MS Dhoni recently travelled in train with his Jharkhand teammates for Vijay Hazare Trophy matches in Kolkata. © MS Dhoni/Twitter

MS Dhoni recently travelled in a train with the Jharkhand players and support staffers for the state’s Vijay Hazare Trophy matches in Kolkata. © MS Dhoni/Twitter

Don Bradman. Virender Sehwag. Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Common thread? Bruising batsmanship, of course. The innate gift of entertaining with a cricket bat in hand, the first one with relentless obsession, we are told, the other two with a more carefree but no less well-thought-out approach in the modern era of heavy willows and innovative craftsmanship.

These are also men who have put their town/locality/city on the cricketing landscape. Often, a person’s identity is embellished by where he comes from. With these three gentlemen, it’s the other way round.

Would the cricketing world have celebrated Bowral, for instance, had the Don not hailed from there? Would anyone beyond the immediate vicinity of Najafgarh have even heard of that little pocket in India’s national capital had the Nawab of Najafgarh not unleashed his mayhem on unsuspecting bowlers from all parts of the cricketing stratosphere?

And, what would Ranchi’s standing have been as a cricketing entity had the man with the once flowing locks, the twirling blade and the still intact nerves of steel not burst through with an impact as telling as it was exhilarating?

Where Dhoni scores over Bradman – pardon the blasphemy – and Sehwag is in inspiring young men from his city through his deeds. One will be hard pressed to name another famous name from Bowral, another cricketing hero from Najafgarh, and that is no discredit to either the greatest cricketer ever or to India’s first Test triple-centurion. But you look at Jharkhand as a whole, and the emergence of this once cricketing outpost into a competitive domestic unit is hard to miss.

The Dhoni effect in this gradually developing second-tier cricketing city isn’t ubiquitously obvious. It is not as if wherever you turn, there is the former India captain, smiling down benevolently from billboards and cut-outs. In fact, there are almost as many images of Virat Kohli, of course, but also of Saurabh Tiwary and the unlikely figure of Muttiah Muralitharan that dot the roads as there are of Dhoni bhaiyya. While seeing is oftentimes believing, the Dhoni impact here is more to be experienced than seen.

A close friend narrates this story with no little relish. Some four and a half years back, as he first visited Ranchi to report on a One-Day International, he made a beeline for Dhoni’s house – ‘just to soak in the atmosphere’. It’s the kind of destination for which you don’t really need an address. So he flagged an autorickshaw down, and simply told the driver, ‘Dhoni ke ghar jaana hai’. “He just broke into the broadest of smiles,” the friend recalls. “A little bit of friendly haggling, and we were on our way. Along the route, he would slow down near an auto stand where his pals were hanging around. Or cut very close to a tea stall. And proudly proclaim, ‘Dhoni ke ghar jaa raha hoon, saab ko leke’. And not for a second did he stop smiling.”

It’s not one of those tales that is embellished with time, that grows a life of its own the more times it is repeated. It doesn’t have to, because even two-and-a-half years after his retirement from Test cricket, and two-and-a-half months after his resignation as India’s limited-overs captain, the Dhoni aura hasn’t diminished one bit.

We were waiting for our bags to arrive at the Birsa Munda airport the other day, having just endured a semi-turbulent flight from Bangalore. Said friend and I were discussing travel durations and traffic and the availability of cabs, etc, what with Anil Kumble’s press conference scheduled an hour and a bit later. Out of nowhere, a wisp of a lad pushing a trolley told us, ‘Lekin Dhoni bhaiyya to yahaan nahin hain, Dilli chale gaye khelne’. It wasn’t that he wasn’t aware that Test cricket in Ranchi was less than 48 hours away from its debut, that Kohli and his band had already set stall in town; it is just that the sport here is so inextricably intertwined with Dhoni that sometimes, it is easy – and not just for the locals – to lose sight of the larger picture.

On his part, Dhoni has reciprocated the love and affection and attention and respect that Ranchi has showered on him. While other cricketers have often left their roots and moved to bigger cities in pursuit of a more fulfilling, more inclusive lifestyle, the man who has believed in creating his own paths has continued to live here even during the hustle and bustle of non-stop international cricket. “Kahin bhi reh sakte hai but ghar toh ek hi jagah hota hai,” he has said more than once. If home is where the heart is, Ranchi-ites need not fear; Dhoni bhaiyya is not going anywhere in a hurry.

Where Dhoni scores over Bradman – pardon the blasphemy – and Sehwag is in inspiring young men from his city through his deeds. One will be hard pressed to name another famous name from Bowral, another cricketing hero from Najafgarh, and that is no discredit to either the greatest cricketer ever or to India’s first Test triple-centurion. But you look at Jharkhand as a whole, and the emergence of this once cricketing outpost into a competitive domestic unit is hard to miss.

Over the last few years, Jharkhand have repeatedly walked on an equal footing with the established big boys of the country, the traditional powerhouses such as Mumbai and Karnataka, Delhi and Tamil Nadu. They no longer carry that hangdog look; they don’t believe anymore that they are simply making up the numbers. Dhoni didn’t play for Jharkhand for several years more out of compulsion than choice, but his deeds had acted as a stirring inspiration to a young new generation that, to its credit, hasn’t just seen the riches Dhoni has enjoyed but also the route he took to superstardom, with an unyielding focus on solid work ethic and an earthy grounding that, for all its simplicity, is a complex facet to imbibe. Now that he is a part of the limited-overs squads, his impact is bound to be even more profound.

Already, Varun Aaron and Saurabh Tiwary have represented India, if only with limited success. Ishank Jaggi and Shahbaz Nadeem have been there and thereabouts for a long time now, while Ishan Kishan is setting stall as one for the future, an exciting wicketkeeper-batsman with a range of strokes that would do his hero proud. These are individuals – a preferred Dhoni word – with immense talent and they might have taken the next step even on their own, but when there is a path to follow and a trail that has already been blazed, the road becomes a little less arduous. In Dhoni, they have found the perfect role model, a true-blooded Jharkhandi, an everyday Ranchi-ite who has sent out the right messages without feeling the need to scream from the rooftops.

As Dhoni winds the clock down on a career extraordinaire, we will marvel at his street-smarts behind the stumps, his ability to think with electric speed in front of and behind it, his beefy, at times ungainly but always threatening presence in front of it. We will celebrate the three global titles he led India to, we will cherish his leadership that took the team to the No. 1 spot on the ICC Test charts for the first time. We will remember him for playing cricket the right way, for being respectful and reverential, for giving spirit as much import as the laws. But most crucially, we will also treasure him for being a true son of the soil. Not for nothing is it Dhoni’s Ranchi, after all.