And so, the worst kept secret in the history of the Indian Premier League is out. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a Super King, all over again.
From the time the Governing Council of the IPL formalised the retention clauses for IPL 2018 nearly a month back, there was never any doubt that Dhoni would return to the Yellow brigade. Chennai’s most famous adopted son, with due respect to recent neta Rajinikanth, was a shoo-in to be retained by the franchise that has given him everything he has asked for and more, and to whom Dhoni has given back with interest.
Until a couple of years back, it was unthinkable that Dhoni would don any jersey other than Chennai Super Kings’ bright, vibrant, youthful yellow in the IPL. But the unsavoury turn of events that led to the two-year suspension of the two-time champions – alongside inaugural-edition winners Rajasthan Royals – meant Dhoni had to temporarily snap his association with the team that is as dear to him as the Indian national team.
From all accounts, Dhoni’s heart was never with Rising Pune Supergiants/Supergiant. The consummate professional that he is, Dhoni didn’t merely go through the paces with a team that itself was only a stop-gap entity in the larger scheme of the IPL things. He invested everything he had cricket-wise, but emotionally, he didn’t connect with Pune at more than the most superficial of levels. It didn’t help that there was also a disconnect between the franchise owners and India’s limited-overs captain when the franchise came into being. The summary manner in which Dhoni was sacked as skipper in the lead-up to IPL 2017 won the owners no friends; the selflessness with which the deposed leader complemented Steven Smith, his successor, as Pune surged to the final merely added to the aura surrounding Dhoni.
Now, the balance has been restored. All is well with the IPL world. The king is back where he belongs, not having been in exile so much as temporarily ruled a state that was always going to be in ephemeral existence. The feel-good has returned; the denizens of Chennai, and the legion of Super Kings fans, simply can’t wait for IPL 2018 to begin just as much as, one is sure, Dhoni can’t, either.
Chennai was one of the few original franchises that didn’t have a marquee player. In a well thought out move, it left no stone unturned in acquiring the services of the man who had just led India to the inaugural World T20 title, but who was still an uncut diamond, an unpolished gem. Dhoni’s metamorphosis as a leader and a statesman owed much to his time in Chennai; Chennai’s rapid climb up the performance and popularity charts stemmed directly from the Dhoni influence that brought results, a dedicated and unwavering fan-base, and sponsors who couldn’t have enough of the poster boy of Indian cricket, long mane or not.
His soul-stirring exploits with the bat, his quick-silver work behind the sticks, his out-of-the-box thinking, and his serene exterior in the face of the most daunting tasks catapulted Dhoni to ‘Zen’ status. He loved that he was loved so much, so unconditionally, by a people that haven’t always taken ‘outsiders’ to heart; he reciprocated in kind, on the park and off it. With whistle podu, he cemented himself in the already welcoming arms, minds and hearts of the average Tamilian, triggering a cult-following that only mushroomed in his two years away from the Tamil Nadu capital.
Dhoni has lived a life of pressure, unimaginable pressure. The weight of expectations have merely multiplied with time, no allowances being made for smarter oppositions and the inevitable fallouts of advancing years. He is no longer the same explosive batting force of old, especially in 20-over cricket where the fewer balls he faces, the more alarmingly his strike-rate drops. From the ultimate finisher that looked bowlers unflinchingly in the eye at the death and seldom blinked first, Dhoni has transformed into the stabilising force around which the pretty boys can dance to glory. Occasionally, Dhoni will roll the clock back and launch into a vintage display of nostalgic ball-bashing, but as is inevitable when time stops for no one, those cameos will remain occasional. He is now at a stage of his cricketing life where his wisdom almost shades his still not-inconsiderable skills.
The Chennai fan is smart enough not to expect the world straightaway, but Dhoni has spoiled him enough by spearheading the franchise to the knockout stages of the IPL every single season of its eight-year existence. Dhoni might feel the pressure, perhaps for the first time as an IPL captain – it is impossible to picture him playing under someone else for Chennai Super Kings – of not letting the fan down, but he won’t be bogged down by that pressure because that is simply not in his nature.
It will be interesting to see how Dhoni uses himself as a batsman. Numbers over the last couple of years have indicated that the more deliveries he bats in a 20-over game, the more effective he is from a team point of view. In the past, Dhoni has held himself back, especially in the IPL, backing himself to open his tremendously powerful shoulders at the very end to snatch victories few would have even dared to dream of. But that is in the past, and Dhoni must not be expected to reprise those heroics with any great regularity. Will be bat higher up the order, fashion new finishers and add to his already intimidating legacy? And if so, what are the resources he/Chennai will target at the January 27-28 auction, where the rest of the team will take shape?
Chennai have showcased a Janus-like approach by both embracing sentiment and not being ruled by it. Dhoni’s retention was a no-brainer, nor was Suresh Raina’s. But by opting for Ravindra Jadeja as the third choice, ahead of hometown hero R Ashwin, they have gone with the mind rather than the heart. Ashwin is inarguably the most successful cricketer from Tamil Nadu to have played for India; he and Jadeja find themselves in the same boat in that they are vital to the Test team but are currently surplus to the limited-overs national sides. Because he is a local, Ashwin could easily have been the more tempting option; instead, it is Jadeja who has won the nod, and who is to say that the captain didn’t have a say in that? To complicate – or simplify, your pick – matters, the Right to Match card can’t be used for Ashwin because Chennai have already used up their ‘three capped Indians’ option. Hmmmmm, as they say.