It almost didn’t matter that Dhoni didn’t win

MS Dhoni for CSK (Image: IPL)

In his ode to Johnny Unitas, his childhood hero, the American sportswriter Frank Deford wrote: “Sometimes, even if it was only yesterday, or even if it just feels like it was only yesterday….

Sometimes, no matter how detailed the historical accounts, no matter how many the eyewitnesses, no matter how complete the statistics, no matter how vivid the film….

Sometimes, I’m sorry, but….

Sometimes, you just had to be there.

That was the way it was with Johnny Unitas in the prime of his life, when he played for the Baltimore Colts and changed a team and a city and a league. Johnny U was an American original, a piece of work like none other…”

Substitute MS Dhoni for Unitas, Chennai Super Kings for Baltimore Colts and Indian for American, and you begin to get some idea of what it’s been like for cricket-lovers to follow the MS Dhoni Farewell Tour. Wherever he has played this season – on home turf at Chepauk, at the Wankhede, or the relatively new venue in Lucknow – wave after wave of nostalgia has washed over Dhoni each time he walked out to bat.

A lesser man would have wilted in the face of such emotion. But far from being overcome by it, Dhoni seems to use it almost like Obelix did his magic potion. For years, Dhoni the batter had been running on fumes. In the three pandemic-affected years – 2020, 2021 and 2022 – his strike-rate in the IPL was below 125 every season. In 2023, back in front of capacity crowds, he reinvented himself as a pinch-hitter of sorts, smashing 104 runs at a strike-rate of 182.

What we’ve already seen in 2024 defies belief though. The 16-ball 37 against Delhi Capitals was in a lost cause, but the 4-ball 20 proved crucial in a high-scoring encounter in Mumbai. And with 160 looking unlikely in Lucknow, Dhoni clubbed three fours and two sixes in a 9-ball 28.

But as Deford wrote, no matter how complete the statistics…

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What is truly astonishing is the sight of a man, who turns 43 this July, retooling his game to such an extent that the best data-crunchers in the game are unable to keep him quiet. Dhoni, who has played next to no cricket outside the IPL for half a decade, has added to his repertoire in the off-season. In his first avatar, as a long-haired rocket launcher, the flat flail over cover was not a shot he often played. And he certainly didn’t step outside the line of the ball and scoop-lap it over the wicketkeeper for a six.

But as Mohsin Khan and Yash Thakur unravelled in the final couple of overs, you also realised one of sport’s ultimate truths. Data and analysis can only take you so far. When you came face to face with Roger Federer in his prime, seeing him at the net was like glimpsing an octopus. Whatever passing shot you tried would be deftly volleyed past you.

Dhoni at the crease has that same stillness and glacial calm. No matter how much coaches tell you to play the ball and not the man, Dhoni staring you down from across the 22 yards is as intimidating a sight as any the game has known. Better bowlers than Mohsin have lost their nerve in the face of that stare.

That Chennai didn’t win is almost irrelevant. The final chapter of the Dhoni narrative transcends results. “Ultimately, you see, what he conveyed to his teammates and to Baltimore and to a wider world was the utter faith that he could do it,” wrote Deford of Unitas. “He could make it work. Somehow, he could win. He would win. It almost didn’t matter when he actually couldn’t. The point was that with Johnny U, it always seemed possible. You so very seldom get that, even with the best of them. Johnny U’s talents were his own. The belief he gave us was his gift.”

It’s a gift that Dhoni has been blessed with. As have those who get to watch him on this final lap.

Also Read: Blistering Dhoni cameo has fans glued to their screens

MS Dhoni for CSK against LSG (Image: IPL)