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Feature

The captain and his coups - five MS Dhoni classics

Five times the Chennai Super Kings captain trumped his opponents with out-of-the-box moves

Deivarayan Muthu
26-Mar-2022
MS Dhoni set unorthodox fields for some of the big players  •  BCCI

MS Dhoni set unorthodox fields for some of the big players  •  BCCI

MS Dhoni stepping down as Chennai Super Kings captain marks the end of an era in the IPL.
In the inaugural auction, ahead of IPL 2008, the late VB Chandrasekhar convinced N Srinivasan to acquire Dhoni for his multiple skills. It happened. Dhoni then led Super Kings since the first season of the tournament - bar the two years when the franchise was banned - with charisma and "pure instinct". ESPNcricinfo looks back at some of Dhoni's memorable moves as Super Kings' captain.
Mumbai Indians were 136 for 6, needing 33 from two overs, with the title on the line. Kieron Pollard had just clattered Doug Bollinger for 4, 6, 4, 6 in a 22-run over, which titled the title fight Mumbai's way. Until Dhoni intervened, having Matthew Hayden at an unorthodox straight mid-off position, in addition to having a more conventional long-off.
Dhoni's plan was to have Albie Morkel bowl yorkers at Pollard and turn his strength of hitting down the ground into a weakness. Morkel's first ball to Pollard was thwacked past him for four. He nailed the yorker second ball, which squeezed underneath Pollard's bat. After a dot and the run-out of Ambati Rayudu, Morkel went full once again, and Pollard could only skew a low catch to Hayden at straight mid-off. The Super Kings pressed on to win their maiden IPL title.
At the post-match presentation, Dhoni reasoned that it was worth whisking short fine-leg to straight mid-off, given Pollard's propensity to hit in the 'V'. He also revealed that he had deployed a similar field against Hayden himself at a practice match in the lead-up to IPL 2008.
"If you see the big-hitters of the world or powerful hitters, they don't sweep or reverse-sweep. So I said, 'okay what's the point of a short fine-leg'," Dhoni told the host broadcaster after the game. "Pollard will anyway look to hit down the ground and Morkel will look to bowl yorkers outside off. If he miscues one, he may not get the elevation. I've tried it once with Matthew Hayden, though. It worked at the practice game we had right at the start of the tournament. No rocket science."
Many other IPL captains subsequently took a leaf out of Dhoni's playbook, having a fielder straight to counter the likes of Pollard. M Vijay, for example, when he was captaining the Punjab franchise in 2016, stationed himself at ultra-straight mid-off against James Faulkner.
Super Kings slipped to 27 for 3 within five overs in pursuit of 154 on a spicy pitch in Pune. Fast bowler Ankit Rajpoot was on a hat-trick, having taken out Faf du Plessis and Sam Billings. Dhoni unleashed his chaos theory - promoting Harbhajan and Deepak Chahar ahead of himself, DJ Bravo and Ravindra Jadeja.
While Harbhajan saw off the new ball and contributed 19 off 22 balls, Chahar made a more decisive 39 off 20 balls at a strike rate of 195. Dhoni and Super Kings head coach Stephen Fleming had originally identified Chahar as a batting allrounder at Rising Pune Supergiant/s, but injury delayed his initiation into the IPL. Dhoni and Fleming reunited with Chahar at Super Kings, where he became their go-to bowler in the powerplay. In that game against Kings XI Punjab, he repaid the team management's faith with the bat too, helping them seal the chase.
"Sending in Bhajji [Harbhajan] and Chahar creates a bit of chaos," Dhoni told the host broadcaster. "The bowlers all of a sudden bowl yorkers, offcutters, and bouncers. When [top-order] batsmen are batting, they stick to a good line and length, but against Bhajji and Chahar, they lose their line and lengths instead of sticking to the plan. Plus Bhajji and Chahar could come in handy during the playoffs."
Let us revisit that game. Bollinger had struck early to dismiss Shikhar Dhawan, but Sachin Tendulkar stabilised Mumbai's chase of 169, with the crowd behind him. Dhoni brought Shadab Jakati into the attack in the tenth over to give him a crack at Tendulkar. Jakati had apparently troubled Tendulkar when he was once a net bowler with the India side, so Dhoni was hoping for some control from the left-arm fingerspinner.
The left-handed Abhishek Nayar, though, briefly foiled Dhoni's plan, carting Jakati for back-to-back sixes in a 14-run over. Jakati then switched ends and eventually made the incision by hiding one away from Tendulkar's swinging arc and having him chipping a catch to long-off.
Two years later, in the 2012 Eliminator against Mumbai in Bengaluru, Dhoni tossed the new ball to Jakati, who kept Tendulkar to a run-a-ball 11. Something had to give and that something was Tendulkar running himself out. Super Kings went on to win that knockout game as well.
Super Kings had picked Harbhajan in 2018 to exploit the spin-friendly Chepauk track, but after just one game there, they had to shift base to Pune because of protests surrounding the Cauvery river water issue. Harbhajan did a good job for Super Kings in Pune, too, but in the qualifier against Sunrisers Hyderabad at the Wankhede Stadium, where Harbhajan had bowled across phases for Mumbai Indians, Dhoni didn't use his offspin at all. Jadeja was in fine rhythm, giving up just 13 runs in his four overs for the wicket of Manish Pandey, so Dhoni didn't need him on the day.
"You know, I have a lot of cars and bikes in my garage. And, I don't ride all at a time," Dhoni quipped. "When you have six to seven bowlers in your side, you want to see the conditions. You want to see who is batting and what is needed at that point of time."
Then, in the final against Sunrisers, Dhoni dropped Harbhajan altogether, fielding legspinner Karn Sharma, who brought with him the reputation of being a serial title-winner in the IPL and in domestic cricket. Karn came away with the prized scalp of Kane Williamson, drawing him out of the crease and having the Sunrisers captain stumped for 47 off 36 balls.
After opting to bat, Super Kings racked up 205 for 5 on the back of an M Vijay special. A red-hot Chris Gayle, though, was standing between Super Kings and back-to-back IPL titles. Gayle was the leading run-getter during that IPL and single-handedly transformed Royal Challengers' fortunes in the tournament. Dhoni matched up R Ashwin's offspin with the left-handed Gayle at a time when match-ups were not even a thing. After setting up Gayle with two offbreaks, Ashwin darted one into the batter and had him nicking off for a three-ball duck. Game over!
"I rely a lot on the bounce, therefore a good wicketkeeper is extremely crucial," Ashwin told the Hindustan Times. "With Dhoni, the caught-behinds and stumpings have gone up many notches in my bowling. He understands the trajectory, the variation, and the bounce that I get."

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo