Even his staunchest supporters will know the end is near for MS Dhoni, but his retention by Chennai Super Kings ahead of IPL 2022 still makes some sense, writes Sarah Waris.
Chennai Super Kings remain a side that have succeeded against the odds. Assembling together ‘bits and pieces’ cricketers (and no, that’s not a slight on anyone), the team that could have so easily disintegrated after 2020 continued to rule the league in 2021. You almost wonder what makes them the winner of four trophies. Upon first glance, they seem a group that depend on contributions from here and there rather than relying on a consistent method — discarded players aiming to prove a point, and aged cricketers hoping for that swansong before they bid goodbye are their mainstays.
Maybe that perception actively plays a factor in their success. You’d definitely be pumped up if the team you played for, nicknamed the ‘Dad’s Army’, is just considered to be filling in the numbers. Think of it this way: you’re out of college, no longer the energetic, optimistic person you used to be. Life’s catching up, sleep is your only reliable companion, and a sense of gloom for the future has sunk in. Your body has given way with knee and back and shoulder pain a constant, but when called in for a football game on a rainy day against the ‘so-energetic-I’m-jealous’ juniors, you and your group of friends have a bigger point to prove. You can’t be a pushover. It’s about pride but mainly it’s about proving that you still have it in you.
And ensuring that all the pent-up emotions are channelled in the right direction for the right intention, is the leader. Equally frail, but a man-manager par-excellence, he guides the side with shrewdness, instilling in them the belief of their indispensability. Removing self-doubt that can creep in with time and old age, he manages to form a group where the scars remain a symbol of wars won and the weaknesses a sign of mortality. Not invincible, yet dominant. The man-in-charge has a tougher task off the field, where low confidence of one’s worth could threaten the team’s functions, but if he succeeds, he will be sure that every player walks out more determined.
And that’s exactly what MS Dhoni has managed to do with CSK over the years. But with his dwindling prowess as a batter, many thought that moving on from the 40-year-old ahead of the mega-auction was the wisest move. At INR 12 crore, there were other options available. But while in terms of runs and wickets there are more valuable players let go from the CSK roster, there are other factors at play.
Why his retention for IPL 2022 makes sense
Sport, as much as we might wish to deny it, is not just what happens inside the stadium for a few hours every weekend. There’s the never-ending involvement of fans, whose emotional investment leads to all the commercial branding and sponsors for players and teams. The market laps up what is in demand, and Dhoni, for all his contributions to Indian cricket, will forever be an advertiser’s delight. By stating that he would bow out in front of a packed Chepauk Stadium, Dhoni has further piqued the interest of the fans, who now consider him as their own, as their ‘Thala’. With his retirement now imminent, supporters will throng the ground to gradually begin the process of bidding adieu to one of their favourite sons, which will only benefit the franchise, monetarily at least.
However, his retention is not purely a financial move. Though his batting stocks have declined significantly to the point that it isn’t even a debate anymore, the Ranchi player remains at the top of his game as far as leadership is concerned. In a sport defined by fine margins, the smallest decision in a pressure game can see you through or end your campaign, and Dhoni, has, more often than not, perfected the tough choices. It’s something which played a huge role in the side’s triumph in 2021 after they failed to qualify for the playoffs in the season before.
From inspired field placements, like having a man at short cover to dismiss Ishan Kishan as the ball was stopping on the surface, or on-point bowling changes, like getting in a quick when Kieron Pollard walked out in the same game considering his struggles against them, Dhoni has, if anything, just got better. While replacing him with a youngster seems the way forward, CSK have realized that his primary skill, which has shifted from finishing games to captaining, is still unbelievable. The supply of good tacticians is limited, with only Rohit Sharma and Eoin Morgan coming close to matching Dhoni as intelligent leaders, and sealing the deal with the gloveman gives CSK a sense of security as they move forward with a new team.
A new team. For a long time, CSK have relied on their warhorses and revolved around the consistent core of Raina and Rayudu and Bravo and Faf, but 2022 could be the year when a team for the future is built, when a new core is formed. The ‘Dad’s Army’ is ready to open its doors and let youngsters into their much-loved home, the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Starry-eyed future stars, who have only heard of the memories and the tales of playing for the team from veterans, now eager to take over the role as they set forth to create a new history.
Dhoni has now been entrusted with forming this new group, a group that should know what playing for CSK means. Almost akin to welcoming kids into the family home for a summer break, with Dhoni, the gentle old man, if I may, passing down his insight and the ways of the world to eager children gathered around. Teaching them the customs and the traditions of the family that is CSK, reminding them of the lineage that they belong to, a dynasty to be proud of. A team that has demanded the loyalty of its players for the longest time will now pass on the baton to a new generation under the watchful eyes of their talisman, and once that is secured, you would trust Dhoni to walk away. But not until then.
Yes, he might lose a game or two with the bat, and it might be frustrating to watch him with the willow when he does, but he has been entrusted with the job of readying the Super Kings for a life without him, for the next set of players to carry forward his legacy. At face value, his retention makes little sense, but dig deep, and it really does.