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Forbidden love

"Next time, not against us, please" AFP

Sometimes a Pakistani fan will find cricket love in the oddest of places, such as east of the border with India. In fact, from this side of the divide, "odd" doesn't even begin to describe it.

There is, first of all, the subcontinent's geopolitical backstory, spread over a thousand restless years and weighed down with enough psychological baggage to jeopardise any rapprochement for the foreseeable future. There is the serpentine barbed-wire fence snaking the border, from the coast in the south to the mountains in the north. Of course, there is the flashpoint, the K-word, whose mere mention can set off bullets and bombs. Unavoidably, there is the contemporary narrative, a Gordian tangle with finger-pointing and anxieties over nuclear war.

In this twisted snarl of hysteria and hostility, I somehow lost my cricketing heart to a rising Indian star. The attraction I felt was overpowering, yet so were the barriers. Often the most exciting kind of love is forbidden love, and what better place to find forbidden love than in forbidden territory?

Mahendra Singh Dhoni was 23 years old and playing his fifth ODI when he savaged the Pakistan attack in Visakhapatnam in 2005. The crowd was at capacity, the ground awash in coastal sunshine. India won the toss and batted. There had been some hype about Dhoni, and he more than lived up to it, coming in at No. 3 and plundering 148 at a strike rate above 120. Flowing red-tinted hair framing a strutting mien, he cut a captivating figure, giving off the smell of a future Indian great. It is a smell that we in Pakistan know only too well. It fills us with dread.

"I somehow lost my cricketing heart to a rising Indian star. The attraction I felt was overpowering, yet so were the barriers"

As Dhoni's career progressed and he kept winning laurels, including against Pakistan, those initial fears gave way to grudging admiration and, in time, to outright adoration and fondness. Much of his allure lies in the way he carries himself. When he bats, he is poised at the crease as if nestled in a comfortable leather sofa. His technique is to combine brilliant footwork with a secure bottom-hand grip showing the full face of the bat. He has the brain of an astute strategist and the temperament of a finisher. His manner is calm as night, solid as oak. You can see him trying, but never too hard. When he crouches behind the stumps, he is like a big cat huddled in the grassland, eying its prey.

Above all, Dhoni appears utterly snug in his skin, going about his business with ease and flair, as graceful in victory as in defeat. There isn't the agitation of Kohli, the swagger of Sehwag, or the circumspection of Dravid. When he celebrates, it is easy on the eye. No jingoistic delirium or madness, no self-conscious understatement or taciturnity either. There is just this fluent channeling of cheerful emotions. You feel like smiling with him and celebrating along.

There is no shortage of cricketing legends in India, but you could make a compelling argument that Dhoni stands taller than the rest. Yes, the likes of Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Dravid have the runs; Kumble, Bedi and Chandrasekhar - and Ashwin catching up fast - have the wickets; Kapil and Mankad have their all-round charisma. And Dhoni? He has the success. He has captained his team in more Tests (60), more ODIs (199) and more T20Is (72) than anybody else. Under his leadership, India attained the top Test ranking for a 21-month stretch, starting November 2009, lifted the World Cup in 2011, captured the World T20 in 2007, and the Champions Trophy in 2013. Dhoni does have detractors, but really, who can argue with this record?

He has been able to ask much of his team because he has given much as well. In the list of history's most effective wicketkeepers, he stands fifth in Tests, fourth in ODIs, and first in T20Is. As a batsman he has over 15,000 international runs at a composite average of almost 45; this career tally places him fifth among his compatriots. Most impressive is his deftness at the death. On the 40 occasions that Dhoni has been at the crease at the end of an ODI, India have lost only once. In Tests and T20Is too, Dhoni staying till the end strongly protects the team against defeat. The same aura of invincibility emanates from his captaincy. There is this unfailing level-headedness and cool, quick thinking. You always feel he has got your back.

Along with all the applause and adulation have come material rewards. We never thought cricket could make one as rich as European footballers or American sportspersons, but Forbes magazine has repeatedly named Dhoni among the highest-paid athletes in the world, the only cricketer to crack the global top 100. India's surging economy, with a billion-plus consumers, and Dhoni's brand as a champion, explain his wealth, the bulk of which comes from sponsorships and endorsements. When I first heard of the Forbes mention, I was happy; not just for Dhoni, but happy - even in our part of the world, cash in sport had started to flow. That is promising and gratifying.

As one might imagine, nursing a passion for Dhoni has been something of a struggle as a Pakistani. Apart from the fact that not many people get it, there is the inner conflict. A close friend, who happens to be a psychiatrist as well as a cricket buff, explained it away as "reaction formation" - a psychological phenomenon where you end up praising what you actually dislike. An honest examination leaves me unconvinced of this theory. Another friend, a self-proclaimed expert on relationships, opined that I am confusing admiration with envy. I don't think I am.

I do wish that Sarfraz Ahmed will blossom into a Pakistani version of Dhoni before long, but I don't begrudge India its great good fortune. Dhoni is a creation of India and the modern Indian cricket scene, and he fits that setting incredibly well. It's a joy to see him perform, though when he does it against Pakistan, things get complicated. Five of Dhoni's 22 Man-of-the-Match awards have come against my team, and I have watched all of those games. Naturally, it is no fun to see my team lose but it lifts my spirits to know that Dhoni has done well. It is not a case of divided loyalty. It is hearty applause for a man who so abundantly deserves his success.