MS Dhoni probably ranks as the third-most popular Indian cricketer ever, behind only Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli. He emerged from a cricketing backwater, the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, and made it to the top with a home-made batting and wicketkeeping technique, and a style of captaincy that scaled the highs and hit the lows of both conservatism and unorthodoxy.
Under Dhoni's leadership, India won the top prize in all formats: leading the Test rankings for 18 months starting December 2009, winning the 50-over World Cup in 2011, and the T20 world title on his captaincy debut in 2007.
He seemingly emerged fully formed at 23, when he blasted two centuries in a triangular 50-over tournament for India A in Nairobi. Long-haired and fearless, he soon swaggered into international cricket, and became an instant darling of the crowds with ODI innings of 148 and 183 not out within a year of his debut.
Dhoni improvised abd learned, but he didn't apologise for his batting style, which was not the most elegant. He became a multifaceted ODI batter, one who could accumulate, rebuild, and unleash big sixes, all seemingly at will.
Along the way he showed leadership skills, which were recognised when Rahul Dravid gave up the captaincy in 2007. A day before that announcement from Dravid, a young India side under Dhoni played the first game of the first T20 World Cup in South Africa, and went on to win the tournament. The ODI captaincy was a natural progression, and the Test role duly followed too.
Dhoni brought to the captaincy a thick skin and the relative indifference to results that an Indian captain needs to keep the job for long. Along with India's coach, Gary Kirsten, he put his senior performers in a comfortable place, and they repaid him by producing some of their best years in international cricket. Dhoni's sense of calm on the field mostly worked like a charm in the shorter formats, although he sometimes sat back for too long in Tests tactically. Still, India had some of their best years in Test cricket, in terms of tangible achievement, under him: in the 60 Tests he led in, they had a win-loss ratio of 1.5.
However, after the 50-over World Cup win in 2011, which Dhoni sealed with a timely 91 and a six off his patented helicopter shot, an ageing team lost eight straight Tests on the trot away from home and his captaincy came under immense pressure, which was then exacerbated by India's first home series loss in eight years, 2-1 to England in 2012-13. This brought about a new chapter in Dhoni's career, where he seemed more assertive as a captain, building a new team. He played his best Test innings on a turner to win India the Chennai Test in 2013 against Australia, and became the first captain to lead India to four wins in a Test series.
Away from home in the winter of 2013-14, India lost Test series in South Africa and New Zealand by 1-0 margins that did not reflect how close they came to winning both. The England tour of 2014 began promisingly, with a drawn first Test followed by a historic win at Lord's, but India crashed to earth immediately afterwards to lose the series 3-1. At Old Trafford and The Oval, with the batting crumbling around him, Dhoni played a couple of his bravest innings in Tests.
On the tour of Australia that followed, India competed ferociously, thanks to a young batting core led by Kohli, but it didn't quite show in their results. Dhoni announced after the third Test, in Melbourne, that he was retiring from the format. He ended his career in whites with a proud record for a wicketkeeper: 4876 runs at an average of just over 38, six hundreds, and just under 300 dismissals.
Dhoni continued to lead India in the shorter formats, and they got to the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup. A year later they won the Asia Cup T20 in Bangladesh but exited the home T20 World Cup in the semi-final, though Dhoni enjoyed a good tournament as a finisher, scoring 89 runs while only being dismissed once in five innings, and showing electric reflexes while keeping to the spinners. He eventually played on till the 2019 World Cup (but gave up the white-ball captaincy in January 2017).
India's defeat to New Zealand in the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup turned out to be Dhoni's final international, although that wasn't officially confirmed till more than a year later, when after Covid brought sport to a halt, he announced it on Instagram just as players' preparations for that year's delayed IPL began.
In that tournament, Dhoni has been the face of the Chennai Super Kings franchise, inspiring fierce cult fandom. When Super Kings were reinstated in 2018 after two seasons out serving a suspension, he was back at the helm, leading the team to a fairy-tale third title, and he almost repeated the feat in 2019, when CSK lost a thrilling final against Mumbai Indians by just one run. Dhoni led them to their third title win in 2021, and repeated the feat in 2023, making CSK the league's most successful franchise, alongside Mumbai.