After being beaten by a rocket throw from Martin Guptill by inches on July 10 afternoon in Manchester last year in the World Cup semi-finals, MS Dhoni first took to the cricket field once again for proper training only on Monday, at his beloved Chepauk. It was the first training session of the 2019 IPL runners-up Chennai Super Kings, and Dhoni led a small group of players including Ambati Rayudu, M Vijay, Karn Sharma, and new recruit Piyush Chawla.
And like with all "first day, first shows" in the movie-and-cricket crazy Chennai, a few thousand fans witnessed Dhoni and his team-mates sweating it out on a balmy Monday evening. Three stands were thrown open to spectators, and Chennai welcomed back its thala with rousing chants of "Dhoni !Dhoni! Dhoni!"
The cheers swelled to a crescendo when Dhoni walked out to the middle of the practice pitch with a pair of bats and tapped the middle of the pitch with one. Dhoni tossed away the other bat, took a leg-stump guard and then faced up against the left-arm fingerspin of Super Kings' new recruit R Sai Kishore. Dhoni and Rayudu took turns at the main net, feeling their way back after taking breaks from competitive cricket.
It was a significant moment in Indian cricket, considering Dhoni and his future have been hotly debated since the World Cup semi-finals. After that tournament Dhoni took a voluntary break, spending a few weeks with the Indian Army. But since then his name has not featured in any of the limited-overs squads with MSK Prasad, the selection committee chairman, saying his panel had moved past Dhoni.
However, India's head coach Ravi Shastri reiterated that Dhoni was still a contender for spot in the squad for the T20 World Cup, scheduled for this October, if he had a good IPL.
As far as Dhoni's IPL future goes, there are barely any doubts, at least for Super Kings' fans. Recently N Srinivasan, the former BCCI president and head of India Cements, which owns the Super Kings franchise had said that Dhoni would be retained for the 2021 season, ahead of the mega auction that will see all teams rebuild their squads from the scratch.
The importance of the moment was not lost upon the leading sports broadcaster Star, which did not mind interrupting the post-match analysis of India's 2-0 Test series defeat in New Zealand on Monday morning, to switch to footage of Dhoni making his way out of the Chennai airport.
On the way to the ground the Super Kings' bus was surrounded by honking motorists, scrambling for pictures of Dhoni. The man himself presented a blank, God-like stare.
Unlike last year, though, when Chepauk was packed to the rafters to welcome Dhoni in the lead-up to IPL 2019, this time the fanfare was somewhat low-key to begin with. However, soon, a crowd of about 1000 turned up and Dhoni rewarded them when he dashed down the track and launched Kishore over his head.
Rayudu, too, took some trips down the pitch to deal with the new Super Kings spinners - Kishore and Chawla. Rayudu was in action in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy and the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, but had pulled out of the following four-day Ranji Trophy. Both Rayudu and Suresh Raina, who is returning to action from knee injury, had also trained in Chennai in January under Super Kings trainer Greg King. Vijay, who had hurt his ankle earlier during the domestic season, had also been part of that January camp.
The 35-year-old opener had an hour-long stint at the nets on Monday evening, tackling the spinners and KM Asif, the reserve quick in the squad. Raina and head coach Stephen Fleming, though, are yet to join the pre-season camp. It is understood that Raina will link up with the squad on Monday night, while Fleming will take charge of the side soon.
King, Rajiv Kumar the fielding coach, Narasimhan V the throwdown specialist, and L Balaji the bowling coach, put the players through their paces during their three-hour training session.
It is understood that the training camp will go on until March 19 with Dhoni and some of the other big names heading for a short break before reassembling for the tournament opener on March 29, when Super Kings will clash with defending champions Mumbai Indians at Wankhede Stadium. It is also likely that the three closed stands - I, J and K - at Chepauk will be opened in time for Super Kings' first home game against Rajasthan Royals on April 2.