Decoding Dhoni: Next season will be about figuring how to manage team from dugout

PTI, May 30, 2023, 2:23 PM IST

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Mahendra Singh Dhoni was numb. He didn’t raise his head even as Ravindra Jadeja had started sprinting towards the dugout and his mates in canary yellow responding in kind.

Maybe Dhoni was trying to process it all after a gruelling two months. Moeen Ali hugged him and the contours of his face was devoid of any emotion. Maybe there was a storm brewing in his mind during those last six balls and it was the calm after-effect.

Dhoni has just guided CSK to a fifth IPL trophy in 11 final appearances and he remained unfazed. Job done, what’s the fuss about. He couldn’t suppress his wide grin as an ecstatic Jadeja jumped on to his lap and engaged in a bear hug.

There were conjectures about their relationship deteriorating after Jadeja had to relinquish CSK captaincy mid-season in 2022, but as they say in Hindi, ”anth bhala toh sab bhala” (all’s well that ends well).

If Dhoni is involved, one would never know what actually transpired. Because what happens in ‘Dhoniland’ stays in ‘Dhoniland’. Ask any CSK faithful, and he would vouch that it’s an old concrete jungle saying.

Did the world see moistened eyes? Perhaps yes. But there won’t be any overt display of emotions. It was all about process and execution with precision. A lot of pluck, and yes, a bit of luck, too.

He quietly trudges onto the field. Pats unlucky Gujarat Titans bowler Mohit Sharma’s head. He knows how it feels to come so near and yet miss out. Remember Old Trafford where he was setting it up ala Dhoni style. That’s why Dhoni is special and eminently relatable. He can relate with failures as much as he can with success.

Mohit is someone who learnt the ropes of top-flight bowling under Dhoni at CSK before fading into oblivion and then making a grand re-entry this IPL.

In the meantime Jadeja does a TV interview and dedicates his performance and win to ”MS Dhoni”. The Motera stand, resembling a sunflower, erupts, but is it a hint that the end is near.

The question has followed Dhoni to every city and different people had asked him in a different manner. The street-smart player that he is, he always gave a cheeky reply, like one to Danny Morrison where he joked that he is already forcing him to retire, or at a promotional event where he said that any announcement would make things go haywire.

Have we seen the last of him? Maybe or maybe not. Only time will tell how he copes with a damaged knee when is nearing 43.

”If you circumstantially see, it’s the best time to announce the retirement. The easy thing for me to say is thank you and retire. But the hard thing to do is to work hard for nine months and try to play one more IPL season. The body has to hold up.

”The amount of love I have received from CSK fans, it would be a gift for them to play one more season,” Dhoni said before receiving his fifth trophy.

The love of Chennai fans has been unconditional and Chepauk has been his amphitheatre, and he has been the hero as well as the main protagonist for them.

”The way they’ve shown their love and emotion, it’s something I need to do for them. It’s the last part of my career. It started over here and the full house was chanting my name. It was the same thing in Chennai, but it will be good to come back and play whatever I can,” Dhoni assured all those who braved rain, changed itinerary, burnt hole in their pockets, and were present to hear him speak well past midnight.

So will it be a practical decision or an emotional one if Dhoni, who would be pushing 43 next year, decides to play another season of a gruelling two-month tourney? It is easier said than done in professional sport but Dhoni wants to bide time. On the face of it, it might seem emotional because CSK isn’t just another team for Dhoni, which pays him a fat pay cheque. It is an emotional investment.

Going into the next decade, he will only be making all cricketing decisions and as a quick learner, work alongside Rupa Gurunath to also understand the business of running a franchise.

But those who have seen Dhoni, they know that N Srinivasan, the venerable CSK owner, is the former India captain’s life coach and he has learnt one thing from him: if possible, always bide time, and take it deep, on and off the field.

So if another IPL is 10 months away and he has to keep himself cricket-fit for at least three months in the lead-up to the next edition, he will try and do it.

”The kind of cricket I play, they feel they can play that cricket. There’s nothing orthodox about it and I like to keep it simple,” Dhoni said. As Stephen Fleming pointed out after the match. Dhoni’s training sessions are on need basis.

”I can assure you that he has done no wicket-keeping practice during the IPL. It is all natural. He tried to do a keeping session with Devon Conway, who is an international wicketkeeper, and it was almost comical,” Fleming said. ”Today was phenomenal, the style he does it with is awesome. That stumping is MS Dhoni at his best. It is nature, he has learned from tennis-ball cricket and it is just pure skill,” Fleming added.

The impact player rule will give Dhoni a chance to maybe keep wickets for 20 overs but not use himself as a batter save a few occasions.

”Look, he knows, his power-hitting game is long gone. Like on Monday, he came ahead of Ravindra Jadeja. You could say it’s because of maintaining the left-right combination but even then he took a chance because 15 balls were left.

”Had Jadeja gone out before him and got a first-ball duck, Dhoni might not have been able to finish the game,” a former CSK player told PTI when asked how the skipper thinks.

So will he play next season? ”My hunch is that he won’t play as a batter any more. He would perhaps still play a few games and check if he can run the team from dugout without being on the field. The moment, he cracks that code, he won’t play anymore. For that if you read Fleming’s words, he would try to fit in Devon Conway in that slot,” the former player said.

After all, MSD is CSK and CSK is MSD.

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