Stage set for Dhoni to exit IPL on his terms

MS Dhoni (Image: CSK)

It was late December 2019, and we had just finished a chat show for one of MS Dhoni’s sponsors in New Delhi. That was when the invite came. “Do you want to have lunch together?” asked MSD. “Please come up to my room and we can grab a bite,” he said, before disappearing into the elevator with his team of security personnel. The whole cricket world wanted to know the mind of the man, and this was an opportunity. There was no one else present and we could have a conversation without having to think of what would come out in the media. “Don’t write any of this now,” he said and smiled at me as I entered the room. I was okay with it as long as I could understand and decode what Dhoni had in his mind.

Soon after we settled down, the conversation turned to the ill-fated World Cup semi-final. “Many of you think I was leaving it really late,” said Dhoni with a smile. “But I had planned it in the mind. Jimmy Neesham had to bowl the last over and we would need 16-18 runs to win. Break it down and it’s two sixes in the over. While you think 18 runs, for a change think what the bowler would be feeling. The bowler would know it’s MS Dhoni who is batting and he has done this many a time in his career. He too would have felt the pressure. In fact, much more.”

It took a few seconds to sink in. He was seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty. He was backing himself against every adversity and was aware what he was capable of. That’s what defines Dhoni. Knowing what he can do and what is possible. A man with a peripheral vision like no other, he can read the game better than anyone else in contemporary cricket. His ability to soak in pressure and back himself and his team in tough situations sets him apart. He proved it yet again in IPL 2023, and could do it one final time in IPL 2024.

I, for one, will soak in every moment of Dhoni. Try and understand what he is thinking and how he is going about his job. How he changed Ajinkya Rahane to a T20 delight, and Shivam Dube to a potent replacement for Hardik Pandya. With a very good team this time round, can MSD finish off on a high yet again?

MSD in action for CSK (Image: IPL)

The very presence of Dhoni adds to the aura of the IPL. Just like you would go to watch Roger Federer or Lionel Messi, you would do so for Dhoni. He will perhaps not bat for more than 10 balls in most innings, and yet, each of those ball will be the stuff of theatre. In front of a sea of yellow, their favorite Thala will play a final season. The ultimate spectacle that makes the IPL what it is – the world’s greatest T20 league.

Dhoni is perhaps the greatest player in IPL history. And I say this keeping in mind both Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. The sheer impact that Dhoni has had even after his international retirement is unmatched, and that’s where he is different from anyone else who has played the sport. From not playing cricket all year to consistently making the IPL his own is possible only for him. Call it the Midas touch or the Mahi magic, it is something that has never been seen before. To leave the game and yet be able to compete with the same intensity in the IPL is fascinating, and that’s what Dhoni has done time and again.

He has nothing to prove to anyone. Winning the trophy in 2023 has settled every debate. That he is a leader par excellence is well known. And yet, the hunger is there. The determination to make a difference to his team and set a benchmark. The perfect finish. Something that eluded him in international cricket.

In fact, every ball that Dhoni now plays is a spectacle. Every second he is out there is an event. His fans can never get enough of him, and even away grounds turned yellow for him last season. Eden Gardens and Jaipur were examples of what Dhoni means to Indian cricket and the IPL. The competition will be poorer without him, and maybe that’s why each cameo that he played in 2023 added to his aura and legend. The IPL has allowed Dhoni to finish on his terms, and has forever been his platform.

However, sport, as we all know, is never perfect and there are no retakes. Even for the greatest, there is no rewind button. In what has been a truly remarkable career, which will forever be remembered in the annals of Indian cricket, there will always be that one inch to lament. That run-out in the 2019 World Cup. The ‘what if’ question will spice up cricket debates for all time to come. We will continue to argue about whether he could have scripted a final fairy tale. With the IPL, the debate has been put to rest once and for all. In 2024, the stage is set for the perfect final act for the ultimate finisher. Close well, MSD.


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