IPL 11

On a day when Sanju Samson excelled, MS Dhoni reminded everyone why he is still the top dog

The Chennai captain smashed a 44-ball 79 to almost take his team to victory in one of the most remarkable run-chases of recent times.

“God has given me enough power so I don’t have to rely on my back a lot. I am used to playing with the injuries. You have to be tough,” MS Dhoni quipped after almost leading his team to one of the top chases in the history of the Indian Premier League.

In the early stages of the innings, Dhoni required treatment after hurting his back while completing a quick double. At that stage, Chennai Super Kings’s chances of chasing down the 198-run target set by Kings XI Punjab seemed a near-impossible task to overhaul.

And how many would have given Dhoni a chance to single-handedly drag his team to the brink of a famous win? His six-hitting prowess, which, in the past, looked as effortless as switching on a button, is considered to be on the wane. His role in the shortest format is uncertain and the Indian team management, it seems, still cannot figure out where to play him in One-day Internationals.

While his leadership and reflexes behind the stumps remain as good as ever, there have been whispers over whether he should be a part of the 2019 World Cup squad. But as Dhoni himself put it at the toss in Mohali on Sunday, “With age comes experience” while making a tongue-in-cheek remark about a majority of his Chennai teammates being over the age of 30.

Travails and redemption

Over the past year, another “god-given” ability of Dhoni – the art of manipulating a chase – has also come under the scanner over the past year. On a few occasions, most notably in an ODI against West Indies and a T20 against New Zealand, Dhoni was entering uncharted territory – spending time at the crease but unable to deploy his venomous bottom hand in the final leg of the chase.

Rising Pune Supergiant owners, in 2017, thought it was the right move to dump Dhoni as captain after a solitary bad season (something that almost won them the title last year). Against Kolkata Knight Riders a few days back, in what was yet another steep chase for Chennai, Dhoni laboured to a 28-ball 25. Against Mumbai, young Mayank Markande had outfoxed him.

There have also been calls to push the younger lot of wicketkeepers in the country even after Board of Control for Cricket in India selector MSK Prasad recently observed that they are not a patch on the Ranchi dasher.

Dhoni’s back problem during his blitzkrieg also added to a gripping narrative. Here was a man willing to put his body on the line and slaughter bowlers, despite nursing a bad back.

The Samson show

Sanju Samson’s destructive unbeaten 91 at the Chinnaswamy Stadium promised a different tale. Tearing into seasoned internationals such as Umesh Yadav and Chris Woakes, the young wicket-keeper bat has thrown his hat in the ring, which also features Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan, when it comes to finding a replacement for Dhoni, as and when.

Samson, though, hasn’t been Rajasthan Royals’ keeper this season, but there is a willingness to fight his way back to being on the fringes of India selection after falling down the pecking order due to form and disciplinary reasons.

“Whatever my team wants me to do, I’ll do it – whether it’s fielding or keeping,” Samson said.

Samson started the previous season at Delhi Daredevils on a rousing note too, only to fizzle out in the latter stages. If the three matches are anything to go by, the Kerala lad is thriving under a more prominent role in the top order. Blessed with the gift of timing, there is hardly a sign of a rush of blood.

While big-hitting behemoths Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and D’Arcy Short were generating the buzz in the Rajasthan camp before the start of the campaign, it is Samson around whom the batting order has revolved around for the Royals so far.

“He will be playing in a different shade of blue very soon,” exclaimed former England captain Kevin Pietersen from the commentary box as Samson made a mockery of the Royal Challengers Bengaluru bowling attack, and short boundaries at the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

But Dhoni, back spasms and all, is far from giving up the coveted first-choice wicket-keeper batsman spot. Even against Punjab, it was an arena set for the grand reinvention of Chris Gayle, who dished out a treat with his trademark charisma and a child-like glee to deposit the ball over the ropes.

Dhoni rained over Gayle’s parade and walked away with the plaudits. One wonders if Dhoni wearing the yellow jersey alone hands him those superpowers in the death overs – a domain where he is peerless.

But the guardians of the blue jersey of India would have taken note. There is still fuel left in the tank of Dhoni, the finisher.

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