At the toss as Chennai Super Kings’ captain for 200th time in the Indian Premier League, MS Dhoni made an absolute tangential reference to Chepauk feeling like Switzerland these days when compared to the earlier days. (The stadium, of course, had been redesigned for better ventilation to allow for the breeze to flow through).
Dhoni then made a cricketing observation about his journey through the years.
“We have seen cricket change, how T20 was played at that point and now. It feels good to have survived for so long, it is a format we have to keep evolving,” he said.
So much has changed, but MS Dhoni taking a chase deep and playing with the mental makeup of the bowler hasn’t. For good or bad. On Wednesday night, as Dhoni stood firm... literally, at the crease and metaphorically, on his beliefs.... Sandeep Sharma managed to execute brilliantly in the last over as Rajasthan Royals won only for the second time in Chennai in the history of IPL.
The CSK run-chase stuttered in the middle overs with one of Chennai’s very own in Ashwin Ravichandran leading the squeeze for Rajasthan Royals. It’s a template Dhoni has used on many a visiting team over the years, using the lack of pace to bring things under control. Here his side was at the receiving end as chasing 176, they found themselves needing 63 off the last five overs.
Then Dhoni picked up his bat, walked into the middle to massive roars. The equation seemed out of reach but you felt... maybe this guy (as Sanju Samson referred to him later) still can. After the cameos we had seen earlier in the season, he had a bit more time here to do his thing.
He has been nursing a knee injury, we now know and that hampered his movement, and perhaps Dhoni from a few years back would have ran a few more twos as he saw out the spinners. The equation then became 54 off 18 balls as Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal bowled out. He went after Adam Zampa next over, hit a four and one of the biggest sixes of the day.
Ravindra Jadeja then did his part against Jason Holder. The equation came down to 21 off 6 balls. Sandeep had the ball in hand. The last over is where Dhoni gets to work so often. His mere presence is often enough for bowlers to miss their lengths, line and disappear. It is where Dhoni thrives... and even at 41, hobbling with a bad knee, he had that aura around him. Especially after his sixes earlier in the tournament, and the one earlier in the night.
After a nervy start to the over, Dhoni hit two of the flattest sixes you are likely to see this year. They were low full tosses, at the batter’s ankle almost, and they are not supposed to be treated that way. But Dhoni, with sheer power, muscled them just over the boundary rope. But Sandeep Sharma came back with a change of plan, trusted his work in the nets and sealed the deal with a couple of brilliant yorkers.
19.1 (wide, wide, dot): My plan was that the wicket was slow, spinners had done well. Thanks to you all that there were runs to play with. So I thought slower bouncer... that became a mistake. It was a wide and worse, one bouncer for the over. Not many options left. Then I tried a heel yorker, and that also became a wide. But I still backed myself.
19.2, 19.3 (six, six): The leg side was the bigger side so I tried to bowl full there but two balls went for two sixes. (Later in the chat, he thanks bowling coach Lasith Malinga for making his yorkers better and adds that the first ball that was hit for six, wouldn’t have been a six if the batter was not Dhoni).
19.4 (one): I realised now I have to change the angle, I also tried to change the length. That worked as I bowled around the wicket.
19.5 (one): To Jaddu bhai, the main idea was that... he hit Jason (Holder) for a six and four down the ground, so I will keep the ball away from his reach.
19.6 (one): And last ball, yeah, I backed myself again to bowl a good yorker. I am bowling yorkers well in the nets. One ball, five needed. I backed that delivery.
“You see the field, you see the bowler, and you plan accordingly as to what the bowler’s strength and how the wicket is behaving,” Dhoni said about his approach to the end-game. “After that just stand still, and wait for them to commit a mistake. That really works for me. I don’t fancy too many things. I just wait for the bowlers to commit an error. If they keep bowling good areas, well done to them.”
“End of the day, the bowler is slightly under pressure, even if he misses by a few inches you can hit a six. You need to back yourself. My strength is to look to hit straight,” he added.
In the much-evolved days of T20 that we are in, one of cricket’s oldest intangibles is handling the pressure. Dhoni’s batting prowess has been hit and miss over the recent past, but his calmness has remained a constant. You find yourself oscillating between ‘surely not this again’ and ‘wait, is it really a possibility?’
As Sanju Samson said at the presentation, “No sir, you never [feel like the match is in your pocket] when you have that guy in the middle. You have to respect that guy and know what he can do in the middle.”
MS Dhoni held fort, stuck to his strengths, and threatened to pull off another finish in style. And Sandeep Sharma held his nerve.