It’s 2022. The Chennai Super Kings (CSK) have enjoyed more than a decade of their existence. Almost all of it has been with MS Dhoni at the helm. The wicket-keeper has not just dug them out of trouble multiple times, but has been emblematic of whatever CSK have ever wanted to stand for. Dhoni has been CSK, and CSK has been Dhoni – let’s get that part out of the way.
As it happens in every walk of life, there is a sense of dependency on the wicket-keeper. The former India captain has perhaps been a victim of his own genius, considering CSK have often pleaded for him to turn hopeless situations to their liking. But this symbiotic relationship, despite encountering several hurdles, has always found a way to tick.
Normal cricketing logic or any rule of nature doesn’t really mandate it. If anything, Dhoni should be a spent force. And CSK’s fortunes should nosedive with it. Barring this season, though, they’ve held their own. They won the title in 2018, lost a last-ball final in 2019, and reclaimed the crown in 2021.
Cricket, however, is arguably the greatest teacher in the world. When things are going your way, it only tells you how high your ceiling can be. When things aren’t as rosy, it illustrates what the pitfalls are for any kind of approach and method.
It hasn’t come to a stage where CSK don’t know where they are going to go. They are unsure of who will be appointed skipper next season, considering Dhoni has only been handed over the reins on a stop-gap basis this term. But apart from that, there is a general direction and a template they can follow.
So, the franchise is at a stage where they don’t want to throw away every good memory of the past. Nor, do they want to think too far ahead. As the great MS Dhoni says, they want to live in the present.
On Thursday, though, they somehow managed to combine those aspects and control the time-space continuum – not just by reminiscing how things once were when Dhoni was at his pomp but by also quivering how bad things can be when he ultimately bids adieu.
Despite MS Dhoni’s knock, CSK crumbled to 97 all-out against MI
Against the Mumbai Indians – a side they have historically not relished playing, CSK’s worst nightmares morphed into reality. In 2020 at Sharjah, they lost five wickets in the powerplay. A year later at Dubai, they lost four wickets in the powerplay. At the Wankhede Stadium, they again saw four batters rush back to the pavilion during the field restrictions.
Even then, there was a sense of anticipation and optimism around the place. Dhoni was still around. To set the record straight, he is nowhere close to being the force he once was. Anyone who says otherwise is perhaps feeding too much off his past laurels. But the important thing here, was that he was around. Quite often, that has been enough with Dhoni. On Thursday, though, it only proved how far CSK will have to plan when the great man decides to walk away.
From Dhoni’s perspective, it was a sort of rear-guard action he has been known to always produce. He took his time at the start, unleashed on his favourable match-ups and watched as carnage unfolded at the other end. Even as batters found ways to get dismissed, the wicket-keeper found avenues to maintain equanimity.
When he launched a six over deep square leg off Hrithik Shokeen, the venue erupted with chants of “Dhoni, Dhoni”. It was, in many ways, the final carol for CSK fans before Christmas ends. Those grew louder as the wicket-keeper continued on his merry way, making the pitch seem anything but tough.
This, by the way, was a surface where many of India’s current superstars – the likes of Ishan Kishan, Rohit Sharma and Ruturaj Gaikwad struggled. And here he was, a 40-year-old labelled a spent force doing what he has always done.
Thursday, though, wasn’t about what the former Indian skipper was able to accomplish. Yes, it was a peek into his and CSK’s glorious past – a past where they regularly pulled such victories out of the fire and the wicket-keeper’s Houdini acts became so common that they weren’t considered Houdini acts anymore.
Thursday was about a worrying glimpse into the future for CSK – a future where their former captain might not be around to sprinkle his magic and repair seemingly irreparable situations.
In IPL 2022, CSK have been a belligerent batting outfit when they’ve gotten going. They’ve notched up four scores in excess of 200 (the highest of any team) and have shown that they can, even with their slightly old-school philosophy, compete with the biggest gunslingers in town. But they’ve also had three scores below 131 – something unheard of, considering how much value they place on not being a boom-or-bust side.
Against the Mumbai Indians, there was also a slight lack of game-awareness from CSK – again, something that has been a non-negotiable in the Dhoni era. There were strokes that could have been avoided, runs that could have been taken and risks that could’ve been averted. Each of those fell on the wrong side of the coin as far as the defending champions were concerned.
Gaikwad, who has thrilled with his stroke-play, has lost consistency. This IPL has seemed a bridge slightly too far for Ambati Rayudu and Robin Uthappa. Both have shown what they are capable of intermittently, but if the franchise is to compete on a regular basis, they might only have the luxury of playing one of those. Shivam Dube, despite scoring more runs than expected, hasn’t really reeled carried the batting unit. Oh, and Ravindra Jadeja has looked anything but the world-class all-rounder he can be.
Hence, there is plenty that needs to be addressed from CSK’s perspective. A few of these issues didn’t persist last season when they romped to the title. But with a mega-auction quite far off, these are the problems they will have to rectify.
The biggest quandary of them all, though, would be how they will be able to stumble upon that solution sans Dhoni. For much of CSK’s existence, he has been their sounding board – someone who they can readily go to in times of crisis and not worry about the outcome thereafter. The aura, at least from the wicket-keeper’s standpoint, hasn’t dwindled.
Those at the ground still feel Dhoni is capable of miracles. To their defence, he has waved his magic wand a couple of times this season. But this is nowhere close to how he did it almost every other day in the past. Back then, things were good for CSK. And when they weren’t good, Dhoni made it good.
Now, those rescue acts aren’t as frequent. He still tries, and dares thousands clad in yellow to believe. But this won’t happen forever. Deep down, both he and the franchise might know it. Neither, though, has come any close to actually understanding what it’ll take to come out of this relationship.
On the scorecard, this game will be portrayed as a fixture where the defending champions were humbled by their eternal rivals. It was also an encounter where Dhoni ultimately ran out of support. But to the keenest eyes, this was a peek into the past and a worrying glimpse into the future.
The past was pretty decent. The onus, however, is on CSK to ensure the future, most probably without Dhoni, is just as fruitful.