It was not the shot he has patented. He did not dispatch the ball into the crowd above the long-on area. Even the swag with which he would wriggle the bat in his hand after the opposition had been eclipsed was absent.
But once the battle between the Rising Pune Supergiant and Sunrisers Hyderabad entered Dhoni time, the story could have had only one hero — MS Dhoni. He had rarely been as textbook, but with two required off the last delivery, he cleared his front foot and drove Siddharth Kaul’s full delivery from round the wicket to the cover boundary.
Pune had been trampled over in their last four outings. At one point on Saturday evening, a chase of 177 seemed improbable. With 47 required off three overs, Pune stared at a fifth consecutive defeat.
Dhoni was yet to cross 30 in this year’s IPL, and his strike-rate languished in the 80s. He had eaten 22 deliveries to muster 25 runs. Dhoni’s season was in the pits. Pune’s chances in the game were in the pits.
But it was the kind of situation Dhoni has thrived upon. He developed into one of the finest finishers of the game after he helped his country complete one unbelievable chase after another. His finest moment as an India cricketer and captain too came when he executed the chase in the 2011 World Cup final. He had not done it in the league this year, or for India in a while, but the situation on Saturday evening placed him right back in his comfort zone. And, Dhoni exploded.
After the defending champions had been stunned, Dhoni casually greeted his partner Manoj Tiwary first before shaking hands with the Hyderabad players. There were no exorbitant celebrations, though there could have been. Even on the usually abnormally calm Dhoni, they would not have seemed out of place.
For, the last couple of months had been tough on India’s World Cup-winning captain. Personal form aside — every cricketer goes through a dip in form — the hurdles Dhoni has had to face from the decision-makers, and those related to them, at his current IPL franchise could have provoked a not-so aloof reaction from most cricketers.
Dhoni had voluntarily handed over the captaincy of the national team in its entirety to Virat Kohli at the start of the year. A few days later, he captained an India ‘A’ side against England. At the toss, he promised his countrymen and supporters that this would not be the last time he would lead a side. He had believed that he would continue to lead the Supergiant.
But, a month and a half later, Dhoni’s plans had been disturbed. He had, in the past, stepped down from India’s Test and ODI captaincy. But the top management at the Pune franchise decided to replace him with Steve Smith as their leader for the 2017 season. Dhoni’s decision to step down from the national leadership roles had taken people by surprise and drawn praise for the way they were timed. For the first time, the decision was not his; his IPL team did not leave him with much of a choice.
So, a captain who had won India a World Cup and a World T20 each, apart from the two IPL titles he led the Chennai Super Kings to, had been replaced by a young Australian for a team in India’s premier T20 league. Smith is the captain of the men from Down Under, and he is an impressive captain himself, but he is yet to win any trophy of note. More so the giant of Dhoni the captain dwarfs Smith the captain. Yet, there wasn’t an expression of disappointment, let alone angst, from the legend of the shorter forms of the game.
In another month and a half the IPL came knocking. Dhoni had reminded the world of his striking prowess in a magnificent century against England in January. But the lack of cricket thereafter, because he does not play Test cricket anymore, meant he was rusty to start his campaign for the Supergiant in the IPL.
Harsh Goenka, brother of the Rising Supergiant’s owner, reminded Dhoni of his rustiness and welcomed his first appearance as a non-captain in the IPL with a cold shoulder on social media.
After Dhoni’s replacement, Smith, starred in Pune’s victory over the Mumbai Indians in their first game of the season, Goenka tweeted, “#RPSvMI Smith proves who’s the king of the jungle. Overshadows Dhoni totally. Captains innings. Great move to appoint him as captain.”
Such a startling statement from the owner’s family drew expected ire. It forced Goenka to delete the tweet, but not before the world had read and saved it.
But Goenka’s welcome to Dhoni was not done yet. Another game later, another evening of Dhoni’s struggle later, Goenka once again took to Twitter like a child takes to a toy he was been warned against. This time, he spoke about the best strike-rates of his batsmen, merely two games into the season. The jibe was, however, in him attaching a photo that had the list of his team’s top run-getters – Dhoni was fifth on a list of six. It was indirect, but it was another unnecessary and crass taunt.
Dhoni’s wife, Sakshi, took to social media to post a photograph that had a veiled message and another one with her dressed in the Chennai Super Kings jersey and helmet — her husband’s former team.
Suresh Raina, Dhoni’s teammate at CSK and now the captain of the Gujarat Lions, also went on record to say, “I was disappointed. He has done so well for the country as well for the IPL teams. He should be respected every time. It is not about me saying, it’s the world saying!”
This is India, though. Every person has an opinion about cricket and is eager to flaunt it. And, the discussions turn more vocal when the subject matter is the IPL, since it caters to the liking of everybody.
The IPL games are short, jazzy and guarantee entertainment thanks to the prominent dose of music and Bollywood that it entails. Thus, it attracts more eyeballs and greater opinions than the other forms of the game. But the problem arises when the team owners begin to enforce their opinions.
Not all the owners have an association that runs deep with the game. Most of them are either business tycoons or Bollywood stars, who may be the greatest of the sport’s fans, but are not experts by any means. Yet, their influence in key team decisions often glares through.
One common trait that the franchises in the IPL have maintained is their disregard for the repute of India’s most successful captains. And, it is a habit that was developed in the initial stages of the league.
Sourav Ganguly led a young Indian side, rebuilt after the match-fixing shocker, to the final of the 2003 World Cup. It was under him that India began to believe that they could win overseas. He was a great captain, who pioneered a change in mentality in Indian cricket. But, it appeared as if his achievements held little value in the IPL.
Ganguly was sacked as captain of Shahrukh Khan’s Kolkata Knight Riders after just one season. After the team crashed to lower depths in the next season, he was reinstated as captain in the third season. Shockingly, the Bollywood superstar’s team released him in the season after. One of India’s most successful captains and the Prince of Kolkata, as he was fondly known, would not represent Kolkata in India’s T20 league.
Ganguly was picked up by the Pune Warriors India after being unsold at the auction. Not being picked initially was a surprise because it undermined the achievements of one of India’s greatest one-day batsmen.
It is understandable that the franchises expect more from their players. Especially, from greats like Ganguly then, and Dhoni now, because they set the bar so high that it is easy to fall short.
Dhoni’s walk into the sunset is in process. There is a slight change in the role. Teams are expected to play around him and his astute cricket brain nowadays as compared to the days when each time he would walk out to bat, he would destroy the opposition with his power.
But it must hurt Dhoni to be treated the way he has been by his Pune franchise after all that he has achieved on the cricket field. What good does criticism from within the camp, but from the other side of the fence, do anyway? He may not have reacted to losing the captaincy and Goenka’s tweets, but he reinforced his genius with the bat by rewinding the clock on Saturday.
The confidence had rubbed on. After a quiet game against the Mumbai Indians on Monday, Dhoni played like it was 2007 again. From the moment he walked out against the Kolkata Knight Riders on Wednesday, he went slam bang and provided Pune’s innings with wings. The team may have lost on the night, but Dhoni had allowed his bat to make another statement during the cameo.
During the knock on Saturday or the one on Wednesday or even when Dhoni endured a tough start to the IPL, one factor remained constant — the crowd’s unconditional love for him. Every ground he walked out on to greeted him with a welcome that was an anti-thesis of what Goenka welcomed him with.
Whether Dhoni is back as captain of the Chennai Super Kings, who are set to return to the fold following their two-year suspension next season, remains to be seen. But, that is one franchise that wants him back, and at the helm. It could be an apt gesture for this great Indian captain in the last phase of his career.
Updated Date: Apr 27, 2017 12:53 PM