Match Analysis

'Watch the ball, hit the ball': Vintage Dhoni rolls back the years to turn CSK's hero again

Time took him away, but for a moment he was here again, brining the crowd to their feet. The real MS Dhoni was here

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
The walk is the same. Slow and loping. The bat trailing behind him. The old lion on the prowl. Except, he isn't king of the jungle anymore. He admitted it himself. "I've not done a lot in the tournament."
The first ball doesn't go well. Avesh Khan beats him. And though it is only a moment in time, within it is a whole story.
Over the last few seasons, he has come face to face with a limitation that stalks all men. Time. It had already begun shaping the way he bats. The upstart with long hair and big dreams had been able to defy it. Echoes of the shots he played are still powerful enough to bring goosebumps even now. In those days, it seemed like he was invulnerable.
The bowlers certainly thought so. They dreaded going one-on-one. He relished it. He thrived on it. He became a legend off it. And then he got older.
Time. It got to him. Force of will can only fight a force of nature for so long.
October 10, 2021. It is nearly 17 years since he first came into our lives. This isn't him though. There are too many lines on his face and too much grey in his beard. There are nudges where there were once punches. Nurdles where there were once whole flippin helicopters.
Avesh is uncapped in international cricket. He used to devour bowlers like that. He weaponised their inexperience. He made them feel all alone at a time when everything was on the line. And then, he beat them.
But this isn't him. The calmness is still there. The belief is still there. But his body is not. The reflexes are not. Time. It got to him.
And so the matches came and the matches went. Hopes rose and hopes fell. While he was re-tooling his game, the others were picking it apart. Slower balls. They stole his power. Short balls. They made him hop. Spin. Any kind of spin. Kept him quiet. Ninety-six runs in 10 innings at a strike rate of 95.
This isn't him. But they're screaming for him.
Avesh runs in again. And he disappears. Over midwicket. Six. And the echo. The echo is familiar. It rings around the ground. It brings people to their feet. It sows fear into the bowler.
This is him. Time is standing still and he is breaking free.
And again. It's Tom Curran now. Wilting. Feeling alone. Getting beaten. He's here. He's come back. He's in the final.
Chennai Super Kings only had a 27% chance of winning this game when he went out to bat. Through the course of a six-ball innings he took that figure all the way up to 100%.
With a biff over midwicket, a slap through extra cover, an inside edge past the keeper and a whack through square leg, he was a hero again. And in the end, all anyone wanted to know was how he does it. How he still does it.
"Watch the ball, hit the ball," he said. "I've not done a lot in the tournament. So we had to get that out of the system, saying if you're batting well in the nets just look for the ball, what are the variations, what the bowler may look to bowl. So other than that there was nothing much in the mind because if there are too many things floating around it becomes difficult to watch the ball."
It's been a really long time since he came out and played like this and it had an effect on everybody.
Sunil Gavaskar was emphatic. "As the captain he wanted to be there at the finish. He wanted to do it. So that is amazing. And then, if you look at the shots that he played, you could argue that it has not been the best of seasons for him, but look, when it was needed, he's come out and he's delivered and he delivered in style."
Matthew Hayden was defiant. "I'm really happy. I've been glowing all day, a bright yellow colour. He's been magnificent. The negative nellys out there have been doubting the way that he's gone about it. No. 7 is a great number. It carries a great weight. The responsibility and he just finished in great style."
Ricky Ponting was humbled. "There was a situation tonight where we were sitting back in the dugout thinking 'would he come next, or would Jadeja come next, I put my hand up straight away and I said I'm pretty sure he would come out now and try and ice the game.
"I think when he's done and when he's retired I think he'll definitely be remembered as one of the great finishers the game has ever seen."
And Stephen Fleming was triumphant. "There was a lot of chat. I think we've probably spoken more in this 20 overs than we have for a long time. There was a lot of technical discussion and manouevring to try and work out how this was going to unfold and who was going to make the maximum impact. But I tell you what, when the captain gets a look in his eye and said I'll go, there's been well documented times that he's done that and today was one of those so I ain't holding him back and we saw the result of that."
Time took him away. But for a moment he was here. The real MS Dhoni was here.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo