by Phil Stilton
TOMS RIVER-On Sunday, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain of India’s national cricket team and one of the most revered sports figures in India, visited the Siddhivinayak Temple here on Sunday.
While most in Toms River probably do not know Dhoni, he has nearly 16 million followers on Facebook. Compare that to Derek Jeter’s 2 million followers or Tom Brady’s 3 million followers.
Dhoni, in his native India, with a population of 1.25 billion people., he is a national sports hero.
In 2014, Forbes Magazine ranked Dhoni as the 23rd highest paid athlete in the world, making a U.S. equivalent of $31 million per year. Time Magazine ranked Dhoni in their 2011 “100 most influential people in the world” list.
What brought Dhoni to Toms River?
He was on hand to perform Puja at the new Siddhivinayak Temple being built here.
Dhoni said when he visits the United States, he tries to keep a low profile since those trips are usually family affairs, but this weekend, he broke that tradition and made a public appearance.
Approximately 100-200 fans, including young children through the elderly showed up for the two-hour event which included prayers and cultural dances.
All were eager and excited to meet their sports hero, chanting, “Dhoni! Dhoni! Dhoni!” as he prepared to take the stage, mobbed by news crews from India. In short speech, Dhoni spoke about his start in the sport in his hometown of Ranchi, the capital of the Indian state of Jharkhand, and of his experiences in the United States.
“I feel it’s an honor for me to be here today,” Dhoni said at the Siddhivinayak Temple. “I have been to different places. Most of them have been cricket-playing nations like England and Australia. This was a one of a kind in the US and it was an eye-opener, the way you all have embraced the culture of the U.S., but stuck to the Indian culture and something that’s appreciated.”
Speaking to the Toms River residents who have made the town their new home after leaving India, Dhoni admired their ability to retain their cultural heritage.
“A lot of you have left in the early 60’s, late seventies and even later, but still be 200% Indian, and still acknowledge and respect the traditions of the country that you are in and I feel it’s something everyone needs to know,” he told the audience. “And at the same time, the way you have taught the coming generation who they need to adapt to the various aspects of life.”
Dhoni acknowledged that cricket is not a popular sport in the United States, but said he often has to explain to Americans what it is he does when they learn he plays the sport.
He took the opportunity to point out a flaw with baseball terminology.
“It’s very similar to baseball where you have a pitcher…who doesn’t actually pitch the ball,” he said. “In cricket, when the bowler bowls, he pitches the ball.”
“In baseball you have four bases and run diagonally to them,” he added. “In cricket, we have two and you run between them. It’s a fast-paced sport.”
Despite a relatively low turn out, to which he joked about communication in a world where everyone has mobile phones to share news, he said he enjoyed his day in Toms River.
“It’s real pleasure,” he added. “If I can bring a smile on to your faces, then that’s something.”