It was during an online Chennai Super Kings ‘fan interaction’ last season that somebody asked MS Dhoni whether the beloved ‘Thala’ would play at Chepauk one last time. The skipper assured with a smile: “My last match will be at Chepauk.” It was huge relief for his massive fan-base, and now, in a year’s time, that final leg of a fabulous journey is all set to roll.
While CSK’s fans will have to wait four more days to watch him take the field at Chepauk, a packed Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad will get the first glimpse of that last dance, which Dhoni is desperate to make memorable.
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Quietly, away from the arclights, the Jharkhand man has been training for this. While the first couple of months of practice were in hometown Ranchi, he was in Chennai in the beginning of March, diving straight into a practice regime that should prepare him for the two-month grind.
At 41, Dhoni knows he isn’t the player he once was. His last international match was in 2019 and since then, as a player, his IPL journey hasn’t been the most productive. Dhoni has struggled with his timing, quality bowling (both pace and spin) has troubled him while the effortless ability to finish matches has slowly started to desert him. Still, Dhoni, playing almost from memory, conjured a last-ball boundary against Mumbai Indians last year as the in-form domestic giant Jaydev Unadkat found himself at the receiving end.
In the last couple of seasons, Dhoni at times has tried to hide himself as a batter and it was his leadership abilities that kept him at play. “In IPL, captaincy is as important as batting or bowling. We don’t care, Dhoni will play as long as he wants,” his adamant bosses insisted. But the man himself knew he needs to contribute as well with the bat.
But those who know Dhoni will tell you that he is not holding on to a place. CSK is part of his cricketing soul and all he wants to ensure is a smooth transition. He tried it by giving Ravindra Jadeja the captaincy last season, but it was a disaster and Dhoni had to take it back. Such were the repercussions that an angry Jadeja left the camp before the tournament got over after being diagnosed with an injury.
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There was a point where Jadeja could have moved on from CSK, but it was Dhoni who initiated a conversation with the allrounder and ensured that he stayed back. But Jadeja won’t be the captain again and Dhoni would like to groom Ruturaj Gaikwad for the job, while Ben Stokes could be working as the guiding light.
While sorting out the captaincy will be on Dhoni’s agenda, it will also be interesting to see how he deals with the changing style of T20 cricket. Keeping wickets in hand, taking the match to the last over to extract a result, slowing the game down when necessary- this was the template that Dhoni had forged and CSK benefited from it. But over the last few years, the game has undergone a rapid change. Power hitters are holding sway and every ball is being treated as if it is the last.
While CSK suffered in two of the last three IPLs, failing to make the Playoffs, they won the 2021 edition playing their own style. In fact, the 2021 final against Brendon McCullum‘s KKR was a clash of these two styles where Dhoni came up trumps.
But things went wrong again in 2022 and the captain knows deep down that he will only create a successful legacy if his team can marry these two styles. With that in mind, if he has brought in the calm of Ajinkya Rahane, there’s also the no-holds-barred Stokes, who believes in ‘Bazball’ and plays it day in day out for England.
Over the next two months, it’s on Dhoni to turn the cook and mix the two spices to create a recipe that would serve CSK even when he is not playing anymore. And of course, win the title one last time to leave in a blaze of glory.