Column | Impact of Dhoni relieving CSK captaincy

Dhoni appears keen and fit to play in all the matches for CSK in IPL 2024. File photo: PTI/R Senthil Kumar

The announcement, or rather, the lack of it, was typical of the man. There were no press conferences, nor were there any public meetings or long orations. The change might have even gone unnoticed but for the fact that his absence in the gathering was too glaring to be missed. Despite the presence of numerous international cricketing heavyweights, the discussion among the members of the media and even the other attendees of the event, focused solely on the person who was missing in action. The general consensus was that Mahendra Singh Dhoni had managed to pull of another coup in his inimitable style, winning maximum attention , despite not being part of the gathering! 

When Ruturaj Gaikwad took the seat kept for the skipper of Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in the photoshoot of captains of the 10 sides taking part in the 17th edition of Indian Premier League (IPL), it marked the end of an era. Dhoni had led CSK through all of its title triumphs and was an indispensable part of the side right from the commencement of the championship in 2008. He and CSK had been so closely identified that the two had become hyphenated in cricketing circles and it had become impossible to think about one without the other coming into the mind. 

It was in the air for some years that Dhoni would be relinquishing the captaincy of CSK. As is well known, he had stepped aside in 2022, only to find the side going through an extremely bad phase losing six out of the first eight matches they played that year. Ravindra Jadeja, who had moved into the role of the skipper, had no option but to step down and Dhoni took over again. CSK came back with renewed strength and vigour to win the 2023 edition of IPL to prove to the world that they were still one of the formidable sides in the championship. But this also underlined the extent to which the side depended on Dhoni and his leadership to retain its position at the top of the table.

Dhoni’s versatility on the cricket field is well known. As a batsman, he remains one of the best finishers that the game has seen, despite the diminishing returns during the last few years. As a wicketkeeper, he is still the finest of stumpers, seldom missing any chance and retaining the amazing hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes that he had in his prime. His game sense is well known and this is an added bonus for his side as it helps to catch the opponents on the wrong feet, besides tying them down by being forced to eschew risks. Thus, he is more than an all-rounder in that he keeps contributing during the entire time that his side is on the field, in addition to his prowess with the willow and his skills at the death.

As a captain, he has few parallels in the world of white-ball cricket, especially in the shortest version, where he leads with an unmatched vision and panache. He had led India to two title wins in the global arena - the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup of 2007 and the ICC World Cup in 2011. During his tenure at the helm India also reached the pole position in ranking in Test cricket. He also corrected the established wisdom in the cricketing circles that wicketkeepers could not be good captains. 

Yuvraj & Dhoni
M S Dhoni celebrates with Yuvraj Singh after hitting the winning shot in the 2011 World Cup final. File photo: IANS

Dhoni’s decision to quit captaincy of the national side in Test matches during the tour of Australia in 2014-15 and his stepping down from the helm in limited overs cricket in 2017 were planned in advance and executed with minimum fuss. He informed the world that he had stopped playing for India one year after he finally turned out in national colours in the ICC 2019 World Cup. This information was provided through a post in Instagram, the social media platform, and it was left to the media and followers of the game to interpret and analyse the timing and impact of this decision. 

But Dhoni continued playing for CSK even after he stopped turning out for India. His deep bonds with the franchisee and its owners are well known. N Srinivasan, the former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), whose family owns 28.14 per cent stake in CSK, is a close personal friend of Dhoni. Srinivasan even appointed Dhoni as a Vice-President in India Cements, the company where he is the Managing Director, thus cementing their relationship even further. When the IPL spot-fixing scandal broke out in 2013 and allegations were made against Gurunath Meiyappan, the son-in-law of Srinivasan, Dhoni stood by his friend, an act which did not win him many admirers. His links with CSK and its owners are very profound and personal and one cannot imagine any changes in this relationship in the near future. 

Jadeja & Dhoni
Ravindra Jadeja and M S Dhoni celebrate CSK's triumph in the 2023 IPL final. File photo: PTI/Kunal Patil

The two years when CSK was suspended form the IPL saw Dhoni turn out for Rising Pune Supergiant. There was no doubt in the minds of anyone that Dhoni would return to CSK once this franchisee was allowed to play in IPL from 2018 onwards. For the record, Dhoni has led CSK to the finals on 10 occasions, winning the title five times. CSK also won the Champions League Twenty 20 in 2010 and 2014 under his stewardship. 

Over the years, his relationship with the Chennai-based franchisee and its promoters evolved into a deeper attachment with the city as well. He is not merely loved and respected but is revered by Chennaites, who refer to him as “Thala”, or leader. His activities are based out of this “second home”. It is evident that Dhoni has taken the city and its inhabitants to his heart and they have reciprocated this feeling in equal measure. Very few people, including politicians and celebrities, have managed to strike a chord with the population of the city that they adopted as home, in the manner that Dhoni has done.

Two questions come to mind following Dhoni’s decision to step down from captaincy of CSK. The first pertains to the challenges that Gaikwad, his successor, will face while trying to fill in the big shoes left behind by Dhoni. The second is about the manner in which CSK will use the services of Dhoni during the season ahead, when he takes the field without the mantle of captaincy. Both these issues will require detailed discussion.

It can be safely assumed that Gaikwad will be under no illusion about the enormity of the task that he has been entrusted with. Dhoni was not merely the captain of CSK; he remains the heart and soul of the side. His involvement with the players, coaching and supporting staff as well as with management is not only deep but longstanding as well. Hence Gaikwad cannot aspire for an immediate takeover of all the responsibilities that Dhoni was discharging; indeed, he will find that he may not even get to perform some of these tasks ever. Further, the fact that Dhoni will be playing under him will place him under even more pressure as everyone, from the players to the spectators, will be looking up to Dhoni at all crucial moments.

Given the difference in age and experience between them as well as on account of the fact that Gaikwad is not yet an established member of the national squad, he may not be averse to seeking guidance and advice from Dhoni at every turn, at least during the initial years. Coach Stephen Fleming had indicated that CSK were not ready for captaincy change in 2022, when the experiment with Jadeja failed, but they are more prepared for it at present. But, there will come a point when Gaikwad will start getting compared with his predecessor, which he should handle carefully as otherwise, this can prove to be a potential danger point for him and the side. He has started off well as could be seen from the way he handled the proceedings in the inaugural match against Royal Challengers Bengaluru. He will need to maintain the same poise, tact and patience while navigating the choppy waters of captaincy in the days ahead.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni
This could well be Mahendra Singh Dhoni's final IPL season. File photo: PTI/R Senthil Kumar

Regarding Dhoni’s role in the squad, it is certain that he will continue to keep wickets as his contribution behind the stumps and his unique cricketing sense make a deadly combination, which is a big plus for his side. The only question is whether he will be used as an 'Impact Player' when the side is batting. If the inaugural game is an indication, Dhoni appears keen and fit to play in all the matches as a regular member of the playing eleven. But at 42, it is too hazardous to predict how his body will endure the pressures and demands of a championship of this nature, where, in addition to playing cricket, near constant travel is also a permanent feature. 

In conclusion, one is left with the odd feeling that even though Dhoni has stepped down as captain of CSK, his close association with the franchisee and city is set to continue uninterrupted in the years ahead. After all, as old timers say, you can only take the suit out of a man, you cannot take a man out of the suit!

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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