What are great sporting rivalries made of? You surely need to have high-quality teams and individuals competing for the top prize in the game. Then you add sizeable and dedicated fan base to either camp. You also need a sense of familiarity; if the contest is not staged regularly, the edge is taken out of the rivalry. Perhaps most importantly, you need contrasting styles of play that ensures the battle on the field is not just about the skills but also playing styles. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal is finesse vs attrition. When Real Madrid play Barcelona, it's a battle of the obdurate vs the adventurous. When Chennai Super Kings compete against Mumbai Indians, it's a clash of spontaneity vs preparation.
As both CSK and MI have found regular success with their methods, their battle of styles has got even more intensified. By design, IPL was meant to be a tournament where no team was too far ahead of the others. But by 2011, with two back to back titles, Dhoni had established CSK as the team to beat in IPL. Two teams challenged their authority regularly in the next couple of years. KKR in 2012 stopped them from making it three titles in a row. In 2013, Mumbai Indians rallied under Rohit Sharma, who got the reigns of the team midway through the season from Ricky Ponting, to win their first title. Since then, with two more titles in 2015 and 2017, Mumbai Indians have emerged as the second dominant team in IPL along with CSK.
An accidental captain at first, Rohit started to emerge as one of the most astute leaders in the league. His captaincy looked unremarkable at first. He didn't have the flair and unpredictability of MS Dhoni, neither did he have a zenlike calm on the field like the CSK captain.
Dhoni's men in yellow have always been a bunch of experienced pros who go about their business independently, and are capable of turning matches on their own. They don't always go on the field with a set plan as a team but let individuals do their own plotting. The team strategy evolves on the go with Dhoni managing a kind of organised chaos on the field. This mad science approach makes CSK dependent on Dhoni. Without him at the helm of orchestra, their individual notes fail to become a harmony as we saw a couple of times this season when Dhoni had to rest for a game.
Rohit's captaincy style suits the best for the team that Mumbai Indians have assembled over the years. With the close influence of the team owners, Rohit has a team of professionals who are capable of putting the team above themselves and perform under set roles. It's a team that has stars but doesn't want to rely on the individual brilliance of a few players to win them games.
Rohit is known to rely on data more than any other captain in IPL. Mumbai Indians possess a backroom staff of coaches and analyst that feed Rohit the information he needs on the field. When Rohit takes the team on the field, they are putting into practice a simulation that has been run on the drawing boards several times by the coaches. Every matchup against a particular player is predecided. On the field, Rohit is mostly executing these templates with the help of his team.
A deep understanding of the game, a keen eye for talent, and patience to wait for things to happen on the field is common to both Dhoni and Rohit. They can both play the waiting game like no other, but Rohit has taken his team to another level in this approach. In this season, Mumbai has managed to win more games batting first than any other team. Over the years, they have routinely defended low totals by piling on the pressure on their opponents with their accuracy and defensive fields. Dhoni is the master of taking the game deep during a chase, Rohit has mastered the same art in defending totals. At Mumbai Indians, with the reliability of Malinga and Bumrah at his disposal, Rohit's philosophy finds the perfect practitioners.
You only need to look at the last games played by CSK and MI to understand the ways of Dhoni and Rohit. Against Delhi Capitals, Dhoni was going all out for wickets in the middle overs. He was prepared to gamble with his best bowlers in a bid to dismiss Rishabh Pant even if they get bowled out early. He had also ditched the option of Shardul Thakur after one over despite picking him specifically to strengthen the bowling attack. When his main bowlers were bowled out in the 19th over, Dhoni asked Jadeja to bowl the 20th. This is not a tactic you can come prepared for beforehand. Like that famous move of bowling Joginder Sharma in the final over of 2007 WT20, Dhoni devises these moves on a hunch. Most times they work, but even when they don't, Dhoni takes it in his stride and moves on.
Rohit's execution on the field could be seen in MI's last game when after picking the first wicket in the powerplay, he immediately bought on the off-spin of Jayant Yadav to put pressure on Suresh Raina who likes to go for boundaries early in his innings. You knew this was a set plan, and Jayant was specifically picked for this game to execute this plan. It paid off brilliantly when it took Jayant just three balls to send back his matchup.
In this season, Rohit's planning has trumped Dhoni's flair three out of three times. As the two teams meet again in the final, it will be interesting to see if Dhoni pulls a rabbit out of the hat and throws a surprise at his opponent to dazzle them. To defeat Mumbai, Dhoni needs to blindside them by making a move they haven't planned for. It could be an inspired selection, an unexpected bowling change or a shuffle in the batting order. If Dhoni manages to pull off a surprise, it will go down as one of his best wins ever.