Bengaluru, April 1: MS Dhoni is not a mere cricketer in Chennai. He is the most adored, recognised sportsperson. Every Chennaite's very own Thala. A name they trust to do the impossible. On a humid Sunday night at Chepauk, Dhoni faced a moment that every believer hope to be the next chapter of his legend.
The Chennai Super Kings had lost three early wickets for not many against Rajasthan Royals, when Dhoni walked in to a familiar roar. But there were no immediate fireworks. He began with those economical pushes and nudges for singles and twos, but his presence in the middle would have been hugely consoling for each Chennai fan. As long as Dhoni is there...
Dhoni made 12 runs off the first 15 balls and in fact his first boundary came only in the 17th ball. It was the sort of calculated innings that now we have come to expect from the Jharkhand man. Not even one shot was out of context and played in desperation. It was as if Dhoni knew he was going to play till the final over and there would be opportunities for him to exploit.
Of course, there were slices of fortune in the form of a dropped catch, when he was on 28 off 27 and the bails did not come off after the ball trickled on to the stumps off an inside edge. He could have walked back for a two-ball zero. But the greatness of a sportsperson lies in the ability to cash in on those reprieves and Dhoni did just that.
Chennai spinner Imran Tahir said as much. "You know him well because he has done that so many times," said Tahir.
"He works hard on his game plan. He works really really hard, I have to say that. Even in practice sessions, he helps his team-mates. And we respect that. The way he carries himself is just unreal. He won't say much but he knows how to lift the team up. He is great leader and a great human being," he said.
He respected Jofra Archer, who bowled an excellent dew-defying spell. However, it wasn't that Archer spared completely as Dhoni carved him for a couple of boundaries through the off-side. But bowlers like Jaidev Unadkat and Dhawal Kulkarni were not of the same cloth and Dhoni exploded against them. In the 18th over when Dhoni was on 40 off 35 balls, Kulkarni bowled a no-ball and the free hit was not wasted.
Dhoni lifted Kulkarni's low full toss outside the off-stump over wide long off for a maximum and he began to flow from there. Then came the final over. Ravindra Jadeja made a bright start hammering Unadkat over the bowler's head for a six before crossing over with a single. Dhoni faced the 4th ball of the innings which was called a wide.
Then came those three sixes in a row that left Unadkat and Royals shellshocked and send the 'Whistle Podu' army into raptures. Knowing the slow nature of the surface, Unadkat did the right thing by cutting down on pace but Dhoni flexed that barn-door of a shoulder to smoke the ball over square leg, long-on and long-off. There was a touch of familiarity to that sight.
The final over is an ever-compliant little brother who is willing to do every calling of Dhoni. Barring a handful of rare occasions, Dhoni dominated the bowlers and the situations in the final over. The bowler will be dragged into a territory where it becomes a personal duel between him and Dhoni. It's almost a no-win situation for the bowler because Dhoni the batsman has precision and power in equal measure.
At Chepauk, Dhoni was not steering a chase but trying to push Chennai to a total that would give their bowlers some cushion considering the dew factor which made shot-making that bit easier. Ben Stokes admitted Royal's failure to thwart Dhoni despite being aware of his plans.
"It is obvious what Dhoni does. He is one of the world's greatest finishers. Especially when he comes early, every team knows what he is going to try and do to start with," said Stokes.
But stopping Dhoni is an altogether different task.