Twenty20 (T20) cricket is considered to be a sport for the fleet-footed, agile and more often than not, young cricketers. When Chennai Super Kings (CSK) went for experience and wisdom over youth and exuberance in this year's auctions, the team was subjected to criticism from all quarters regarding this strategy.
However, on Sunday, the opinion about young blood and T20 cricket was put to rest when a 38-year-old from Jamaica and a 36-year-old from Ranchi (don't tell that to a Chennaiite though) lit the skies with fireworks as CSK lost by four runs in a last-over thriller against Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) to pick up their first defeat in this edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Returning from a two-year suspension, CSK have managed to still be the epicentre of IPL 11. Snatching victory from jaws of defeat in their first match, eking out a thrilling win in their first home game in 1066 days despite off-field controversies threatening to disrupt proceedings, and finally their home games getting shifted from Chennai to Pune due to protests have ensured CSK is rarely out of focus.
And we are hardly a week into this year's IPL.
CSK were riding on such oscillating fortunes when they made their way to the IS Bindra Stadium in Mohali to take on KXIP, who were coming from a loss to Royal Challengers Bangalore on Friday.
Winning the toss, Chennai skipper MS Dhoni chose to bowl and announced Murali Vijay as the replacement for an injured Suresh Raina, who was missing a CSK match for the first time in his career.
Punjab made a couple of changes, leaving out Axar Patel and Marcus Stoinis to bring in Barinder Sran and Chris Gayle.
At the toss, Dhoni said, “We’re overaged boys, so we need to watch our workloads. But with age comes experience.”
These words resonated in the end when people watching Sunday's clash saw the senior-most players of the respective teams showcasing age-defying knocks.
Gayle, a T20 legend with records such as the fastest century, the highest number of 'Man of the Match' awards and the highest individual score to his name, was dropped for the first two games. Making the best of the opportunity, he showed what the Kings XI sorely missed at the top of the order.
The 38-year-old sent Deepak Chahar cowering as he smashed 20 runs off his sixth over that saw the youngster getting rattled and failing to stick to the basics.
Gayle's 50 came off just 22 balls and 92 percent of those runs had come in boundaries.
Gayle, KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal were belting the Chennai bowlers all over the park in the first ten overs and with the youngsters Chahar and Shardul Thakur not breaking the partnerships, Dhoni tossed the ball to the experienced Shane Watson and Imran Tahir.
Tahir wasn't spared in his first over that went for 17 runs, but Watson managed to plug the run-flow from the other end as he ended up bowling two overs for just 15 runs. In his second over, the 36-year-old snared the wicket of the dangerous Gayle, who departed for 63 runs, caught by the 39-year-old Tahir at short fine leg.
The Punjab side lost its way soon enough as Tahir picked two wickets off successive deliveries in the 15th over and ended up with an impressive 2/34 after his four overs. The 34-year-old Dwayne Bravo, who went for 33 runs in his first three, bowled a peach off a last over, giving away just four runs to restrict the KXIP to 197/7, a score that was 20-30 runs short of the target they'd like to have set.
Chennai's run chase began with a caution that wasn't seen in the first couple of matches. At the end of the powerplay, CSK were two wickets down and 22 runs short of Punjab's score at the same point.
Dhoni walked in the seventh over.
In the first three overs he played, Dhoni's strike rate was a decent 140 and Chennai now needed 113 off the last ten overs. Then in the 12th over against Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Dhoni ran for a quick couple and then clutched his lower back. His old problem had resurfaced and he needed medical attention in the overs' break.
With this, the Chennai team has now suffered one injury per match so far in IPL 11.
Dhoni was in pain. His stance became stiff and those easy two's looked a bit laborious from someone who is still one of the fastest runners in cricket. The running was affected but not his sheer power as he slogged his first six of the match off the bowling of the opposition captain Ravichandran Ashwin.
Ravindra Jadeja walked out before Bravo and this move was contentious, considering the form of both players. However, Dhoni's words after the match alluded to the fact that team management was looking at giving Jadeja the required space and opportunities to develop into a finisher and also the right-left combination at the middle was valuable.
However, on Sunday, this plan didn't quite work well as Jadeja holed out for 19 off 13 balls in the penultimate over.
CSK needed 76 runs off the last five overs and when Jadeja departed, Chennai needed 35 off 11.
Dhoni reached yet another half-century and was giving it his all to stay out in the middle and do what he is always known to be best at — finish the game.
In the 19th over, Dhoni faced five balls and smoked them for 19 runs.
Kings XI skipper and former CSK mainstay Ashwin trusted another ex-CSK player, Mohit Sharma, to get the job done.
Dhoni was on strike with 16 required off 5 and Mohit bowled perfect wide yorkers one after the other. Dhoni's sore back didn't allow him to exert himself into slicing it to the fence and Mohit's deliveries always pitched just out of the reach of the outstretched hands of the former Indian skipper.
Mohit did the job he was asked to do and took the target away from Dhoni. A consolatory six off the last ball gave a glimpse of what could have happened if Dhoni was playing in full capacity at the later stages of the game. But, Dhoni's highest-ever score in IPL came at a tremendous moment and at a personal physical cost.
Every time the hushed whispers about Dhoni's inability to do his job as a finisher grow louder, he pulls off a dramatic inning as an answer to all those critics.
Every time there are doubts over the effectiveness of having Dhoni in the shortest format of the game, he reminds them of why he is defended by fans time and again.
Dhoni has always been a fighter and when asked about his back after the match, he said, "The back is pretty bad, but God has given me lot of power and I don't need to use my back a lot. My arms can do the job. It shouldn't be too bad because I know what happened, and when you know the extent of the injury, you know how bad it really is."
The match began with a 39-year-old T20 legend reminding the world why he is rightly referred to as the 'Universe Boss'. The match ended with one of modern cricket's greats overcoming an injury to try his best to take his team past the finishing line — one more time.
T20 cricket might be unforgiving in its format, making heroes out of thin air and forgetting the old workhorses for faster galloping ones, but as long as international cricket has players like Gayle and Dhoni, age is clearly just a number.