Sport, hard-nosed professionals - especially those who have grown accustomed to success - repeatedly remind us, is all about winning. Whether it is individual pursuits or team activities, the bottom line is always about who came out on top. As journalists, we worship at the altar of winning, presuming that fans and readers put a premium on results, to the exclusion of everything else. There is no adrenalin rush quite like supporting a team and having it prevail. There's a momentary basking in reflected glory that elevates you from the mundane. But when I look more closely at the sportspersons and teams I've supported over the years, I find that, subconsciously or otherwise, the win-loss ratio rarely comes into the picture.
From the moment I set eyes on David Boon, and long before I read about his transatlantic beer-drinking feats, I've been tragically loyal to Tasmania. There's something about a state that constitutes one percent of the population of a country competing with its more resource-rich counterparts that warms the cockles of the heart. Whether it's obsessively following Tasmania's progress in the four-day competition online, or occasionally rifling through a well-worn copy of "Prominent Tasmanian Cricketers" by Rick Smith, thoughts of the team that plays at the picturesque Bellerive Oval are never far away.
Soon after I embarked on a career in cricket writing, I found myself covering an England under-19 tour of India. Although most of those then-young Englishmen have faded into cricketing obscurity, that tour sparked a fire, thanks to the presence of the affable Tim Tremlett, who was manager of the team that included his son, Chris. Shortly before he was set to leave for India, Tim lost his 17-year-old son Alistair in a car crash, but still made the trip. Tim, who bowled at medium pace for Hampshire (unlike his father Maurice, who played for Somerset and England), was most affable and knowledgeable, and great company to a young reporter. Years later, when India toured England for Tests, and played a warm-up match at the Rose Bowl, Tim, who was director of cricket at Hampshire, hadn't forgotten the hours spent in India at a difficult time, and went out of his way to make your correspondent feel at home in Southampton. Needless to say, irrespective of how they do, I keep one eye on Hampshire when the county season is on.
When it comes to Indian teams, the option of being ruled by sentiment does not exist, because I make a living writing about the game here. But, looking at other sport, the list of allegiances being formed for the most whimsical reasons is endless - Holland in football (Gullit, van Basten, bright orange kit), Goran Ivanisevic in tennis (one-dimensional game, excellent cussing) and Reggie Miller in basketball (how does a guy that skinny play for 18 years in that physical a sport?), to name just a few.
The trickiest place to feel some sort of loyalty is the Indian Premier League. Friends and acquaintances are spread across teams, I've lived and worked in four Indian cities, and there simply isn't one obvious choice. But, thinking back at my own idiosyncratic attraction to certain teams and players, I wondered if it worked this way for players as well. Could one random event trigger a trend down the road? Could one player make a difference to an entire state?
A good place to examine this phenomenon was Jharkhand. A state known for its mineral riches, carved out of southern Bihar in 2000, had supplied an unusually high number of players to IPL teams. In all, seven players - Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Saurabh Tiwary, Varun Aaron, Shahbaz Nadeem, Ishank Jaggi, Rahul Shukla and Sunny Gupta - figured in playing elevens at one point or another, with varying degrees of success. A state that had never produced an India cricketer before Dhoni was now suddenly supplying a steady stream of players to a higher grade.
I sought out Nadeem, who was probably the standout performer from Jharkhand in the competition. Soft-spoken and self-assured, comfortable in his skin and aware of his competence, the left-arm spinner instantly brought back memories of a young Mahendra Singh Dhoni, minus the flamboyance. "If you ask me how seven of us from Jharkhand are playing in this IPL, I will say it's the Mahendra Singh Dhoni effect," said Nadeem, whose canny bowling brought much-needed balance to a pace-heavy Delhi Daredevils attack. "He's from such a small place and he's leading the country and experts say he's one of the best captains of all time. After seeing him, we also believe that we can achieve great things if we're good enough. People are more aware of what is possible if you work hard. Previously, we never believed that someone from Jharkhand could go on to achieve great things in cricket."
Nadeem, who played all his early cricket as a medium-pacer, was asked to switch to spin on the first day he was formally coached, by Imtiaz Hussain. When you hear him talk of how good the infrastructure is in Dhanbad, you can't help but wonder at the spoilt city kids to whom taking the occasional bus ride is enough trauma to send out angry tweets.
"All along we have had really talented cricketers in Jharkhand, just like anywhere else in India. It's just that youngsters have now started working harder, because there's something to look forward to," said Nadeem. "In life, when you know there is an opportunity, when you know there is a chance to progress, you automatically focus more and work harder. This is what I call the Dhoni effect. Even cricketers from the smallest villages believe they can one day become captain of India. That never happened before Dhoni."
If Mahendra Singh Dhoni showed that it was possible to knock on the doors, earnest triers like Nadeem have taken things forward. While he learnt how to bowl the left-armer's doosra from his brother, who he played under, Nadeem sought out Erapalli Prasanna for more. "Prasanna sir taught me how to bowl something that works just like a carom ball," said Nadeem. "It's a slightly different action, and doesn't work on the finger flick, but it does the same thing." Nadeem, whose idol is Daniel Vettori, says the best part about being in the IPL is the team meetings. "Where do you get a chance to listen to Viru bhai (Sehwag), Kevin Pietersen and Mahela Jayawardene talking about cricket? Which youngster would not learn from this?"
Ironically, when Nadeem and Dhoni cross paths today, as they did at the IPL, the last thing they speak about is cricket. "He's travelling so much, he only wants to hear stories of home. He just wants to hear about what's happening in the neighbourhood," said Nadeem. Thanks to Dhoni, the neighbourhood has gone national. And the funny thing is, Dhoni has played just four first-class matches for Jharkhand, and not once since he made it to the India team. That he has still inspired a generation of cricketers tells you about the power of one.