MS Dhoni didn’t watch a ball that a billion plus cricket fans tracked with wide eyes. It was the last delivery of the IPL final between Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Gujarat Titans (GT) at the packed 100,000 capacity Narendra Modi Stadium in Motera. (More Cricket News)
CSK needed four runs to win their fifth IPL title. Ravindra Jadeja was the batsman. GT’s Mohit Sharma was the bowler. Mano a mano, even in a team game.
Sharma had done an excellent job the first four balls, finding his yorkers inspite of the pressure of the occasion. On the fifth, his length erred a bit and Jadeja half-volleyed a six over long-on.
As Sharma began his run-up for the final ball, Dhoni, sitting on the CSK bench, enigmatically lowered his gaze. Though poker-faced, he transmitted, like a man sitting at a puja, a hope for a miracle. Moments earlier, in a rare tell of his mind, he had shaken his head. This was because his first-ball duck and the exit of Ambati Rayudu before that had brought GT back into the game.
Sharma strayed down the leg side on the last delivery, Jadeja clipped it, and the ball sped to the fine leg fence for four. The CSK bench erupted. The stadium reverberated. Fireworks cannoned into the sky. Dhoni smiled and hugged Jadeja, a man he had reportedly been beefing with through the tournament.
One of the eternally fascinating elements of sport is seeing people who have differences with each other coming together for the team cause. This was believed to be Dhoni’s swansong. That the bow on his parting gift would be tied by Jadeja, who has also been displeased with the franchise, was poetic.
The other moment of the final pregnant with meaning was Jadeja luring the transcendent Shubman Gill out of his crease, and Dhoni stumping him in a flash.
Even the weather was with CSK. The rain interruption just after their innings started helped the men in yellow. It reduced the overs and the target, and as R Ashwin pointed out, the wet ball and wet outfield would have worked in CSK’s favour.
Thereon, it was a team effort. GT’s 214 had put them in pole position. But CSK were back on track thanks to a blazing start from Devon Conway and Ruturaj Gaekwad. Crucial, brisk cameos from Ajinkya Rahane, Shivam Dube and Rayudu helped them nose ahead. And then Jadeja provided the finish.
Dhoni, who led India to two World Cup wins (T20 World Cup 2007 and ODI World Cup 2011) and many other triumphs, would have been pleased that it was a team effort. While not above hubris and self-interest, he has generally been a believer in team over individual, performance over reputation. As a young captain, Dhoni often spoke about the importance of energetic youngsters over ageing superstars.
One year after becoming the one-day captain some 15 years ago, Dhoni eased out Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly from the team. Further down the road, he rested Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar in a tri-series in Australia. And he openly said he did not play Sehwag, Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir together in Australia as it slowed down the fielding on the country’s big grounds. He also wanted to prevent their bodies from breaking down.
"These fielders are not bad but on these big fields, they are slightly on the slower side,” Dhoni had said.
It was an Australian way of thinking in a culture that deifies individuals.
After the love he has received from CSK fans this year, Dhoni himself is now finding it hard to let go, as he said after the IPL final. Rather than doing the expected thing of walking away a winner, he feels he owes his fans one more year of toil and effort from his side.
“Circumstantially if you see, this is the best time for me to announce the retirement,” Dhoni said. “But the amount of love and affection I have been shown wherever I have been this year… the easy thing for me would be to say ‘thank you very much’, but the tough thing for me would be to work hard for nine months and come and play at least one more season of IPL. A lot depends on the body, I have six-seven months to decide, It’s something I feel I need to do for them [his fans].”
One is reminded of Kapil Dev’s final days as a player. It was an open secret that in the last stage of his career, he was being allowed to continue simply so that he got the record for maximum Test wickets, even though he was past his best. But when he got his record, he said he would play two more years. Anshuman Gaekwad, who was a selector then, decided to bell the cat. “Kaps, the selectors feel you need to quit now. And you also know it. We will give you a farewell game, as per your choice,” he said.
Kapil was gracious and thanked Gaekwad for being direct.
But millions weren’t praying for Kapil to continue, as great as he was. It is hard to imagine a conversation of the Gaekwad-Kapil kind taking place at CSK. MSD is their 'Thala'. Perhaps Dhoni, closing in on 42 and his body creaking, will have that chat with himself. “No mas,” his knees might say like Roberto Duran. But for now it is time to bask in the glory of yet another victory for a man who made winning a habit for his teams.