Ranchi:It was in 1999 that a young man strode into the KD Singh Babu Cricket Stadium and after he left following a stroke-filled half century, questions started doing the rounds as to who the player was.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni has moved on since that morning in Lucknow when he turned out for Central Coalfields Limited against Sahara Eleven in the Sheesh Mahal cricket tournament.
"His fans remember to this day how Dhoni played swashbuckling strokes on way to his half century," said former Bihar Ranji captain Adil Hussein.
That same year Dhoni returned to Lucknow to thrill the crowd with a brilliant half-century that helped CCL win the All-India night cricket tournament, says Hussein who saw the current Team India captain from close quarters as he led the CCL team with Dhoni in its ranks for three years.
"Like Andrew Leipus, I was also amazed by the level of energy Dhoni possessed coupled with his discipline and punctuality... CCL teammates used Dhoni as a buffer to avoid getting scolded by me as captain whenever they were late for practice," Hussein, who is now the Deputy Manager (Sports) with the public sector company, recalled.
Chanchal Bhattacharya, whom Dhoni named as one of the three coaches to have shaped his career in the formative years, cites an example of how energetic the stumper could be even during ailment.
"It was either a Deodhar or Duleep Trophy tie in Visakhapatnam in 2002-03. No teammate had any inkling that Dhoni was suffering from jaundice till the match was over," Bhattacharya said.
Ironically, Dhoni's fifth international match in the same Visakhapatnam ground opened the gate to his stardom with a swasbuckling 148 against Pakistan.
Satyaprakash, who shared the same South Eastern Railway hostel when Dhoni joined the Railways as ticket collector at Kharagpur in 2001, recalled, "Being a senior Ranji Trophy player I thought I would attract local fans, but it was Dhoni who stole the limelight during those days."
Former Test bowler Debasish Mohanty said he did not remember playing against Dhoni in any of the Sheesh Mahal matches in Lucknow but saw his ability in a six-a-side tournament played in Hong Kong.
"I was impressed when I saw his approach towards the game," he says about Dhoni who made his ODI debut in December 2004.
Dhoni was also fond of playing pranks during his Kharagpur hostel days. Besides, Satyaprakash, Dhoni was sharing the hostel with cricketers Deepak Singh and Jay Shukla.
"Barring me, the rest were tall. During a night shift, the three covered themselves from head to foot with bedsheets and walked down the lanes of the Railway colony, fooling the night guards into believing they saw ghosts. The story circulated the next morning," recounts Satyaprakash.
Hussein says Dhoni's success in the newest (T20) version of the game could be traced to his tennis ball playing days.
"There was a craze in the early 1990s among the small town boys to play 10 overs or 20 overs of tennis ball cricket. And that helped him a lot," he observed.
Unlike most boys coming from small towns, Dhoni never used to get awestruck by big names, says Mahipal Sharma, a state-level cricket umpire.
"In undivided Bihar several promising cricketers faded away because of a belief that cricketers from the metros and other big towns were better than them. But Dhoni overcame that barrier becoming the captain of all the three versions of the game," contends Sharma.
Echoing a similar sentiment, Hussein, a right-handed batsman, admits he himself was a 'victim of complex' at the city of celebrated cricketers.