One last time? Nervous Ranchi abuzz as Dhoni comes home

WATCH - Dhoni and co. practice ahead of third ODI (2:24)

MS Dhoni, Shikhar Dhawan and the rest gear up for the 3rd ODI in Ranchi (2:24)

Ranchi, what?

When MS Dhoni was becoming the phenomenon he is now, he used to be asked where he hails from, particularly during overseas tours. Dhoni used to explain: "It's near Kolkata, near Jamshedpur, where Tata originated. It [Jharkhand] is India's richest state in terms of minerals."

Ranchi was a hockey hotbed, and the craze for the sport grew bigger here after Jaipal Singh led the hockey team to gold at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. But, ironically, it needed a schoolboy football goalkeeper-turned cricketer to put an old-world small-town city under international spotlight. Now, Ranchi is Dhoni. Dhoni is Ranchi.

After he slugged Nuwan Kulasekara over the wide long-on boundary at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai to win the World Cup in 2011, Ranchi looked like this:

Eight years later, Dhoni is gearing up for another World Cup, but there are whispers that this could be his last international match in Ranchi. Whispers on the streets. Whispers at press conferences. Whispers at airports.

Jasmeet Singh, one of my co-passengers on the flight from Delhi to Ranchi, was born and bred in Ranchi and is now the director of Manikaran Power Limited in Delhi. He's returning home for personal reasons, but he's thrilled to have got tickets for the third ODI for his kids. He, too, reckons that this could be Dhoni's last international appearance in Ranchi. He tells me Dhoni might retire soon - quite possibly after the World Cup - and might serve the army. I nod in approval. After all, Dhoni travels in camouflage pants and even dons camouflage gloves often.

There are several hoardings and posters of Dhoni on the way to the south gate of the JSCA Stadium. There are more signposts saying 'MS Dhoni Pavilion' than those with 'JSCA Stadium' on them. He was supposed to inaugurate the pavilion named after him in the lead-up to the third ODI against Australia, but politely declined the invitation. Instead, on the eve of the match, he turns up for optional practice and keeps biffing the bowlers into that pavilion.

The net bowlers - and throwdown specialists Raghavindraa and Nuwan Seneviratne - are all being Dhoni-ed into the stand named after him over wide long-on. The groundstaff lean back on the roller and soak in the monster blows before they are shooed away by the cops.

Moments later, headline-hungry journalists tell Bhuvneshwar Kumar that this will be Dhoni's last international in his hometown. Bhuvneshwar has a smirk on his face when he asks: "How do you know that?"

When the same question is posed to Adil Hussain, the former Bihar and Central Coal Limited (CCL) captain who had played alongside Dhoni at the club for five years, he reminds that you never know what you get from Dhoni. He had retired from Test cricket just like that. He had quit one-day captaincy just like that. Boom. Gone.

"Dhoni is fit and can keep going. He can even run faster than the younger guys in the side," Hussain tells ESPNcricinfo. "He can come back and play in Ranchi, but he can also suddenly spring a surprise and walk away."

Dhoni was only in 11th grade when Hussain spotted him carting bowlers in a schools tournament, and got him on board at CCL in 1997. Hussain gushes that Dhoni's sky-high confidence right from junior cricket made him a cut above the rest. He recalls a match where a teenaged Dhoni smashed then India bowlers Debasis Mohanty and T Kumaran into smithereens.

"He never really bothered about his technique and despite being a junior player, he made his plans and views clear to the senior players," Hussain said. "In a Sheesh Mahal Trophy match, he took on Kumaran and Mohanty - two India bowlers - and kept hitting them away. Even back at that time before Dhoni became a star, many people came to watch him hit big sixes."

Dhoni had also turned out for Durga Sporting club, launching massive sixes in tennis-ball tournaments. His ability to wallop sixes for fun made him such a popular name in the tennis-ball cricket circuit that when Ranchi hosted its first international in 2013, Dhoni said: "I have grown up here, played a lot of cricket, and of the 40,000 people [here], I must have played tennis-ball cricket with at least 15,000."

So, what does Dhoni mean to Ranchi?

"Everything Ranchi has now is because of Dhoni," Hussain says. "Nobody knew Ranchi before Dhoni, now everybody knows about our city and I cherish those five years playing with Dhoni for CCL. So many kids play cricket here because of him."

And, what does Ranchi mean to Dhoni?

It's mutual: everything. After establishing himself in international cricket, one of Dhoni's India team-mates asked him why he hadn't moved out of Ranchi to a bigger city. There was even a bet going that Dhoni would step away. Hell, no!

"Something about Ranchi brings me back home," he said at a promotional event of his biopic MS Dhoni: The Untold Story.

"I am still staying in Ranchi and I love the city. I'm more of a small-city boy, and particularly you can get in and out of the house 15 times in a day. If you're living in Mumbai, you can't even think about it."

Back in the day, when Dhoni wasn't cagey, he used to tweet fairly regularly and didn't shy away from expressing his love for Ranchi.

He used to co-own Ranchi Rays in the now defunct Hockey India League. Ashley Jackson, the English midfielder who was part of that side, is quite a fan of Dhoni, and his team-mates used to even try to mimic the helicopter shot at training.

But who isn't a fan of Dhoni in Ranchi? The buzz here is palpable, and if this turns out to be his last international here, the fans deserve a blockbuster finish from their hero. Of late, Dhoni has been batting as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Ranchi wants that Dhoni who bats as though the world is at his feet.

Will it be happily ever after for Ranchi and its rajkumar then?