Some people have memories like sieves. They will remember the life-defining stuff - like a chat with a parent - with absolute clarity, right down to the exact words said. But the trivial details slip through, like the colour of the curtains in the room where the chat happened. Some people’s minds are read-only; if they don’t think about something for a while, it fades away. And then some people have memories that put elephants to shame, with hard-drives full of details, all stored in, waiting to be accessed.
I imagine MS Dhoni is the third kind.
On Sunday night, when the MA Chidambaram stadium had moisture levels you expect at Cherrapunji, Dhoni played an innings that didn’t just turn back the clock, it turned the tables on the Rajasthan Royals.
You might put it down to experience. Sure, experience lends you a few tricks young talent would pay to learn. Sure, maybe your reflexes grow slower as you grow older, but you have more time, because your mind knows where the ball is going to be. But you can pull up files from that elephantine hard drive, thinking about when this has happened before. Good players do that, the best add recent knowledge to that, as Dhoni did.
And so as Sunday stretched into Monday and March turned into April, the blockbuster that we saw in Chennai was less about experience, and more about respect.
First, it was about respecting the situation. Shane Watson, Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav all gone; Dhoni walked in at 27/3, a situation tailor made for someone with his start-slow-take-it-deep blueprint. The stadium heaved with the expectation of a Houdini, and even the stars and stumps seemed to conspire: a defensive shot from the captain rolled onto the timber, but they were unmoved.
Then it was about respecting the conditions, conditions he knew well. Right at the toss, Dhoni said the dew comes in from 8 PM onwards and gets heavier as the night goes on. So he waited, and watched as the ball rolled along the grass time and time again, watched as its seam hid and the leather swelled, even when the ball was changed. Then Chennai began to attack, the ball sliding off their blades, but still it was Dwayne Bravo doing the hitting, not Dhoni. It took Dhoni 24 balls to cross a run-a-ball, and then he hovered, took the game deep, and waited for the opposition bowlers to commit a mistake.
Mistakes flew thick and fast, as Dhawal Kulkarni persisted with the futile attempts to grip a yorker with a wet ball. Still Dhoni waited, as Bravo struck, struck, then struck out. Still he waited, as Joffra Archer bowled out. One over to go.
A few hours earlier, halfway across the world, a man who was born a month after Dhoni, completed an incredible 101st career title win at 37 years of age. Fittingly, Dhoni finished off CSK's innings with three consecutive sixes, the last two tennis style flat-batted forehands over the bowlers head, which would not have been out of place at the Miami Open, Roger Federer’s latest conquest.
It was an innings that stood out for its control. ESPNCricinfo listed Dhoni’s control percentage at 85%. CricViz noted that he played just 8% false shots, while others in the ranks averaged 23%. It means he took less risks and he also took them at the right time. Dhoni took 38 balls to hit his first six, but hit three more in his next eight. After scoring 29 off his first 27 balls, he played like the smart investor who knows just when to cash in, and smashed 46 off his last 19. Conditions were good for batting, but he waited until they were at their best to unleash. 60 runs in the last three overs, 28 in the last alone.
His measured knock against Royals and his years spent in weaving such innings is why the game ended with a mark of respect for Dhoni. Images after the game showed Dhoni surrounded by pink and blue shirts. Krishnappa Gowtham had an intense discussion with him, then he opened his mind up for other players. Romi Bhinder, the Rajasthan team manager embraced him. Rahul Tripathi walked past his former captain, grinning sheepishly at his words, drawn in to join the huddle of the faithful.
Indian culture affords respect automatically to those with experience, an admirable practice, but also flawed. There are times when experience rests on its past achievements. And sometimes experience is challenged by youth.
But sometimes experience just keeps earning respect.
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