Explained: At 41, MS Dhoni is still adapting and his new role suits him to a tee
MS Dhoni has only played 35 balls in nine matches so far this season. While that may seem a small number, considering his stature, that is exactly the role he has carved out for himself, writes Shashwat Kumar.
The moment Ravindra Jadeja was dismissed against Punjab Kings, thousands of fans clad in yellow at Chepauk raised the decibel levels. And if you had not guessed already, it was for their skipper.
A few overs earlier, with CSK well-placed at 158-3, there was an opportunity for Dhoni to stride out. But he refrained from doing so. Not for the first time this season, and based on the evidence before us, not the last time either.
Dhoni has batted on only six occasions so far this campaign. In four of those, he has come out to bat in the final over. Against Gujarat Titans in the opening game of IPL 2023, he walked out to bat in the penultimate over. The fixture against Rajasthan Royals was the only time he batted before the 19th over, largely because a middle-order collapse forced his hand.
So, there is a clear inclination on Dhoni’s part to hold himself back for as long as possible. Dhoni arriving for CSK’s pre-season camp, all bulked up, suggests that this was the plan all along. With Jadeja also not quite finding his hitting range, it has allowed CSK to inject impetus late into their innings.
Dhoni has flourished in this new role. While millions of fans, at the stadium and in front of television sets, would have wanted a longer glimpse of him, this is what is perhaps best for CSK and Dhoni.
Last season, he mustered 232 runs at a strike rate of 123.4. 153 of those came in the death overs at a strike rate of 175.86. The rest of his runs came at a strike rate of 78.2. This year, all but two of his runs have come in the death overs, and he currently strikes at 225 in that phase.
The last over, though, is well and truly his territory.
Dhoni currently has 709 runs in 290 balls in the last over in IPL cricket, which includes 59 sixes. Seven of those have come this season, off just 21 balls. He is hitting a six off every third delivery in the last over, and this is at a time when Dhoni is 41 years old and supposed to be well past his prime.
Dhoni has made a name for himself for keeping things as simplistic as possible. But this season, he has taken that a step further, moulding himself as this 10-ball batter who walks out, watches the ball and whacks it. He has reduced this topsy-turvy T20 format to its bare essence, concentrating on making as much of an impact in as small a time frame as possible.
That might seem simple enough for Dhoni, but it remains a nightmare for any bowler. The number of deliveries do not matter either. Dhoni, in this avatar, is going to look them in the eye, without an inkling of a blink and dare them to bowl the way they want to – all while the pressure of the last over amps up.
Of course, Dhoni is not the batting force he once was. Like all elite sportspersons, though, he has realised it, and has moulded himself to play a role that does not just purely rely on his ball-striking ability anymore, but also banks on the indomitable aura he carries.
There, he is almost incomparable. And this season, he has done everything to ensure he is batting as often in the environment he most thrives in.
Once upon a time, that phase used to be longer. This version might be shorter but there is nothing to suggest it is not as impactful, or different from the role he envisioned for himself, even before a ball had been bowled.
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