|| AFP ||
M.S. Dhoni, who led Chennai Super Kings to a record-equalling fifth IPL title on Monday, could have spent his life inspecting tickets on Indian Railways if he had listened to his father.
Instead he followed his dream and became one of his cricket-crazy country's most beloved players, second only in adulation to the "little master" Sachin Tendulkar.
In a career spanning two decades, he was India's most successful skipper and even after retiring from international cricket in 2020 has had a glorious Indian summer still playing the IPL.
His journey, which was made into a Bollywood biopic, began in a cramped one-bedroom government flat in the eastern city of Ranchi provided by his pump operator father's employer.
As a boy Dhoni was passionate about sport and honed his skills playing tennis-ball cricket and borrowing bats and other kit from friends.
On his father's insistence, he took a job at Indian Railways but the hectic routine of juggling between collecting tickets and playing cricket finally saw him break free.
In 2004, he made his India debut and in 2007, took over from Rahul Dravid as India's one-day captain, the same year winning the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa.
In 2008, he became Test captain and won two home series against Australia, and in 2011 famously sealed winning the 50-over World Cup in India with a sumptuous six.
Along the way -- with constant hairstyle changes, from shaggy to spiky to shaved -- numerous endorsements saw Dhoni become one of world sport's best-paid athletes, earning an estimated $31 million in 2015.
- 'No CSK without Dhoni' -
But he stunned the cricket world by quitting the five-day format in 2014 after finishing with 27 wins from 60 Tests as skipper.
He stepped down from the limited-overs captaincy in 2017 on the pretext of preparing Virat Kohli as leader, but continued to play a big part in the team's decision-making process.
His last appearance for India was in their semi-final loss to New Zealand in the 2019 ODI World Cup.
He then briefly served with an army reserve unit, where he is an honorary lieutenant colonel, before announcing his international retirement.
But he didn't quit the IPL, using his unrivalled tactical nous and experience to guide the franchise, which he has captained since the league began in 2008, to 10 finals and now five victories.
"There is no CSK without Dhoni and there is no Dhoni without CSK," N. Srinivasan, the industrialist who owns the franchise, famously said after the previous triumph in 2021.
- 'Captain cool' -
Hard-hitting and always unruffled, Dhoni has many nicknames including "Captain Cool" and "Thala", which means "leader" in Tamil, the language of Chennai.
Fans at the IPL go wild when he strides out to bat and cheer every shot -- and not just those of Chennai but of all the other franchises.
The excitement has been heightened this year because of the expectation that -- at 41, with a dodgy knee and no longer the force he was with the bat -- this season might be Dhoni's last.
But he has kept fans guessing, saying last week that he would take until the auctions for the 2024 IPL in December to make his final decision.
"I will always be there for CSK whether in playing form or sitting somewhere," he said.
"I don't really know. But frankly, it takes a heavy toll."