Chennai Super Kings were 39 for 4 at the end of nine overs chasing a target of 151 against Rajasthan Royals at Sawai Mansingh Stadium, Jaipur when umpires signalled for the strategic time out. The game seemed beyond their reach with 112 runs to get in eleven overs with just six wickets in hand.
Dhoni found his team in a similar situation at Wankhede on 3 April, when CSK were three down at the end of nine overs with 108 still to get. At that stage, Mumbai Indians were trying to bowl out their lesser bowlers in Rahul Chahar and Krunal Pandya. Mumbai coach Mahela Jayawardene said in an interview on the sidelines even as the match was progressing that they knew Dhoni would delay the charge. Rajasthan Royals were following the same playbook in their defence of 150 and were looking to bowl out Shreyas Gopal and debutant Riyan Parag at that stage.
Many teams in IPL have gone on a losing spree. Oppositions have spotted patterns in their loss and have managed to exploit it over an entire season or in some case even over several seasons. But Chennai Super Kings have achieved the distinction of being one of the most successful franchises in IPL, by learning from their mistakes and by not giving their opponents any glaring weaknesses to exploit.
Nine out of ten times, you can bet Dhoni will wait and consolidate at 39 for 4. But last night, he took the opposition by surprise by unleashing his Plan B. It might well have been something he and coach Stephen Fleming discussed during the Strategic Time out, because Dhoni went down the track against Gopal the very first ball he faced after the break and deposited him for a huge six over long on.
A Dhoni six is often just not about the runs. In a chase, Dhoni would sometimes clear the ground to send a message to the opposition that he is coming at them. The enormity of Dhoni's sixes often leads to bowlers getting deflated and forgetting their game plans. Dhoni's entire game in a run chase is built open putting pressure on the fielding unit. He likes to take himself and his opponent in a corner for a one-on-one fight and backs his ability and experience in handling the pressure to come out on top.
The next over, Dhoni slog swept Riyan Parag. The message was clear now. If you bowl your spinners or lesser bowlers now, I will hit them out of the park every over. Rahane had to act now and bowl Jofra Archer in the 12th over when ideally he would be thinking of saving his fastest bowler for the death overs to prevent the Dhoni charge.
But Dhoni and CSK aren't known to take any needless risks. Archer's over was safely seen off without taking any chances against him. Dhoni and Rayudu knew they can still knock off the runs at the other end against whoever is bowling for Rajasthan.
CSK stuck to the plan of collecting a six every over for the next couple of overs against Gopal, Stokes and Unadkat. They were now 101 for 4 at the end of 15 overs and needed exactly ten an over in the last five overs. The game was in the 'Dhoni zone'.
These middle overs is where the chase against Rajasthan was set up. In their chase at Wankhede, CSK could manage only two fours in the six over passage between the 10th and the 15th overs even as Mumbai’s main bowlers were not bowling. They allowed the game to drift away from them slowly, and in the end, left themselves too many to get in the final overs.
Against Rajasthan, when CSK found themselves in a similar situation, they hit five sixes and two fours in the same period of play and made sure the lesser bowlers in the opposition don’t go unharmed.
Next couple of overs, Rajasthan staged a mini-comeback by not giving a boundary. The plan against Archer was always to pick 6 or 7 off his overs, but Gopal bowled an exceptional over where he gave just 5. But Dhoni was not panicking. He knew it's only a question of getting one big over from here. He knew the pressure is on the opposition captain to prevent that one big over.
Nine runs and a wicket came off Ben Stokes' 18th over. CSK were in the great escape territory now. Despite playing the middle overs to perfection, did they again leave themselves too many to get in the last couple of overs?
Archer was always going to bowl the 19th. His job was to take the game out of Chennai's reach no matter who bowls the final over. Dhoni was clearly struggling to get Archer away, and this over could seal the game for the home team.
But Dhoni has two attacking gears in his game plan. One called explode, the other marked hustle. When he couldn't explode against Archer, he hustled. He ran hard to keep his team in the game collecting two's of three consecutive deliveries and rode his luck off the final ball to collect an inside edge for four. CSK needed 18 off the last over now. Unlikely, but not impossible. But this is what CSK thrives on, staying in the game till the last over then delivering the knockout punch under pressure.
The drama that unfolded in the last over can be the subject of a movie or a book someday on its own. Dhoni was on his haunches in the 19th over, and when he couldn't collect a boundary off a free hit against Stokes in the final over, it was apparent that he had run out of steam. But Dhoni's team is built in his shadow, and with the target in sight in the final over, Santner and Jadeja found a way to overhaul it with some nerveless batting despite losing their captain.
CSK are now comfortably at the top of the points table, and it will take some doing to displace them from that position. Their position midway through the season allows them to rest some of their players and try a few different combinations before the playoffs. The Chennai backroom will be busy for the next few weeks working on different plans and combinations to make sure last year's title stays at home.