MS Dhoni is relinquishing his obligations one by one, like a man reaching the vanaprastham. He resigned down as captain of the Chennai Super Kings seven years after quitting Test cricket and two years after forsaking the national colours forever.
He is still a player, a wicket-keeper batsman, by strict definition. Only that he will eternally be the leader of his faithful legions.
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In the cool sea-breeze-infused IPL summer nights in Chepauk, the banner—MS Dhoni: Captain For Life—used to be waved madly. Dhoni-maniacs would place the banner on the walls of the MA Chidambaram Stadium and fervently scream his name even as he grudgingly draped the purple jersey of Rising Pune Supergiant during CSK’s two years in the wilderness. When he returned, they blew crackers, garlanded his enormous cut-out, and yelled his name so loudly that the echoes were carried to far beaches by the wide ocean that encircled the stadium.
Dhoni’s love looked to be unconditional. However, the ultimate fact is that a successful athlete is adored. Even in the most unconditional of loves, conditions creep in. Dhoni was adored for his charm and charisma as much as his achievements and fame. And therein lies his greatest legacy: he is the most successful skipper in the IPL (four titles, five runner-up spots, just once failing to reach the top-four).
MS Dhoni is shown with his teammates. (File)
Captain is the most comfortable and successful commander of men in this style. He established the tone, speed, and structure for captaincy in the shortest format, which did not exist when he began playing cricket, yet it is tough to codify his leadership streaks into a rulebook or even a model for T20 success. Dhoni was his own instruction manual.
He was risky and ambitious during the outset of his CSK career, even playing left-field at times, as seen by his pre-captaincy hitting. But none of those strategies were chosen on the spur of the moment or based on instinct or impulse. He weighed the outcome forensically before making a choice. He was far more contemplative and thoughtful, but it was his brilliance that he made it all appear natural.
For example, his decision to use left-arm spinner Shadab Jakati against Sachin Tendulkar in the 2010 finals was misinterpreted as a risk, although it stemmed from a training session for India where Jakati was used as a nets bowler a few years previously. Tendulkar mistimed a couple lofted smashes to the deep, according to Dhoni. He had stored that information in his mind, and when the time came, he recalled it and used it. Tendulkar was duped by Jakati into a deadly chip to the deep.
MS Dhoni will continue to play for CSK. (TPLT20.com)
He put Matthew Hayden behind the bowler near the outside of the circle rather than traditional long-off in the same match because he had seen Pollard miscue a number of shots to that no-land man’s in the T20 World Cup before that occasion. When the ball was intentionally pitched up in his batting arc and holed out to Hayden, Pollard couldn’t shake his hunch. Dhoni was about to kiss the IPL trophy for the first time in his life a few balls later.
Not only did he have the memory and instinct, almost a sixth sense, to scheme a wicket, but he also had the confidence to pull it off. There was no dithering or half-measures with him. Every move he took had a dazzling clarity to it. Even if the plan failed, he would stand by his choice and the bowler. He would stick by them even when they failed, earning him not just the affection and respect of his teammates, but also the admiration of their captain.
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According to CEO Kasi Viswanathan, MS Dhoni would continue to play for CSK after the 2022 season.
For CSK supporters, MS Dhoni will always be Captain.
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Palani Amarnath, a former CSK bowler, recalled an incident years ago: “The brief was to keep the over tight, but I ended up giving 16-17 runs.” I was anxious and avoided his gaze, but he encouraged me not to worry, to be calm, and that I would have 13-14 wickets that season.” A quick yet insightful look inside the mind of a man who keeps his thoughts to himself. To himself, he kept the entire rich trove of stories, anecdotes, analyses, and insights.
As a result, whatever portrait of Dhoni we draw is always incomplete. We piece together our own impressions, as well as the impressions of people who have played with him or claim to know him. Coach Stephen Fleming constantly reminds the world of Dhoni’s ability to get the greatest performance from even the most jaded players. “He contributes to the creation of an atmosphere in which everyone feels at ease and wants to win every game.” That’s presumably why he and CSK are both successful,” Fleming once noted.
IPL 2021 final, dhoni
Chennai Super Kings’ captain was MS Dhoni. (File)
Shane Watson is a recent example. CSK purchased the Australian all-rounder on Dhoni’s insistence in their comeback to the league auction in 2018 for four times his base price, despite the fact that he was regarded past his sell-by date. He scored 555 runs throughout the tournament, including a century in the final. Last season, Dhoni supported the ageing three of Robin Uthappa, Dwayne Bravo, and Ambati Rayudu and got match-winning performances out of them. Dwayne Smith, a Barbados all-rounder, is another example.
CSK has been a proving ground for a number of new cricketers, as well as a place to trust ageing cricketers. Dhoni’s CSK has produced world-class players ranging from Ravichandran Ashwin and Ruturaj Gaikwad through Deepak Chahar and Ravindra Jadeja. And, according to popular belief, CSK is not the league’s oldest team—the Gujarat Titans are (28.7 vs. CSK’s 27.9)—though the credit for transforming T20 into a young man’s game would rest happily on CSK’s shoulders. Dhoni’s teams were never the greatest on paper, but he always made sure they were the best at the conclusion of the season.
Some have chastised Dhoni and his teammates for clinging sentimentally to players who appear to be past their prime. CSK were not emotional, but they were not prone to repeatedly chipping and chopping its players. Dhoni was busy constructing a steady nucleus during the early years of the league, when clubs were always experimenting. “He used to stress the importance of developing a core of quality players who could stay at the same club for years,” Fleming recalls.
Dhoni was working constructing a steady nucleus at a time when teams were always experimenting. (File) A lot of them stayed for a long time, but a lot of organisations would simply get rid of players after a bad year or two. Later, the Mumbai Indians adopted the same technique and turned into a trophy-winning machine. Dhoni was a nonconformist in that he would stay by players in a fickle environment and elicit reciprocation, he would choose fringe players and remould them into functioning gears and assemble them into a winning machine, and he would cushion unpredictable teenagers and drive them to greatness. But he didn’t let instinct rule him; instead, he tempered it with logic and practicality. He was both a rebel and a revolutionary, but he dressed like a regular guy.
With the passage of time, it was felt that a cloak of conservatism had crept into his leadership. It’s just another myth, or rather an illusion—much like everything else in life, Dhoni’s captaincy had evolved with age, and even T20 cricket had grown more scientific and data-driven. He must have realised that on-the-spot thinking has its limitations in this day and age. No other captain, on the other hand, bears the audience’s anticipation of seeing something unexpected. He is no longer the captain, though.
But just because he isn’t the captain any more doesn’t mean he isn’t the captain. He might not be, strictly speaking. But when he steps onto the field, he’ll still be the captain, the one pulling the strings from behind the stumps, his right-glove webbing caressing his chin like a philosopher as he prepares his next move.
And he will always be Captain Forever in the hearts of his millions of fans. Despite the fact that vanaprastham is not far behind.