This past week MS Dhoni has played us all like puppets on a string. First, he stepped down from Chennai Super Kings’ captaincy, in a manner that bore his unique signature. Leaving the scene quietly is an art form that he has perfected, and this was another such example, wherein fans were left pining for more.
Of course, the cricketing deity that he is in India, Dhoni obliged fans’ calls two days later. This time, he answered the call in a different way on a ground that is entwined with his destiny. At the Wankhede, on IPL 2022’s big opening night, Dhoni brought out the big guns and smacked his first half-century in almost three years of competition.
MS Dhoni scored his first IPL fifty since 2019 in CSK’s campaign opener on Saturday. Image: Sporztpics
It wasn’t smooth sailing though. When he came out to bat, Chennai was reeling at 61-5 in the 11th over. As Dhoni arrived at the crease, Shreyas Iyer did the only plausible thing – he put on spin from both ends and the rank old timer’s struggles began. It was an obvious match-up as he struggled to 13 off 21 deliveries, for his troubles against the slow turning ball are well documented.
In that, Dhoni’s lack of runs is dissimilar to most batters. Even on the international stage, as he started losing form, he found the going tough against spin and his strike-rate nosedived. It was quite dissimilar to most other ageing batsmen – usually, they lose hand-eye coordination and fail to time the ball against pace, making better use of spin to score runs.
Dhoni cannot time off-spin, and this has been the case since late 2018. That he managed to stay relevant as a batsman for another two years on the international stage, and a further two years at the IPL, is an ode to his talent and craftsmanship. The former is a natural ability, which we need not discuss at this stage of his playing career. The latter is about calculations and mental adjustment. It is best seen in the manner he has utilised Dhoni-the-batter for Chennai’s purpose.
Since the 2020 IPL, once he had retired from the international arena, Dhoni tried using himself as a CSK batter as sparingly as possible. From 2020 to 2021, it was best seen in how he delayed his arrival at the crease. It bodes well for him that he faced the least number of deliveries in that CSK line-up. And so, when he did come out to bat, he could just go slam-bang whether against pace or even take chances against spin.
This methodical batting from Dhoni’s playbook is what won the day against KKR in the IPL 2021 final. But Kolkata learnt from it too and put it to good use on this first day of the new IPL season. Only, Dhoni was able to limit the damage that had already been done with easy acceleration against pace. Flashing bat speed, swatting away short deliveries, pulling off his legs and cutting hard away from stumps – this was typical Dhoni finishing off things in style at the Wankhede.
Perhaps fans even hoped for an encore of the six he had hit back in 2011, but nowadays even the slightest glimpses of his past self is enough to regale one and all. He smacked 37 off the last 17 deliveries he faced – at a 200-plus strike rate – as Chennai gained a somewhat respectable total even if a meagre one to bowl to.
Even so, as pleasing as ‘the Thala show’ was for Chennai fans, their batting performance, on the whole, should be worrisome. The mega auctions and introduction of two new teams have hit the reset button, and Chennai have been hit hard like most set teams. Faf du Plessis’ stability at the top is gone. Shardul Thakur’s late order bursts are gone. Sam Curran’s attacking stroke play is gone. Moeen Ali will be back but he was sorely missed on the day.
Chennai tried buying as many of their best players as possible but Deepak Chahar’s 14 crore price – after four pricey retentions – pegged their business back. Instead of re-securing Faf and Thakur, they had to make do with Uthappa and Rayudu. Now, this duo does bring bags of experience to the fore, and repeatedly, they have come good to propel Chennai up from troublesome situations. But they had others around them acting as anchors, and they played the support act.
Uthappa crossed the 300-run mark in IPL back in 2018, and while Rayudu did it in 2020, he has also aged another two years. With Chennai banking on the Gaikwad-Moeen combination to propel their top-order, can Uthappa-Rayudu be counted upon to prop up the Chennai middle order? It is not a question of winning the tournament on day one of this 2022 season – today it is only a matter of sustenance.
The question to ask is if this seasoned combo will help Chennai make it to the playoffs? Or, are Chennai simply betting on another stupendous season from Gaikwad, for that is heavy-risk betting?
You only have to look at how KKR approached the target in a calculated manner. Ajinkya Rahane is a very useful T20 opener, especially when the other three batters in the top four are naturally attacking power-hitters. With Venkatesh and Shreyas Iyer, and Nitish Rana, Kolkata have provided him with that comfort, and like with his 44 off 34 balls, he will build many innings this season.
It puts into perspective how Chennai and Kolkata have built their teams and handed them to their new captains. Ravindra Jadeja has been handed an ageing squad, with youngsters plugging widening gaps. He was given a free-hitting role in 2021, and already he looked under pressure with the added burden of captaincy. Did Chennai miss a trick by not pursuing Faf harder, someone who could have filled the captaincy shoes?
Then, you look at how Shreyas Iyer handled his first day at the job. It helps if the opposition is restricted to a sub-par total, but every move in the field on Saturday was up to the mark for Kolkata. It was almost as if Iyer had been handed written down notes by coach Brendon McCullum and he followed them verbatim and passed a successful initiation.
From hereon, Shreyas Iyer can begin shaping his own team, while it seems a long, arduous road ahead for Jadeja.