Ranchi, Jan. 18: The famed Indian batting line-up should thank one Keshab Banerjee for helping save its face in almost every 50-over game it plays now.
Banerjee's contribution lay in spotting a football goalkeeper's hidden cricket talent and moulding him into a wicketkeeper-batsman. That young goalkeeper is today Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The senior-section games teacher at Ranchi's Jawahar Vidya Mandir was looking to groom someone to wear the big gloves as the school team wicketkeeper was in Class XI and had just a year left.
"Dhoni was in Class V. He could not imagine that I was already thinking of him representing the school. When I proposed he start focusing on keeping wickets, he humbly asked me: 'Humko chance milega kya, sir (Will I really get a chance to play, sir)?'" Banerjee said.
"Funny, isn't it, (that) he can walk into any side in the world today?" the school coach smile contentedly.
That was the first time Dhoni played with a leather cricket ball. It wasn't all smooth sailing from the start.
"The first time he wore the wicketkeeper's gloves, he was trying to catch the ball with his palms vertical, like a fish tries to catch its prey. But he was attentive and picked things up fast," Banerjee said pointing to the area of the field where Dhoni's training had begun.
Banerjee, originally from Chittaranjan in Burdwan, Bengal, had graduated from the Lakshmibai National University of Physical Education in Gwalior before getting a National Cricket Academy accreditation as coach.
Like any good coach, he had sensed early that his ward was a natural; so he didn't push him too much over technique.
"I realised that his batting needed to be technically stronger and that he could be a bit too adventurous. But as he had begun his formal training in cricket rather late and the foundation (of his natural style) had already been laid, I let him follow his heart," he added.
For Dhoni, success as a batsman took a while coming after he had started formal training, because he took some time adjusting to the leather ball. But once he got the hang of it, the big shots started flowing.
Banerjee remembers how Dhoni ' called "Mahi" even then by friends and teachers ' hit a towering six in an under-16 inter-school match at the Mecon ground.
"We measured it; it was a stunning 96 metres," said the coach, sounding as if he couldn't believe it even now.
Banerjee says that despite his "untold success", Dhoni has not changed a bit in his behaviour with friends.
Erstwhile neighbour Nagalakshmi Pani, a college teacher, said Dhoni used to be quite a relaxed person at home even after his international debut.
"One of my daughters, who goes to the same school as him, is a serious badminton player. When he learnt that, Dhoni, who himself was a very good badminton player, took her aside one day and gave her tips on how to train. He even told her how the Indian players stay fit," she said.
Banerjee said that another thing that had not changed for Dhoni was his love of two-wheelers.
Standing on the school ground, he recalled how his own son, who was only five then, had got hurt during practice and needed to be taken home a few blocks away. He asked Dhoni to take the boy home because the practice session was still on.
"At first, he was reluctant but when I offered my then new Bajaj Chetak scooter, he readily agreed. The funny part was that he did not return the bike for quite a few hours. His excuse was that he had become hungry and had gone home for a snack. I knew he just wanted to ride the scooter and did not tell him anything," said Banerjee, who still rides that scooter.
Dhoni, of course, now has at least 10 bikes, including a Suzuki 1200cc Ninja and a Harley Davidson imported from the US.
Were the girls in school as crazy about him as women fans are now?
"Well, I remember some girls not letting him leave class for a school match. They told the teacher he should sign autographs for them lest he become too famous later," Banerjee said.
"All this while, Mahi remained calm and waited for a teacher to intervene. It was all in jest but see how the prophecy has come true," said Banerjee, who had rescued Mahi that day.