MS Dhoni’s legacy as an IPL captain will last forever, writes Sarah Waris.
It was in 2017 that Rising Pune Supergiants, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s temporary home following Chennai Super King’s two-year ban from competing in the Indian Premier League, sprung one of the most shocking moves in the IPL’s history. It continues to surprise even five years down the line, when Dhoni being replaced as captain for a season can be viewed in totality and in hindsight. The wicketkeeper, who had led his team every year since the inception of the league in 2008, was asked to forego his duties as the leader of the Pune team after the franchise finished seventh in their debut season in 2016, with five wins from 14 games.
To fully understand how surprising the step was, we need to take a look at Dhoni the IPL skipper before his Pune stint and after he returned back to his base in 2018.
Chennai Super Kings, under Dhoni, were the only team to reach the top-four of all the first eight seasons of the IPL, and made the final six times. They were one of three teams to win two IPL titles in the first eight years, and also one of two teams to win the Champions League twice. That added up to eight appearances in a final across events since 2008 and a total of four titles. From very early, CSK had identified their preferred way forward, placing their trust in a shrewd captain who took on a team of battered and ageing pros year after year and produced results that far exceeded what cricketing logic dictates they should have achieved.
His stint in Pune was an aberration and can be explained by various off-field reasons, including working with a new franchise that had its own guidelines in place. Eager to leave an impression in their short two-year stay in the league, Pune could not have afforded another blip in their fortunes, and though the move to appoint Steve Smith as the captain in 2017 paid off with the side reaching the final, the treatment meted out to Dhoni based on one ordinary season did not go down well with many.
He was back at the helm upon his return to CSK the next year, putting his trust in the franchise despite the recent controversies they had been embroiled in, and immediately proved that he was not the one with shortcomings. Another title in 2018 was followed by a one-run loss in the finals of the 2019 tournament. While 2020 was a disaster year for CSK, finishing in the bottom half and failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in their history, Dhoni, with his zen-like persona, resisted from taking knee-jerk decisions, sticking to his trusted players and instilling in them the belief of their talent as they made a remarkable turnaround to clinch their fourth trophy the very next year. It will go down as the fairytale end to a fairytale tenure.
‘Dhoni is CSK and CSK is Dhoni’
N Srinivasan has happily conceded the role ‘Chennai Super Kings boss’ to Dhoni. His power in the franchise can be seen in the statement by an insider to Cricbuzz after the keeper stepped down as captain. “Discussions? When were there ever big discussions with Dhoni? He decides and we agree. Nothing wrong, no one can disagree with him.” That autonomy, however, was not granted overnight. It is a result of the hours spent on building a perfect dressing room atmosphere that is defined by immense trust, clarity and communication.
In an age of data-driven analytics and match-ups, Chennai Super Kings and Dhoni’s modus operandi has been to rely on instincts and past experiences, which is why the side assembles what can be called a ‘Dad’s Army’ in the auctions. While the primary focus of the other franchises remains on unearthing new and promising talent, CSK have adopted an unconventional method of accumulating cricketers who might be nearing the end of their careers to fetch them success. ‘There is no substitute for experience’ appears to be the mantra.
While there are a few exceptions, the general make-up of the team is so titled towards the ageing that they have been on the receiving end of a number of memes. But Dhoni’s vision of persisting with their ‘old’ group of players till the very end has been a conscious decision. Aware that cricketers in their twilight might be lacking in self-confidence about their immediate future, Dhoni’s own ability to shut off external noise has further played a part in getting the best out of them.
Following Chennai Super Kings’ seventh-place finish in 2020, many felt that they would hit the reset button the following year and let go of their laggards, but there was no finger-pointing or panic, as Dhoni took the field next year with a similar-looking group, knowing well that the unpredictability in cricket is not worth wiping away years of friendship and compassion.
Dhoni doesn’t keep his calm on all occasions, with younger players often stating that they have been subject to his wrath in the dressing room following a below-par showing. But on the field, he refuses to take down his teammates with him, not fretting over a spilt catch or an extra run conceded, choosing instead to remain balanced in one of the world’s most fickle sports.
The hallmark of his leadership is how realistic and observant he is, of his own failings as well as the team’s. Be it admitting that he was rusty because of lack of match practice in 2020 or adding that CSK might never be a great fielding side and will have to make it up with the batting and bowling, Dhoni has followed a simple strategy throughout, not letting unrealistic aims get in the way. He refuses to be obsessed but is not ignorant either.
As Ravindra Jadeja walks out to the toss on Saturday against Kolkata Knight Riders, it will be an emotional moment for all watching. The left-hander was Shane Warne’s ‘Rockstar’, having impressed him in the first two years of the IPL while playing for Rajasthan Royals, and one can imagine his face lighting up in genuine happiness at the news of his promotion.
Jadeja turned out to be Dhoni’s ‘Rockstar’ as well for CSK. Despite averaging less than 30 with the bat in the first three seasons with Chennai from 2012, and less than 20 in the next two years with them, the Saurashtra cricketer was backed heavily by Dhoni to a stage that he is now ready to take over the baton and carry forward the rich legacy of a cricketer who built CSK from the ground-up. He was Warne’s find, polished by Dhoni and is now ready to fly high with his own troop and team.
Jadeja will have the 40-year-old alongside him in the XI to make the process of transition easier but will have challenges of his own to face. Chief among them being emulating the success story of a team that grew stronger in all facets with Dhoni at the helm through all kinds of highs and lows.