For CSK, Dhoni checks in again
Fifteen years of the IPL without any conceivable alternative–that’s how unique the 42-year-old continues to be for the league and CSK
Fifteen years, and the essence of MS Dhoni is yet to be captured by a definitive image. There are some captivating references though. The most cherished, of course, is the longshot of Dhoni teeing the ball several rows back into an erupting Wankhede in the 2011 World Cup final. As much as it was an alleviating climax to a spectacle India was aching to win for 28 years, the real Dhoni–the one we know and yet don’t–however was shaped year after year in the yellow shirt of Chennai Super Kings. Which is why it’s equally unsettling and enchanting trying to find that defining image among his many avatars, right from the dyed shoulder length maned version to the ones with a buzz cut, a mullet, the Mohawk, a crew cut and finally, the salt and pepper look that coincided with his sunset years. But he isn’t not done yet.
The latest, and perhaps the most physically enduring version of Dhoni has taken the internet by storm. Bursting through a CSK training vest, Dhoni is lining up a massive release shot. Eyes on the ball, bat halfway through the backlift as the front foot finds a firm landing, Dhoni is a picture of concentration. But those bulked-up, sinewy arms keep snatching the focus. Is this a gym rat's body? Because if it is, it’s not usual. For all the years we have seen Dhoni, he has always come across as someone who didn't care to have a rippling, muscle-stacked body as long as he was fit and strong.
But when you are nearing 42, with the franchise still not willing to look past you, it might be a good idea to bulk up a little in anticipation of a busy homecoming season. Because let’s face it, leadership comes so naturally to Dhoni that it won’t be surprising if he feels obliged to work on his power game. Not that it requires intensive work. A strike rate of over 200 (203.3) in the last two overs across the last two seasons speaks of a mental clarity that has helped Dhoni finish many chases in the past. But this image sure promises a little more heft, Dhoni style.
This image is also an annual reminder of how a character has come to embody a team, becoming a grander life-size version of everything that it stands for in one of the most cricket-mad regions of India. The last few years of his international career saw Dhoni pick and choose games. But you know the IPL is near when photos of Dhoni entering Chepauk to train start cramming your social media feed.
No one has played more IPL games than Dhoni. Neither has anyone led more than him. In nerve-wracking chases, lightning quick stumpings and bold, out-of-the-box decisions, Dhoni has left imprints of an uncluttered mind driven by the single-mindedness to out-think the greatest players of the world. He was by no means a talented cricketer himself. And he gave two hoots about tradition. But no one reads the game better than Dhoni. Taking off one glove on the last ball of the innings, redirecting a throw onto the stumps, stopping the late cut by sticking out his leg–Dhoni was setting unprecedented standards behind the wickets while evolving as a captain. IPL allowed him that scope. Making Ashwin bowl with the new ball was a Dhoni brainchild as well. "With Dhoni, the caught-behinds and stumpings have gone up many notches in my bowling,” Ashwin had said. “He understands the trajectory, the variation, and the bounce that I get."
Dhoni’s batting too went through several calibrations. In the beginning, he didn’t wait for the final powerplay to bring out the big shots. But when T20 batting was transitioning into an even more manic version, Dhoni chose to trickle down chases with singles, making everyone hold on to the edge of their seats as he sized up nervous bowlers and jumpy fielders before his final assault. There is no script to this though, no guaranteed results. Every decision is customised to scenarios. Like he had once said: “After the first ball, it’s only chaos. You are just trying to manage the chaos.”
Mumbai Indians may have won more trophies but there can’t be any doubt over who managed chaos better. If there still is, try to imagine CSK attempting to navigate the IPL returning from a two-year ban without Dhoni. But he was there. And normalcy was restored in the first season itself as CSK became champions again. “It was the Dhoni impact,” head coach Stephen Fleming had said after that final. “It is very important. He has a strong ability to bring the best out of players.”
Rarely has captaincy sat so lightly on one person as it did on Dhoni, effortlessly choreographing cliffhangers while investing in men he believed would matter. Ravindra Jadeja, who Dhoni had publicly ‘knighted’ in the 2013 IPL, will vouch for the latter. As would Shane Watson, Faf du Plessis, Ambati Rayudu, Robin Uthappa and Dwayne Bravo, all of whom etched significant careers at CSK, courtesy Dhoni. Like in 2008, his is still the last word even now. And there are no two ways about it.
There has been no bigger propellant of the game than Dhoni’s story–a boy languishing in cricket’s backwaters, checking tickets at Kharagpur but also doubling up as a gun for hire in the tennis-ball tournaments along the Bengal-Jharkhand border, quietly sure about his destiny even though the world around him was oblivious to it. It took a few bold calls to finally introduce him to the world but it was the IPL that honed Dhoni into one of the sharpest minds to have ever enriched the game. Fifteen years of this without any conceivable alternative–that’s how unique Dhoni continues to be.