Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been the cynosure of attention this season. Undoubtedly he’s amongst the biggest stars in the sport, but after his retirement from international cricket last year, Dhoni’s newsworthiness was thought to belong to the past rather than the present or future. How wrong was this surmise!
Before the Indian Premier League’s second phase resumed in the UAE, he was appointed mentor of the Indian team to participate in the T20 World Cup. By the time the IPL concluded, he had led Chennai Super Kings to their fourth title. Juxtaposing these two, how India performs in the WC has become an even major point of interest.
Dhoni’s assignment with the Indian team for the T20 WC was unexpected. Clearly, the BCCI was looking to rejig the captaincy for white ball cricket, and needed somebody to hand-hold this period of transition. Equally, if not more important, was the keen desire of the BCCI – reflecting that of Indian fans – of winning a multi-nation ICC Tournament
This is something that had eluded Virat Kohli, under whom India lost in the semi-final of the 2019 ODI World Cup, and perhaps even more agonizingly, the inaugural World Test Championship final to New Zealand in England earlier this year. As the top-ranked side in the world, India were expected to bring home this title, but disappointingly flopped in a taut contest.
Having won three tournaments as captain – the T20 World Cup in 2007, ODI World Cup in 2011 and Champions Trophy in 2013 – Dhoni’s credentials were excellent to be made mentor. In fact there was none better, when you consider that so many in India’s T20 WC squad - including Kohli - got their break in cricket under him either playing for India or Chennai Super Kings.
The value of – and expectations from – Dhoni’s appointment as mentor have got accentuated with CSK’s triumph in the IPL. There was no keener interest in how the team – and particularly Dhoni – would fare. More than his form with bat, focus was on his leadership. Did he have the ability to inspire his players as of yore?
In IPL2020, played in the UAE, CSK had bombed quite badly. Called `Dad’s Army’ because several players were on the wrong side of 30, CSK huffed and puffed and then fizzled out, not showing too much stamina or skill. When IPL2021 began, skepticism was rife whether the team had the wherewithal to succeed.
This persisted even after the first phase, played in India, had gone well, and not hard to see why. They had made virtually no change to their squad from the IPL2020 fiasco. By what yardstick could they win this time, skeptics questioned, even if CSK were among the top 4 in the points table when the UAE leg began.
Such doubts were proved unfounded as CSK first ensured qualification into the play-offs, then won the qualifier against table toppers Delhi Capitals to enter the final where they beat Kolkata Knight Riders – who had been the most impressive side in the second phase – with an astonishing degree of comfort.
But while in hindsight CSK’s victory looks easy, it didn’t come without hardship. Before entering the play-offs, the team had lost three matches on the trot. Earlier wins became a handy buffer and a better run rate ensured that they would remain ahead of Royal Challengers Bangalore who finished with the same tally of points: important in the context of getting a second shot at the title if CSK were to lose the qualifier.
As it happened, this wasn’t necessary. DC ran up a big score, but were overhauled by CSK in a fine run chase which ended in the final over and with MS Dhoni playing a pivotal role with the bat in a powerful cameo of 18 runs from just 6 deliveries.
This had fans and experts gushing over Dhoni showing `vintage’ form, but without taking away anything from that knock, it was Dhoni’s captaincy that was more significant to the outcome.
DC had a better-rounded side than CSK. The top order had been in excellent form throughout the season, the bowlers perhaps a shade better. In contrast, CSK’s batting had been heavily dependent on openers Ruturaj Gaikwad and Faf du Plessis, with others making decent scores intermittently. Dhoni’s own contribution with the bat had been meagre.
In this crucial match and the final, CSK rose to total eminence, with significant contributions from every player, Dhoni marshalling his resources with aplomb and mastery. His bowling changes and field placements were spot on. He read the game early and superbly, picking the right moments and person to exploit the situation to his team’s advantage.
Having earned CSK their fourth title, Dhoni’s focus now shifts to an exciting assignment, no less important than that in the IPL. Though he will not be on the playing field, what and how he can contribute to India’s campaign in the T20 World Cup is already the hottest issue on the cricket circuit.
The sheer weight of his experience in elite tournaments is in itself the biggest gain for India as skipper Kohli mentioned in one of the pre-tournament press conferences. Dhoni understands match situations and trends minutely and his inputs will be crucial, believes the Indian captain.
The chemistry between Dhoni and Kohli – indeed even Dhoni and chief coach Ravi Shastri – has been splendid over the time they’ve spent together so there should be no hitch in establishing a command structure. If Dhoni can influence even 1-2 percent betterment in tactics and performance, India will take some stopping.