For an individual who has had her cricketing love story coincide with MS Dhoni’s rise, his slump is painful to witness, writes Sarah Waris.
As MS Dhoni huffed and puffed his way to a 27-ball 18 against Delhi Capitals, trying his mighty best to cut Ravichandran Ashwin’s carrom ball or get bat to a 146.4kph bouncer from Anrich Nortje, the signs were evident. They have been for a while. Struggling to gauge the change in pace and eventually falling to a back of a length delivery from Avesh Khan, Dhoni looked nothing like the yorker-hunting, bowler-scarring player that we had all gotten accustomed to for so long.
His attempt to bat ahead of Ravindra Jadeja in the clash, a tactic beyond logic, hid a truth that the world is slowly coming to terms with. Desperately out of match practice and with waning reflexes, Dhoni needed all the time out in the middle ahead of the playoffs to find his touch and rhythm, something that the CSK skipper had acknowledged last year when a similar promotion left the team with a score of 125-5 in their 20 overs against Rajasthan Royals. Dhoni, who had scored a run-a-ball 28, then claimed, “I haven’t batted for a long time. 14-day quarantine doesn’t help (on why he isn’t batting higher).”
CSK had lost that game, just like they lost the one against Delhi on Monday. The recent encounter was a tighter affair, with Rishabh Pant’s team barely crossing the line in the last over, and as Dhoni admitted that they were short by 15 runs, the daggers were out, pointing their blades at a cricketer who had once wowed, amazed and left us dumbfounded with his brute hitting.
What if he bats this way in the playoffs when the side is in trouble? And, worse still, what if his batting hinders CSK from reaching the title? In a world where things have a habit of catching up to you, this fear might border on paranoia, but it remains a valid one, nonetheless.
As the world was forced off social media due to a global outage, prompting people to live a life that once was common not long ago, reliving the days of “Snake” or “Bounce” on Nokia 1101 or going back to the age-old SMS to stay in touch, a sense of nostalgia swept over cricket fanatics as well. With each ball that Dhoni blocked against Delhi, flashes of his roaring self from the past – like the way he dispatched Sri Lanka’s Shaminda Eranga for 16 runs in three balls in the 2013 tri-nation series final – came to mind. Every soft tap for a single against Axar Patel was in contrast to the brute power that was unleashed when he tonked the same bowler for 23 runs off the final over of a 2017 IPL game.
A push back to the bowler for a quick single, the helicopter that was unleashed with oh, such force, every yorker that was punished, one after another… The comfort of having him on your team, when they needed to chase an unsurmountable target in the final few overs. Chasing steep targets almost became a norm; it was Dhoni’s world, and we were mere spectators, lucky to witness his aura for years and years.
Change remains the only constant, with sports fans knowing the true meaning of the adage as they eventually see their once-revered heroes zoom out into the horizon. It starts with denial, the refusal to accept a star’s dwindling prowess, which then translates into defiance at any criticism directed towards the icon, one who has inspired in more ways than one. Bargaining and arguing over facts soon become commonplace but as the truth seeps in, and supporters finally face the harsh reality, a sense of gloom sets in. It’s time to accept that it’s over, and agree that happy memories of a player in his prime will always be a better legacy than seeing him struggle for the very fluency and momentum that once defined him.
Dhoni is past his prime. There is no hiding the truth. It’s out for the world to see. He knows it, the players around him are aware too, and so is the CSK management. That’s why they risked sending him over Jadeja in a game of no consequence — they know giving him adequate match-time ahead of the playoffs is of utmost importance. Better a loss now than in a crucial juncture. This season, the great player averages 14 with a strike rate of 97.67, his lowest in 14 seasons of the tournament. He averages 20 against the slower bowlers with a strike rate of 68.96 this year, which increases to 112.28 against the quicks. His average of 12.80 against the fast bowlers is a far cry from the Dhoni of old, the Dhoni who relished smashing the fastest bowlers for tall sixes in his heyday.
While there is no denying his leadership skills, which remains the biggest reason for CSK’s entry into the playoffs, he is nowhere near the player who instilled fear by just walking out. ‘Thala’, as he is lovingly called by ardent fans for his ability to rise over every hardship, has lived up to his reputation for well over 15 years but his recent form makes it tough to overcome the odds, even for him.
Dhoni has emerged as the face of the franchise, which has prompted them to state that they would continue with the former India player as captain for as long as possible. Fans will still flock to see him and soak in the once-common-now-so-rare six off his blade but every ball he is unable to pull and every bouncer that gets the better of him will only erode how fans remember Dhoni.
That’s not how it should be, though, for he deserves better, much better.