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Old habits die hard. The ‘thala’ in world cricket was back at it again. He demonstrated yet again what he has shown umpteen times in his heyday for Team India and his franchises, CSK for 12 seasons and Rising Pune Supergiant for two.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s 6-ball 18 not out on Sunday night that took three-time IPL champions Chennai Super Kings to the final was worth more than the 327 other runs that were scored in the entire Qualifier 1. No disrespect ever at all to the others who have scored that many. Such is the power of MSD that he sent to the backstage the power-hitting of Prithvi Shaw, the late surge of Rishabh Pant and Shimron Hetmyer in Delhi Capitals’ innings, the continued brilliance of Ruturaj Gaikwad and the come-back-to-form of veteran Robin Uthappa for CSK in the run chase.
Dhoni surely stands alone in whatever he does. Shaw looking into Dhoni’s eyes without batting an eyelid during the customary handshake seconds after the master finisher hit the winning runs showed how much the former India World Cup winning captain is being looked up to even at the age of 40. Only a couple of hours earlier, Dhoni, behind the wickets, was seen signalling to his deep fielder on the leg side to be ready for a catch while Shaw was preparing to take strike. The ploy almost worked, just that the top-edge went to no man’s land behind Dhoni.
Such is Dhoni’s stature that even in his last stage as a player – he himself is unsure if he would play next season because of lack of clarity on the retention rules ahead of the mega auction – his runs in a winning cause, especially while chasing, are being talked about with great reverence than the other individual brilliances. It was only apt that Dhoni hit the winning runs, though it was not his trademark helicopter shot sailing over the long-on boundary but a pull to the leg side for a four.
Dhoni’s finishing touches in a high-scoring match even made the India captain and potential rival for Friday’s title clash, Virat Kohli to scream on Twitter:
Anddddd the king is back ❤️the greatest finisher ever in the game. Made me jump Outta my seat once again tonight.@msdhoni
— Virat Kohli (@imVkohli) October 10, 2021
And, when Kohli and Dhoni rejoin forces for Team India, the former as captain for one last T20 tournament and the latter as the team mentor in a one-off assignment, it can only work wonders for the Men in Blue in the upcoming ICC T20 World Cup.
In his forties when the individual brilliance tends to fade away, Dhoni has still held on to his magical touch. Of course, he may not have been finishing off matches in style in recent times as often as he used to when he was younger. Of course, he may have struggled to up the scoring rate and often has consumed more deliveries than runs scored. But, when it matters the most, like in the Qualifier on Sunday, you can hardly keep Dhoni out.
Great players rise to the occasion. And there is no doubt about Dhoni’s stature in the sport. Sunday was just another reminder of what he is. The score may not be voluminous. But the timing was as crucial as the 155 runs that the other CSK players and Mr Extras put together.
Dhoni, known for his cool and composure, was his usual self when he was at the non-striker’s end with 13 needed off the last over sent down by Tom Curran, who has been named the replacement to his injured younger brother Sam in England’s T20 World Cup squad less than a week ago and who was playing in his first IPL match in the UAE leg. There may have been doubts on everyone else’s mind if Curran was the right choice to bowl the last over. Captain Rishabh Pant went with his instincts and gave it to the bowler who had been the best until that moment. Curran, indeed was on a hat-trick when he dismissed fellow Englishman Moeen Ali off the first ball of the 20th over, for he had dismissed Shardul Thakur off the last ball of his third over (14th of the innings). Until then with impressive figures of 3/16 in 3.1 overs, Pant’s move may have been seen as a magic, especially when you had the more experienced Kagiso Rabada also as an option.
But the crossover following Ali’s dismissal brought Dhoni to strike. Here’s when his magic touch of yore came to the fore. Dhoni may have been lucky with an inside edge to four off the second ball he faced in that over after picking up the gap on the off side for four the previous delivery. But, when it is destined to be thala’s day, not even the external forces can stop him.
And, Dhoni showed his pupil Pant who the master was on the day. Dhoni showed to Pant that it was important to take every run whenever it was available and not necessarily keep most of the strike with the hope of hitting fours and sixes. He also showed to Pant that it was important to finish matches in style by staying till the end.
Of course, we have seen Dhoni struggle to put bat to ball towards the end of his brilliant international career. Dhoni, in recent times, has had a strike rate of under 100. But, when it really matters in big matches, Dhoni has more often than not, risen to the occasion. He gave a glimpse of it with that six against Sunrisers Hyderabad to take CSK into the playoffs. He continued to show it on Sunday to take CSK to yet another IPL final.
And he has shown it time and again in his past. One such knock that stays fresh in memory came when his team had to avoid finishing with the wooden spoon in the 2016 IPL in Visakhapatnam against Punjab Kings (then known as Kings XI Punjab). Having had a forgettable season, RPS and PBKS were fighting to avoid the last-place finish in the league stage. RPS were chasing 173 – the same target as the Sunday game. RPS needed 23 off the last ball, as against the 13 CSK needed on Sunday. Dhoni did not lose his belief on that sultry May day in the coastal town of Vizag just like how he kept his cool in the desert on Sunday.
The bowler sending the last over that time was Axar Patel, who was also playing on Sunday for Delhi Capitals, though did not send down the 20th over. Dhoni hit three sixes including the last-ball maximum to help RPS finish seventh and send the Murali Vijay-led PBKS to eighth.
One can go on and on about Dhoni’s innumerable knocks as a finisher. Such is the power of Dhoni. CSK owe it to thala, and Dhoni is not finished yet as a player, a leader and a finisher.