Sometimes when you gotta say it, you gotta say it, no matter how clichéd it may sound. And so when Dhoni deposited yet another low full-toss from Sandeep Sharma into the stands, Ravi Shastri couldn’t help it.
‘Who is writing this script?’ Shastri exclaimed on air, in the most Shastri-esque tone imaginable, as Chepauk erupted watching their Thala roll back the clock.
At the halfway mark of the contest, if you’d asked every single one of the 30,000-odd CSK fans at the Chepauk what they would really love to see in the second innings, they’d all have unabashedly, unanimously answered the same thing: a Dhoni special to take their side over the line.
And 15 minutes past 11.00 PM, the entirety of Chepauk was living its fantasy.
7 off 3 balls was all the home side required, and the finishing line was within sight. But that’s not why the crowd was going bananas.
A good majority of the 30,000 folks would have settled for a mere dharisanam but on the night, they got to witness a Taṇḍavam.
41-year-old Dhoni, in what’s ‘allegedly’ his last ever IPL season, batting as if he’s 27. Smashing sixes for fun, even against spin. The icing on the cake? The game being his 200th IPL match as CSK captain.
Peak Dhoni and peak CSK were both inevitable, and as Sandeep Sharma prepared to deliver the fourth ball of the wretched over in which he’d already bowled two wides and conceded two sixes, you could just sense that same inevitability.
Irfan Pathan 2010, Axar Patel 2016, Corey Anderson 2018…….
Sandeep Sharma 2023 becoming the latest addition to the aforementioned list felt like a matter of time.
How’s it even remotely possible, then, that Rajasthan Royals ended up on the winning side?
This is the story of Sandeep Sharma, the man who cheated destiny.
Come to think of it, the lead above would make for a pretty killer intro for a docu-series. We’ll save that for later.
Back to the topic, though.
With 7 needed off 3 balls, Sandeep went 1, 1 and 1 to secure a three-run victory for his side.
Defending 7 off 3 is a considerable achievement even in a dead rubber played in front of empty stands, but Sandeep only went and did it in CSK’s fortress, against an in-rhythm Dhoni who was being revved up by more than 30,000 local supporters. Utterly, utterly ridiculous.
Sweet as it may sound to drive forward the narrative that the veteran bowled three perfect deliveries to drag his side over the line, however, the truth is, he didn’t.
Undeniably, 19.5 and 19.6 were inch-perfect yorkers that the batters could do little about.
19.4 though, was a short one right in Dhoni’s hitting arc which could have gone anywhere.
Two seasons ago, Avesh Khan, in qualifier 1 in Dubai, pitched one around the same length and traveled the distance. And that was against a rusty Dhoni who truly looked like he was completely past it.
This was not only a much sharper Dhoni, but a Dhoni that was in the zone. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned watching Dhoni over the years, it’s that it’s over for the opponent when he’s in the zone.
That way, Sandeep was extremely fortunate that Dhoni completely miscued his attempt to thwart the short ball into the mid-wicket stand, particularly having smashed the previous two deliveries for maximums.
But make no mistake, while luck did play a part in Sandeep reversing destiny, that he triumphed and overcame the odds was solely down to him holding himself together mentally, not letting the situation get the better of him.
During his time at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson urged his players to ‘play the game, not the occasion’; that is precisely what the 29-year-old did at Chepauk on Wednesday.
On most occasions, the greatest of players tend to down their opponents even before they’ve faced them.
Sergiy Stakhovsky, the man who shocked Roger Federer at the 2013 Wimbledon, famously said the following in the aftermath of his triumph.
“You're playing the guy and then you're playing his legend, which is following him because he won it seven times. He's holding all possible career records here.
"When you play Roger Federer at Wimbledon, it's like you're playing two persons. First you play Roger Federer and then you play his ego. When you're beating one, you still have the other one who is pressing you. You're saying, 'am I about to beat him? Is it possible?’"
It is no different in cricket. When AB de Villiers smashed the fastest-ever international hundred eight years ago, the Windies bowlers dished out a million full tosses to him. It is not that those bowlers suddenly lost their ability; it was just that they were undone by the man himself as much as his skill.
After delivering two very nervy wides, and two more awry full-tosses that went the distance, it did, for a brief moment, look like Sandeep Sharma had been undone by the man, and the occasion.
It was remarkable, therefore, that he bounced back the way he did, not only keeping it together but nailing two unplayable deliveries to seal it for his side.
Herein probably lies the answer to why Sanju Samson didn’t throw the ball to young Kuldeep Sen.
With figures of 0/8 after two overs, Sen had been the pick of the seamers. And he’d been drafted into the side specifically for his ability to excel at the death. Considering how his pace and skid would have been tricky for Dhoni to handle, it would have made all the sense in the world to throw the ball to the 26-year-old in a cricketing sense.
But did he have it in him not to get intimidated by the occasion, the aura and presence of Dhoni and the raucous Chepauk crowd? Was he capable of playing the game, and not the man or the occasion?
Samson probably thought not. Not yet, at least, even though he’d shown promising signs against LSG last season.
Ultimately, the decision of the RR skipper was vindicated as Sandeep brought all his experience to the fore to seal an ice-cold victory for the side.
By choking CSK with his yorkers, Sandeep merely finished the job that he’d started. The 29-year-old’s death bowling will get all the plaudits, and rightly so, but it was his 1/13 with the new ball that significantly pinged CSK back in the chase.
Powerplay was always going to be key on a surface that was tiring out, but like he’s been doing for a decade now, Sandeep delivered the goods with the new ball.
He started with a tight first over and delivered a hammer blow in his second by removing the Super Kings’ trump card, Ruturaj Gaikwad. As a result, an average powerplay ensued for CSK — 45/1 off 6 — and it meant that they were always going to play catchup on that surface, particularly with RR possessing a world-class spin troika.
In the end, they weren’t able to catch up.
Five months ago, after going unsold in the mini-auction, Sandeep told Cricket.com that he was ‘shocked and disappointed’ that he had no takers. He stressed in a helpless tone that he didn’t know where and how things went wrong.
An unfortunate injury to Prasidh Krishna has kept Sandeep’s IPL journey going, but performances like these do truly make you wonder: do franchises actually know what they’re doing at the auction table?