Dhoni’s nemesis on the field now manages his millions

The modest exteriors of the compact office in South Delhi give no clue that the owner inside recently signed the highest ever deal with a cricketer in the world. Inside, however, a giant poster of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain's autographed No. 7 jersey, a Chennai Super Kings flag and a soft board that has 'Rhiti Sports Pvt Limited (RSPL)' handwritten on it, proudly announce the coup of this small-time player: signing a Rs 210-crore deal with Dhoni to manage his millions.

Those who know Dhoni well, and that includes RSPL founder president Arun Pandey, are not surprised he chose the small firm over other interested parties, including the globally recogined International Management Group, to manage his endorsements. The skipper is known to stick by his friends, especially those who have been with him during his days of struggle, and Pandey is one such friend.

A left-arm spinner who has played for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and is known as a gritty bowler in local Delhi cricketing circles, Pandey has had a long association with Dhoni.

"The first time I met Mahi was in 1999-2000 when I shifted to Bihar as a professional player. He always respected me, partly because I used to be one of the few bowlers who would get him out in the nets. That's how our friendship started and it has only grown stronger with time. We have faced ups and downs of life together," the 35-year-old says.

Despite his meteoric rise both on and off the field to become India's richest cricketer, Dhoni hasn't changed a bit, Pandey says. "Mahi vaise hi hai... Doston ke liye woh hamesha dost hai. He's younger to me by 6 years, but still I am his follower and admirer. He's taught me how to respect a relationship."

Giving an example to assert his point, he says: "Beyond his core group, Dhoni didn't inform anyone about his marriage. But he insisted that we send an invitation to one old friend from school days. We advised him that the news might get leaked to the press because of this, but he didn't change his mind. The guy had stood by him through thick and thin and Mahi didn't forget him."

Pandey's own cricketing skills are well respected in Delhi's local circuit. A student of Bishan Singh Bedi, he is known to have the knack of getting Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir out cheaply. "Once when Viru met Mahi, he told him how I had got him out once again. Apparently, they laughed their heads off when Mahi said, 'Now, I will hear this story from Pandeyji again'. Actually, I have dismissed Viru some 8-9 times," Pandey says.

Still getting used to his new role, which includes a busy Blackberry constantly by his side, Pandey says that in some respects, playing cricket was much easier. It was Dhoni, he adds, who encouraged him to make the transition. "From the time he started playing for the country, he has been pushing me to get into sports management. I have an MBA degree and this was also my area of interest, so things fell in place. I started this company in 2007," he says.

Rhiti Sports also manages Dhoni's teammates R P Singh and Harbhajan Singh. The two-year deal with Dhoni means managing the Indian skipper's long list of endorsements and brand associations, corporate profile, patents and digital rights, images, visibility on social networking sites and merchandise, through a joint venture.

Will there be a change in the relationship between the old friends after the deal? Pandey believes not. "But I like to keep my friendship away when I talk business with him. This is like bowling in the powerplays — if you bowl well, you will get the next over. Hopefully, I will not disappoint my skipper," he says, looking towards Dhoni's smiling poster on the wall.

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