Before IPL 2018, Dhoni spent several hours hitting balls, and getting mentally ready - and the results are showing. © BCCI

Before IPL 2018, Dhoni spent several hours hitting balls, and getting mentally ready – and the results are showing. © BCCI

One of the more visible aspects of Chennai Super Kings surging to a playoff spot, maintaining their 100% record in making it past the league stages in every edition of the Indian Premier League they have taken part in, has been MS Dhoni’s return to his big-hitting ways.

Dhoni’s form leading into the tournament had been under a cloud, and his ability to explode at the finish – even in IPL games – seemed to have vanished. However, since smashing 79 not out off 44 balls against Kings XI Punjab just over a week into IPL 2018, Dhoni has rediscovered his big-hitting avatar. After 12 games, he has 413 runs at a strike-rate of 162.59. He’s batted in all 12 matches, but because he’s remained not out eight times, the average is a stunning 103.25.

Stephen Fleming, the Chennai coach, said Dhoni’s resurgence was down to the Chennai captain having practiced extensively ahead of the tournament, and being in a good space mentally too.

“He practised hard before the tournament. He practised a long time, got in before any of us arrived,” revealed Fleming. “He had a lot of balls, had a huge volume of balls, being concentrated on his intent. If anything, he has probably lacked intent around his singles. As soon as he hits, he plays with a 100% commitment. Even the way he starts now is very positive, his footwork is very positive, his finishing has come into the zone again. So it’s been great to watch, but a lot of hard work to get there and I admire him for doing that.”

Dhoni hit a cameo 20 not out off 14 on Sunday (May 13) as Chennai beat Sunrisers Hyderabad by eight wickets with an over to spare, riding on Ambati Rayudu’s magnificent 100 not out off 62 balls. The win at the MCA Stadium in Pune took Chennai to 16 points, and while Fleming said Rayudu’s terrific form in the tournament was one of the key reasons for their position, he reiterated Dhoni’s importance to the side too.

“There was a period when he was having to combat good bowling plans, and now he has done that with good presence of mind, and obviously fitness and a strong technique to back that up,” said Fleming. “He has almost got a second life. He is incredibly confident about what he can do and that’s always a great thing for us and dangerous for a death bowler. He is so clear in his thought and so content with his mental and physical presence at the crease that he can access most areas that he used to when he was a bit younger.”

Dhoni had won the toss and opted to chase, but while that decision was made more with the batting in mind, Chennai also benefitted from the ball moving in the air at the start, which forced Hyderabad into a circumspect start. They eventually ended up with 179 for 4, but thanks to Rayudu, and his opening stand of 134 with Shane Watson (57 off 35), Chennai reined in the target comfortably, and Hyderabad couldn’t find the swing that Chennai’s bowlers had at the start.

“I thought the ball would swing more, because it swung for us – but it was not there. That was the only surprising aspect,” said Dhoni. “We got off to a good start, Watson and Rayudu batted really well. Whenever the ball was there to be hit, they made sure we get boundaries. As the game progressed, it became easier for us. But otherwise, 180 against them would have been difficult to chase.”

Kane Williamson, the Hyderabad captain, also said that the lack of swing had hurt his side, but credited Chennai for being the better team.

“It would have been very nice to get it swinging something similar to what they did,” said Williamson. “They got considerable amount of movement for eight, eight and a half overs, which made batting pretty tough initially. You still have to bowl well, and they certainly did that.

“And then conditions certainly got a bit better. We would have perhaps liked a few more runs but I guess 180 is always a tough total to chase, you think. The wicket was a very good surface but Rayudu batted beautifully. It was a fantastic hundred and during that partnership at the top of the order for them, we couldn’t get the ball moving. It was just the change in conditions, but they played extremely well, so they deserve the win today.”