Of my near-endless litany of complaints with the IPL, one has been the purely personal displeasure at seeing cricketers indulge in the sort of drama usually reserved for the football field. Seeing my favourite RP Singh take a wicket and then raise his finger to his lips to shush the crowd really did stick in my craw. You could argue that the stiff-upper-lip traditions of cricket have been eroding for a long time and were never all that impeccable in the first place; you could argue that the days of upper-class Englishmen setting the norms for sportsmanlike behavior are dead and rightly so; you could argue that it was context-dependent; you could argue that it's unfair to expect young men not to give in to expectations at a tense moment, when said expectations clearly demand visible drama the way the IPL has from start to finish.
I don't buy it. There is an argument that the idea of the stoic sportsman is classist and culturally irrelevant, sure; but it's not like chest-thumping, shirt-waving histrionics are really blazing new trails in masculine behaviour. I'm part of the "new India," and I don't think the depressingly badly-behaved Sreesanth or the clearly troubled Harbhajan, with their aggro melodrama, represent me and my place in the world any better than the old order of cricketer ever did [Although the quiet, dignified Tendulkars and Kumbles of the world are rather better representation than I deserve, perhaps.]
All this grumping is to say: I loved Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the end of the IPL final this Sunday night, which his team lost by a hair's breadth to the Rajasthan Royals. The man was brilliant. It becomes more and more difficult to describe him without being reductive: somehow he can typify all the commonly-held beliefs about him - that he's the small-town kid who's made it big, the tough guy with a big heart, the stoic hero, the inspirational captain, and so on - without conforming to any one of them. Given the general emotional tenor of the IPL it's not difficult to imagine someone in his position acting less than graciously. [Two words: Saurav Ganguly.] From Dhoni there was no petulance, no recrimination, not even a show of anger or disappointment. While the Royals were exploding with joy in the middle, Dhoni stood by for a while, then gathered his team around him and went into a huddle, to emerge from it with exactly the same expression he'd worn for most of the game, one of calm self-confidence. It was the face of a man who isn't satisfied with his lot, but refuses to be ashamed anyway. He was neither maganimous nor offhand about his loss, but he treated it with the superb level-headedness of a man who really believes that cricket is a game. You can't do your sport more credit than to really acknowledge and respect that, can you?
I don't know if chance or destiny will allow Dhoni to become India's Mike Brearley, but I feel more and more secure about the future of the expensively-assembled Team India rollercoaster, knowing it's in this man's safe hands.
[Full disclosure: I know Dhoni. Which is to say, I've spent three nights in the same hotel as he did. My friend & I spent a significant amount of our waking hours sneaking around keeping a watch out for his then cack-coloured hair and perpetual you-cannot-be-serious look. (He'd just come back from the disastrous World Cup campaign in the Caribbean.) Future generations of angry nuns will hear affecting tales of the unique and touching moment in the lives of the angry abbess and the legendary wicket-keeper and India captain.]
[YES, I watched the final. And the semi-finals. I did it for Shane Warne, okay? I did it for Shane Warne.]