As his delirious teammates sought to out-Bolt Usain and engulf the batsmen in the middle, Mahendra Singh Dhoni sauntered towards the opposition dugout to offer his commiserations. Had you just switched on the telly – unthinkable, right? – and seen his emotionless face, you would have been hard-pressed to figure out if his side had won or lost. The inscrutable mask was in place. It could have been just another night in office; only, it wasn’t.
Ambati Rayudu, one of 11 30-plus members in the Chennai Super Kings squad, had just lashed Carlos Brathwaite to the cover fence, signalling the triumphant culmination of a campaign flawless in its conception and nearly so in its execution. Shane Watson, another of the over-30 brigade, had emphatically fashioned the conquest of Sunrisers Hyderabad in the final of Indian Premier League 2018 on Sunday (May 27) night with his second hundred of the campaign, on one leg and loads of fire. The phoenix had risen from the ashes, bouncing back from a two-year hiatus with the most telling of statements. And yet, while his men rejoiced, the leader showed no sign of emotion. Maybe to him, it really was just another night in office.
Success, of course, has many fathers, so it will be commonplace over the next several days for many to claim that they had predicted precisely this fairytale comeback from suspension for the Yellow brigade, by a country mile the most consistent team in IPL history. But four months back, after the mega auction towards the end of January, eyebrows collectively stretched sky-high when Chennai put together a gathering of family and friends, it seemed. Dad’s Army, we screamed. What are you guys doing?
The guys, as it turns out, knew exactly what they were doing. They went for experience and reasonable fitness, not merely youthful exuberance and Olympic-level chiselled bodies and electric speed. They plumped for battle-hardened veterans with nerves of steel. They placed most of their eggs in the basket of composure and poise, indifferent to the much-hyped cliché of T20 cricket being a young man’s game. Everything they did go against conventional wisdom. Then again, what is Dhoni if not unconventional (to us, not him)?
“People talk about numbers, statistics,” Dhoni said at the post-match presentation ceremony, shortly before wrapping his hands around a third IPL trophy and then quickly handing it over to the young turks in his side. “Tonight’s the 27th, my jersey number is 7, and this was our seventh final.” Not quite indifferent to such minute details, our MS, as he sent an entire city into seventh heaven. Thala had delivered, like only Thala can.
No matter the outcome of the final, this had already been a season of plenty for Chennai. Plenty of drama, plenty of emotion, plenty of fight, plenty of love, plenty of spirit, plenty of balance, plenty of Dhoni. Myopic thinking from motivated quarters forced the franchise to shift their base from singaara Chennai to Pune after just one home game. The fans were distraught; they had waited so long to welcome their heroes back, only to be dealt an unkind kind by those to whom the IPL will always remain a target for narrow, self-serving gains. The franchise swung into action, arranging special trains to ferry the CSK faithfuls to their adopted home and making them feel at ease. Scientific studies have shown, largely from a footballing perspective, that home support boosts the performance of a team by 8%, which in effect is almost one additional player. Chennai had their 12th man firmly in their corner, be it in Pune or Bangalore, in Kolkata or Mumbai, in Mohali or Jaipur or New Delhi. Entirely because of Dhoni.
The former Indian skipper came into the tournament with justified question marks over his T20 future. His numbers for Pune Supergiant in the previous edition of the IPL were modest, and for the last year and a half, he was nowhere near the tidal wave that unforgivingly swept everything in front of it. His muscular hitting had abandoned him, forever it appeared, as Dhoni plodded along in international T20s too.
His travails seemed to have spilled over to IPL 2018 when first Mayank Markande, then Kuldeep Yadav and Piyush Chawla, tied him up in knots. Dwayne Bravo and Sam Billings pulled off mini-miracles in those first two games, but the Dhoni whispers gradually began to mushroom.
The whispers were replaced by a crescendo at the PCA Stadium in Mohali as the old No. 7 resurfaced, all fire and brimstone, smoking the ball with such authoritative disdain that you wondered if you hadn’t actually imagined the last year and a half.
That epic, 79 not out off 44 with six fours and five sixes, turned Dhoni’s season on its head. Chennai fell just short in a stiff chase, but their talisman was back. The Finisher wasn’t finished, he was setting himself up to finish off games. The mojo rediscovered, Dhoni would go on to finish with 455 runs – behind only Rayudu and Watson from Chennai – at a strike-rate of 150.66. There were 24 fours and 30 sixes from 302 deliveries faced. A gentle smile played on Virat Kohli’s face as Dhoni was taking Royal Challengers Bangalore apart at the Chinnaswamy. Wherever he was watching from, Ravi Shastri would have been a lot more visibly gung-ho.
The legend of CSK stems from the legend of Dhoni. The bond of love and loyalty is mutual. There was greater certainty of Dhoni returning to the franchise at the end of their suspension period than of the sun rising in the east, of night following day following night. Chennai openly pined for Dhoni; only slightly less subtly, Dhoni made his affiliations in the Super Kings v Supergiant faceoff all too clear.
There obviously was a lot more to Chennai than merely their unparalleled head. There was the pressing need to mentally and cricket-wise adapt to expected slow tracks in Chepauk to less predictable surfaces in Pune. There was the absence through injury very early in the season of Kedar Jadhav, with his feisty batting and parallel-to-ground offspin. There was the reconciliation to a few runs conceded on the park because fleet-footedness wasn’t exactly their calling card.
There was Rayudu, finding a fresh lease of life. There was Watson, defying age and critics and unerringly switching on for the big games. There was Suresh Raina, another returning hero who was happy to quietly settle into the slipstream of the Watson-Rayudu-Dhoni pyrotechnics. There was Lungi Ngidi, the towering South African. There was Deepak Chahar, an uncut diamond coming into the event but a lot more polished by the end of it. There were Faf du Plessis and Bravo and Billings, stepping up when it mattered. Shardul Thakur, expensive but with 16 wickets to his name. Ravindra Jadeja, anonymous in the first half but his parsimonious self once May arrived. Harbhajan Singh, less effective than previously and a lot slower than before, but a wily customer nevertheless. Karn Sharma, who dealt the killer blow in the final when he out-winked Kane Williamson, and ended the night with a third straight winner’s medal, each one with a different team.
And then there was Stephen Fleming. Understated, happy to fill in for Dhoni in public spaces and mandatory press dos, and someone the captain trusts implicitly. It’s a relationship that is into its second decade, glued by faith and respect and admiration and honesty. Fleming was a huge success in his own right as New Zealand captain. The head coach and his merry band of support staff focussed on team culture and a vibrant, positive, thriving environment inside the dressing room. That allowed Dhoni to wave his invisible magic wand without compunction out in the middle.
In the aftermath of the victory, as the others let their hair down and danced and drummed and screamed and sang at the Wankhede, Dhoni looked on like the indulgent older brother who has seen it all a million times before. It wasn’t until he was joined by Ziva, his adorable daughter, that the leader forsook form and embraced the moment. The shutterbugs were busy capturing the moment for posterity when Dhoni walked away holding Ziva, mirroring her fascination at the confetti-rain. That singular act when he was caught in his own private world on the most public of platforms bared Dhoni’s soul. Cricket is a part of life, far from life itself. A trophy holds a lot of value, but it also means only that much. There is so much more for which to whistle podu.