MS Dhoni has confirmed Chennai Super Kings will look to acquire local hero R Ashwin's services at the IPL auction, but cautioned against letting emotions override auction strategy. Dhoni, the Super Kings captain, acknowledged the challenge of bringing back the team's core group of players from the past while also grappling with the wildly oscillating prices of players at the auction. So how would he approach such a tricky tightrope? By staying adaptable.
"It's always a tough call," Dhoni said of the Ashwin situation. "We will definitely go for him in the auction. Ashwin being a local lad... we want a lot of local players in the side. We have somebody like a [Dwayne] Bravo, Faf [du Plessis] and Brendon McCullum [on the radar]". With Super Kings having already retained three capped India players in Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja apart from Dhoni, they can't use the Right-to-Match Card to retain Ashwin. Dhoni was realistic about the unpredictability of the auction process.
"These are the things where it becomes difficult. We don't know what margins to go for," he said, during a promotional event in Chennai. "You look at all the other players that we have got and then we can go for someone else because it gives the stability to the side. For somebody else, a player may not be worth the same, but for your team because of all the other players, he may be that one person who really strengthens the side. Ashwin will come first in the auction but as I said I have to wait and watch. I can't put any number to it but we will try to get him for the reasons I have said but at an auction it's the price that dictates the terms.
"How much money we can afford to go for each individual and still make a strong team will be the key. That's why I said we have to keep the emotions aside and we may want somebody and if the price goes outside our range and then we actually have to let him go. That's the adaptability factor that we need to have at the auction table because it will be turning at that point of time."
Dhoni said Super Kings' popularity hadn't diminished during their two-year suspension from the IPL. The unflinching focus on the game, he felt, was what made them a successful franchise with "the biggest fan base across the country." On the cricket front, however, he said the franchise had to start from scratch. "After 10 years there is a fresh auction and we will have fresh challenges. We have had tough times, we always got the kind of support needed from the players and management," he said. "The relationship grew, the fan-following grew, the kind of cricket we played got better and better. That will be the target again, but it's an uphill task because of the auction."
Given Super Kings' stated aim of reconstituting their core squad, their wish-list of players isn't really a secret. Dhoni was asked how Super Kings would guard against other franchises deliberately jacking up the prices of such players at the auction, and if the think-tank was contemplating the creation of another core group of players keeping the future in mind. While Dhoni didn't get into the specifics, he admitted it was something the franchise had to be "watchful" about.
"It's always a strategy and as I said we need to have the right mix because there will be an auction next year as well. You can always supplement players," he said. "Whichever areas you feel slightly weak, you can buy and trade a few players to get stronger in those areas. But the core group remains to be strong and that's what we will try to retain. But like you said, there may be inflation and so on. That's why I said we need to keep emotions to the side.
"If you back off one player that has had an inflated price, none of the teams are going to take him further at that point of time. Whom you may lose depends on the auction but as I said we won't get all the players. We have never gotten all the players. Some of the players who performed for us, their prices went high so much there was no way we could have gotten them back. Also when you retain players, you lose a big chunk of money. So we have to see everything.
"What we also want is to have a strong connection with the local boys and at the same time people who have played for us. I always felt that people were like 'there shouldn't be any retainership and stuff like that'. But unless you give that stability to the fan... If I had played for eight different franchises in ten years then the association isn't there. But you want that sort of association, the franchise has to have a fan following. And that can only happen if the players stay in one franchise for a longer duration."
On his own association with the franchise - Dhoni captained the Super Kings in every season of the IPL from 2008 to 2015 - he said there was no other team he could have possibly played for. "A lot of people approached me, I can tell you that," he said. "I can't think of not coming back to CSK. As I said, it's because of everything - what we have been through as a team, how we have conducted ourselves, how the management has been, how the players have been, how the fans have been. I always keep saying it's like a second home to me. The fans over here have adopted me, they accept me like one of their own. There can't be any bigger compliment than that. So that thought of being with any other franchise was never a question.
"As a captain, it was slightly easy for me with the management. Actually when you go when you have lost a game, they already know the reasons - where the game changed, what could have been done or the wicket slowed down. If they know that, there is less pressure on you. The last two years we were not there, our fan following got stronger because none of the players were involved in anything.
"Often when some mistake is committed, people bear the brunt and the team has to bear brunt of whatever happened. But the players were cleared of all the controversies, and we are back to cricket and the fact that we sold whatever the endorsement [targets] were there. That is, in fact, a big endorsement of the fact that they believe in CSK and the franchise."
During the time Super Kings were serving their suspension, Dhoni was part of the Rising Pune Supergiant franchise. As their captain in 2016, he saw the team finish seventh on the points table - uncharted territory after making the Playoffs with Super Kings eight times in succession. Dhoni called it a big learning curve for him and coach Stephen Fleming. Rising Pune finished runners-up in the season after that one, with Steven Smith taking over the captaincy.
"There is this one saying: 'What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.' Definitely I am stronger," he said. "The whole of eight editions of the IPL, we always qualified ([or the knockout stages]. Out of the next two editions, we were seventh on the table once. So it's a big learning curve not only for me but for Stephen Fleming as a coach. Since he took over the coaching part of CSK we have always done well. Yes, there were times when we were under pressure when we had to win 4 out of 5 games or 3 out of 4 games to qualify but we have done it. How do you know you are a strong character unless you are pushed to a deeper end and feel that pressure.
"I felt those two years made me stronger and at the same time gave a glimpse of what actually could be done when you are doing badly. It doesn't always work but you can at least have a perspective for it. But again, not something that I have not seen. When I was part of the international team I have seen the ups and downs. I would say it has been a fair experience for me and it's also good to be back."