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Mentor Dhoni vs protege Hardik, a contest within contest to kick off IPL 2023

Over the years, Dhoni has passed on his wisdom to Hardik. Can he use the same to trump the old master on Friday?

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Hardik Pandya, the protege, will be up against his mentor MS Dhoni in the opening match of IPL 2023  •  Sandeep Shetty/BCCI

Hardik Pandya, the protege, will be up against his mentor MS Dhoni in the opening match of IPL 2023  •  Sandeep Shetty/BCCI

The nets arena at Motera's practice ground is quite a walk from the main practice square of the Narendra Modi Stadium. On Thursday evening, shortly before 5pm, security personnel had been stationed around the perimeter of the nets area as venue managers readied a yellow carpet at the entrance of the Chennai Super Kings dressing room.
Within minutes of the Super Kings team bus arriving, there was chaos as the news spread. In the middle of the main stadium, lensmen who were trying to capture the lighting of the grand stage set up for a glitzy opening ceremony, with sunlight filtering through one of the gaps in the stands, could have given track-and-field aspirants a run for their money at that very moment.
The reason behind their dash? They all wanted to get a perfect shot of MS Dhoni getting out of the team bus and walking into the nets area. What followed next was the whirr of a few hundred shutter clicks to capture Dhoni's entry. Except Dhoni wasn't on the team bus. He had arrived an hour earlier for the captains' meeting and photoshoot, and was already done with some light warm-ups indoors.
After the crowd had dispersed, he casually sauntered into the nets area and put his arm around Gary Kirsten, the Gujarat Giants' mentor. Ashish Nehra soon joined them for some laughs. A few handshakes and high-fives later, Dhoni quietly went towards the main ground, where Hardik Pandya was seated beside Shivam Mavi, Rahul Tewatia, Abhinav Manohar, Shubman Gill and Alzarri Joseph, and was having a long chat.
Then as they dispersed to their respective nets on either side of the centre wicket, Hardik and Dhoni briefly crossed paths again.
On one side was the fierce intensity of a captain who had led his side to the title in their very first season. On the other was the calmness of the grand old veteran, who will turn 42 in three months. His side had finished ninth last season but he was resonating vibes of someone who has seen it all but is fully comfortable in the space he is in, ahead of possibly one last dance.
As Dhoni stood in the middle, crouching low and doing some lower-body drills, Hardik ran in and bowled, took outfield catches, and offered words of advice to his younger team-mates. Later, he played the role of an umpire to have a ringside view of his bowlers.
Then as the rain started to come down, Dhoni yelped from afar towards Hardik as they started to walk off. Watching all this from the outside, you couldn't help but think of how Hardik has gradually stepped into Dhoni's footsteps.
When a raw Hardik made his debut in 2016, Dhoni was at the front and centre of Indian cricket. He had stood with Hardik at the top of his bowling mark to give instructions and advice ahead of that final over against Bangladesh during the 2016 T20 World Cup game in Bangalore. Just like Hardik does for his young Indian bowlers now.
Dhoni was always there for his younger players, who would invariably turn to him for guidance. Ask Kuldeep Yadav or Ravindra Jadeja. Or an unheralded Mohit Sharma, who burst through to have the IPL of his life in 2013. Or Mukesh Choudhary last year.
Somewhere along the way, with Hardik, this mentor-mentee relationship evolved into one between an elder and younger brothers. To the extent that Hardik would often be seeking life lessons from Dhoni. It's said when Hardik found himself in a soup over comments made on a TV chat show, it was Dhoni who told Hardik to not become a recluse and switch off from all forms of social media.
The Hardik we see today is a calmer version of the person that burst onto the scene. And it isn't just the off-field attributes of Dhoni that he seems to be embodied. On the field, Hardik has been instinctive. But at the same time, he has also been calculative and has thrown himself into tough situations to shield younger players and give them a little bit of cushion.
Like when he opened the bowling against New Zealand to allow a slightly off-rhythm Arshdeep Singh to settle in. Or promoting himself to No. 4 and doing the bulk of the heavy lifting, even if it meant having to go against his natural game of hitting sixes.
Last year, for example, Hardik's strike rate of 152.54 in the last four overs was the third-lowest for him in any IPL season. But that was because he was playing the role of an anchor, allowing the likes of Tewatia and David Miller to do the finishing.
"I don't mind playing the role that, somewhere down the line, Mahi used to play," Hardik had said in February, during the white-ball series against New Zealand. "When he was around, I was young and hitting all around the park. But since he is gone, all of a sudden, that responsibility is on me. I don't mind that. We are getting the results. It's okay if I have to play a little slow.
"I've always enjoyed hitting sixes. But that's life; I've to evolve. I've believed in partnerships and want to give my batting partner and team some assurance and calmness that I'm there. I've played more games than any of these guys; I've learned how to accept and swallow pressure and make sure everything is calm."
It's this calmness from their captain that Titans are feeding off. "Hardik isn't closed-off, available to all the players at all times during the season," Vikram Solanki, Titans' team director, said. "He was a very mature captain last year, he took to captaincy very naturally. It was apparent he is a deep thinker of the game. You think of him as a character and personality, it plays through in the way he plays. He led with a lot of positivity and energy, and had a lot of time for people."
When Hardik steps onto the field to lead Titans in the opening game, he will know Dhoni will have a trick or two up his sleeve. The Hardik of a few years ago may have been consumed by that very thought. This version of Hardik is likely to soak it in with a smile and simply make plans on the fly to give Dhoni the slip, just like Dhoni did to the big crowd and lensmen who had made a beeline for him earlier in the evening.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo