While the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) have coasted to two convincing wins in their last two Indian Premier League (IPL) games, the form of their captain MS Dhoni is a major concern heading into the April 21 clash against the Kolkata Knight Riders.
CSK have adopted a new, aggressive approach to batting. While Faf du Plessis has been innovative and attacking in the powerplay, Moeen Ali and Suresh Raina have played freely at No. 3 and No. 4 respectively. And those to follow - Ambati Rayudu, Sam Curran and Dwayne Bravo - haven't wasted any time at the crease either.
But MS Dhoni, who hadn't played any top-level cricket since IPL 2020 ahead of this season, has stuck out like a sore thumb. He managed a two-ball duck in the first game against the Delhi Capitals, and laboured to 18 off 17 balls against the Royals.
CSK have been unable to get the best out of their captain for almost 20 IPL games now, and the question of his ideal batting position remains a hot topic of discussion.
In this article, we entertain the promising possibility of MS Dhoni returning to form by batting higher up the order.
"The first six balls I played could have cost us in another game" - MS Dhoni after win vs RR
Speaking after CSK's convincing 45-run win over the Rajasthan Royals, MS Dhoni admitted that the six balls he took to get off the mark could've damaged the team's cause in a different situation.
“Glad we scored 188. I thought we could have got more. The first six balls I played could have cost us in another game,” said MS Dhoni, who was leading CSK for the 200th time.
MS Dhoni's approach to batting has been criticized and lauded in equal measure, and it's clear that either reaction doesn't affect the CSK skipper on a mental level. He will bat the way he bats, and that's usually by taking a few balls to get his eye in.
Dhoni used to be the kind of player to stroll in and smash his first ball out of the stadium, but now he needs at least a couple of balls to get a feel for the conditions. These starting troubles are compounded when he's up against spin, which he inevitably is in the middle overs.
This is the first reason why MS Dhoni moving up the order makes sense. If he comes in at No. 7 like he did in the previous game, he'll be under immense pressure to find the boundary right from ball one. But if he walks in around the 10-over mark, he can afford to take his time and then unleash himself on the opposition.
Morevoer, Dhoni needs some time in the middle to get his eye in, as no amount of net practice can simulate match situations. Talking about the same in the aftermath of the win against the Rajasthan Royals, CSK coach Stephen Fleming said the team might consider moving the 39-year-old up the order:
“Dhoni’s form is restoring, every time he gets some balls in the middle he’s going to get better and better. There will be opportunities where we would probably look to throw him [Dhoni] up. We haven’t put together a perfect innings by any means, but the skipper will be a big part of it going forward.”
CSK's long batting lineup gives MS Dhoni the freedom to move up the order
The truth of the matter is that while CSK still need their captain to fire on all cylinders, they aren't as dependent on him as they were a couple of years ago.
The emergence of Ravindra Jadeja as a world-class finisher, coupled with the smart purchase of Sam Curran, has meant that CSK have a number of players who can take responsibility towards the end of the innings.
This gives MS Dhoni the freedom to move up the order, with the knowledge that even if he gets out with a significant portion of the innings remaining, the team has the resources and batting depth to handle the situation. CSK don't even have a tail at the moment - Shardul Thakur and Deepak Chahar are slated to bat at No. 10 and No. 11 respectively.
Most importantly, MS Dhoni has nothing to lose. He has only a few years of cricket left at the IPL level, and him batting up the order is something both fans and critics would love to see. A batsman who started his career in the top order, Dhoni would come full circle if he chooses to promote himself.
Where in the CSK top order can MS Dhoni bat?
This is a challenging question that doesn't have a clear-cut answer. It's completely unrealistic to imagine MS Dhoni opening the batting, and new signing Moeen Ali has made the No. 3 slot his own after just three games in IPL 2021.
Suresh Raina, who has batted at No. 3 all his life, is currently already making a compromise by moving down one spot. And while Ambati Rayudu has cleared the boundary fairly comfortably this year, Sam Curran is another batsman whose talents aren't being utilized to the fullest at the moment.
But one of these batsmen from No. 4 to No. 6 must be sacrificed for the team's greater good. In the stacked batting lineup CSK have, a few players batting lower than they'd like is something that cannot be avoided.
The upside of MS Dhoni returning to form far outweighs the negatives. The legacy of the former Indian captain will certainly affect bowlers psychologically even if he gets a few out of the middle.
MS Dhoni should consider moving up the order for a game or two. If he finds form, CSK will be unstoppable in IPL 2021.