‘Vocal’ Captain Dhoni: One for the youth, one for the aged!
If there was one team that was expected to win the 2018 edition of the IPL as early as July 14, 2017 then it was none other than Chennai Super Kings. July 14, 2017 marked the return of the Yellow Brigade post their two-year suspension.
Expectations too high? Why not? For IPL, according to many, is considered an international cricket event in which seven franchises compete hard to face Dhoni & Co in the playoffs!
Post auctions, CSK were tagged, rather trolled, as the ‘old-age’ home with the average age of players featuring being in the mid-30s.
Dhoni, a limited-overs specialist featuring under skipper Virat Kohli, hasn’t led a cricket side prior to this season and had represented the Rising Pune Supergiant as a player in 2017.
But Dhoni reminded everyone that he “never captained any team” before becoming a world beater as the captain of the Indian side.
Handling young blood, turning rookies into heroes was probably Dhoni’s forte. Remember the CB series triumph in Australia in 2007-2008, remember the 2007 World T20 victory, remember how a supremely-fit Dhoni transformed the Indian team into an exceptional fielding unit.
Dhoni, the skipper with the Indian team and in CSK, was for long a mentor grooming youngsters such as Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Mohit Sharma and many others, and there weren’t too many old legs running around him, at least, in limited-overs cricket.
There were the odd one or two cricketers who had to be ‘hid’ in short fine-leg though. But it was marginal.
Turn to the 2018 IPL, Dhoni, 36, decided to take charge of a team with players who are either in the last leg of their careers or who haven’t played much of international cricket.
Shane Watson, Harbhajan Singh, Imran Tahir, Dwayne Bravo, Ambati Rayudu, Murali Vijay, Karn Sharma and a few others.
And then there were some relatively fresh legs in Deepak Chahar, Shardul Thakur, KM Asif, Sam Billings, Ravindra Jadeja, and Suresh Raina.
Fielding was a big concern for Dhoni. Newly-appointed fielding coach Rajeev Kumar, Dhoni’s Ranji Trophy skipper, had his task cut out.
But Rajeev had to be careful that he didn’t push the old warhorses hard during the preparatory camp prior to the tournament so that they don’t break down.
How will Dhoni, who always had a gun fielding unit on the park, marshal his ‘senior’ troops on the field?
He conceded the fact that with the team they had assembled, he “knew the kind of fielding” efforts they will showcase.
What did Dhoni do eventually? The senior pros were assigned the jogging role, while ‘Thambi’( younger brother) Billings, Jadeja, Faf, Thakur, and Chahar did the sprinting work from left to right to make up for the rest.
Yet, Captain Cool was disappointed that his ‘boys’ were “not aware” on the field. “Your speed might not be too much but you have to be attentive in the field,” he stated.
CSK’s bowling, though was supposed to be effective throughout. Chahar was brilliant, Thakur was inconsistent but, of all, Bravo ended up on the wrong side on a few occasions.
After all, Bravo and Thakur competed hard right till the end of the tournament as to who will top the most sixes conceded list.
Dhoni is someone who lets the bowler, even if he is a rookie, execute his own plans.
But, “at times even the best - Bravo - need a bit of advice. What's important is you make mistakes and learn,” Dhoni stressed after one of the matches.
Let’s not forget Kedar Jadhav, CSK’s big-ticket player, bid good bye to the tournament right at the start with a hamstring injury.
The ‘home shift’ added more to Dhoni’s problems. CSK had invested on two wrist spinners – Karn Sharma (Rs 5 crore) and Imran Tahir – and a few finger spinners in Jadeja, Harbhajan and Mitchell Santner, who was ruled out even before the tournament, keeping in mind their Chepauk fortress.
But they had to deal with a slightly pacey MCA Stadium in Pune. After 14 league matches, Dhoni’s Army finished second on the points table with nine wins and eight match-winners.
As the tournament progressed, one felt Dhoni had assembled a unit of match winners. It wasn’t the case of an individual carrying the team through.
Bravo landed the first blow against Mumbai Indians, Billings gave CSK fans a memorable win in their only match at Chepauk, Watson made Pune his home, Rayudu was in his own world taming oppositions, Dhoni bullied RCB into submission, who can forget that Jadeja-look after dismissing Kohli, Ngidi on a South Africa-look-alike Pune wicket against Punjab was on fire and after many failures, Faf came to the party when CSK needed him the most, in the playoff.
It was Watson’s turn yet again in the final as he launched a sensational assault on the best bowling attack – Sunrisers Hyderabad - in the final.
All the while, Raina was busy playing a few cameos at the top, including a key second fiddle in the summit clash and making ground for others’ blips on the field.
Rest was one aspect of the game which CSK and Dhoni had to consider seriously. Master tactician Dhoni was precise in rotating his men.
He ensured there was a proper balance between the cooling off period and shaking off rustiness for each member in the side, who were either carrying some niggle or finding it hard to get into the groove.
Dhoni, himself, overcame a bad back he endured during his scintillating knock against Punjab. Raina was absent for a couple of games with a calf injury and pacer Chahar had to be out for a couple of weeks with hamstring injuries.
A team that has always believed in “consistency in selection” process, CSK were forced to feature 20 players out of their 25-member squad in 16 matches!
Many cricketers in the past have said that Dhoni seldom reacts to situations, but this season he did. He was quite vocal about what he felt.
Skipper Dhoni was critical on the experienced cricketers whenever they faltered, either with the ball or on the field, but mentor Dhoni put his arms around the shoulders of youngsters when they flunked the pressure test.
Dhoni knew IPL was a tournament wherein every team has its weak-links to capitalise on. And he ensured CSK took advantage of every such moment. For example, Dhoni saw off RCB’s Yuzvendra Chahal and feasted on Corey Anderson to bring his team through.
From day one of their three-member practice session at Chepauk in March to sprinting after a ball like a 13-year-old kid all the way towards the boundary with the pads on to bludgeoning bowlers, Dhoni has led CSK from the front in every way a leader could have over the past two months.
As Dhoni mentioned ahead of the finale, he knows which bike or car to ride in which road!