your Grade B contract.
You always had a proclivity of taking your batting flair a notch higher when you were up against our arch-rivals, Pakistan. The 2006 series was no exception to this dogmatic rule of yours. You started the series with another blitzkreig knock of yours which went in the lost cause and my perennial ire against Duckworth Lewis method made me scream the dirtiest abuses, I could while being a kid.
I slowly started growing a love and hate relationship with you. Being from a conservative family, my parents were so against me sporting long hair, but as I started falling in love with you, your style mesmerized me even more as you would have whacked those sixes with your hair flowing like a burning cascade. At the same time, my hatred for you grew too, as it was not possible for a human being to be the same athlete day in day out. That is what made me riled even further. What have we done that we couldn’t savour those exotic sixes from you on a regular basis?
The third match of the Pakistan series was another day to be happy for us, the zealots of the new era witnessed you taking Pakistan for a ride with a lightning fast 72 that saw India going ahead 2-1 in the series.
In the final match of the series you amazed us all with another blistering 77 that was the harbinger of something titanic coming up in the ranks of India. It only took you 42 innings to climb to the pole position on ODI rankings when you toppled India’s evergreen antagonist, Ricky Ponting, the man who killed a thousand Indian hopes in 2003. Though it was just for a week, you still managed to hang in there unless your idol surpassed you. How great that does feel, MS?
Finally the colossal moment of your breakthrough arrived as India was chosen to play for the T-20 World Cup, a format of the game in which we were untested and we had to surprise the world. Honestly, that was also the moment when you chose to leave our favourites out of the team. I, one of your most ardent followers started abhorring you for this drastic decision. The men who brought you to limelight, honed into you what you were, you scraped them like bare minimum pushovers. It hurt. After all, the fans survive with their soft little emotions.
What we failed to notice was the bigger picture of the T-20 cricket. Not realizing the fact that this format of the game was one of the most torturous and it need fitness a lot more than it needed talent. As time passed and India started slaying one opponent after the other, we realized that how big of a stone you had to keep on your heart to take in all that hatred from the fans only to see the nation excel.
You weren’t something great in the tournament when it came to individual flair but that crucial knock against South Africa that boosted the Indian morale towards the end of their innings and that ingenious stroke of captaincy behind the stumps, left your firebrands in sheer adulation of you. A bunch of misfits, rebels, callow youngsters, somewhat experienced campaigners and a management simply not willing to believe, came together, embraced your leadership and went on to stun the world.
You were on the rise and the year 2009 was simply a springboard that glided its way to your feet as you were handed over the prestigious role of an Indian captain for the shorter format of the game. You came, you saw and the last part was still to be said.
When that young brigade of yours dumped Australia head on in their den and managed to claim the CB Series that was the mark of your rise as a leader. India arrived in their home to play the 2011 World Cup.
A team that was a perfect blend of experience and youth, you led them from the front. Spanning from a thumping victory over our neighbours Bangladesh, to getting our rear handed over to us by an extremely pathetic showdown against South Africa, you once again had the Indian crowds rising against you. That decision of yours to make Nehra bowl in the final over against the Proteas in the final over, defending 13 runs, backfired and the board started looking for scapegoats, you were their prime.
However, you taught the team to bite the bullet and staged a stronger comeback in the following games, thanks to some blistering knocks from Sachin, Sehwag and Yuvraj. You didn’t really smash it big unless the monumental moment arrived. It was the final and India was teetering on the brink of imminent collapse as the Sri Lankan bowlers ran riots. You came ahead of Yuvraj and started weathering the initial storm to set up what would have been a rip-roaring and a befitting ending to a high-octane thriller.
Perera, Kulasekara, Muralitharan and Malinga, they were all made to bite the dust as you rode your way to the top, smashing the telling blow to the Sri Lankan hopes and taking India beyond the finishing line. Sachin’s incomplete dream of lifting the World Cup came alive through your magical arms.
Up next from your archives of specialties was India’s coup in the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy. When everyone gave up hopes of clinching the third ICC event under your leadership, you pulled off a miracle by introducing the most unexpected bowler of all, Ishant Sharma. Mahi, you were always about surprises.
The last surprise of all came when you battled until the end like a true warrior, stabilizing India’s ship in the face of an imminent collapse in the 2019 World Cup semi-final against the Kiwis and bowed out of the world’s grandest stage of all like a hero.
We would never see you roll up your sleeves again and walk out to the middle. We would never again tell the unfaithful that hold on to your verdict, Dhoni is still there. We won’t witness those flash stumpings again. We won’t cherish your phlegmatic face with those nerves of steel, leading India to glory again. I won’t really say, thank you Mahi for all the things that you have done. I would just like to tell you that if I ever meet you on the other side, there will only be one request from my end. Lets ride our way out of this hell on those helicopter shots of yours.
A Mahi faithful…