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Feature

Dhoni of old unleashes no-holds-barred approach in new role for CSK

He's thrilled crowds in Mumbai, Visakhapatnam and Lucknow this season. Will Dhoni do it against LSG in Chennai on Tuesday?

Deivarayan Muthu
22-Apr-2024
August 7, 2005. India vs West Indies in Colombo. MS Dhoni rocked up with a flowing mane and hit 28 off 13 balls, the highlight being a spectacular scooped four off Tino Best, to help finish India's innings with a flourish.
Almost twenty years later Dhoni, who will turn 43 in July, continues to do Dhoni things. He's turned up with the vintage mane to pump vintage sixes. On April 19 in Lucknow, he cracked 28 not out off just nine balls for Chennai Super Kings, with three fours and two sixes, one of which was an inventive scoop off Mohsin Khan.
Dhoni had anticipated a wide yorker from left-arm over, and though Mohsin had shortened his length, he adjusted to shovel-scoop the ball over the keeper's head for six.
"I wish I could say I was the one who taught him that [scoop] shot," Michael Hussey, the CSK batting coach, said on the eve of their match against Lucknow Super Giants in Chennai. "But that would be lying (laughs); he's just in a wonderful place in his career.
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"Bowlers are coming up with different plans against him. He's been probably the greatest finisher of all time, so they [the bowlers] need to come up with different ideas. That's one of the wonderful things about MS. He continues to evolve and even at this stage of this career, he will continue to make himself better and make it harder for bowlers to bowl to him."
This is the dazzling Dhoni of old. When he burst onto the scene, he played no-holds-barred shots and even spoke of his dislike for keeping some of his shots down.
Somewhere along the way, after he took over as India's captain, Dhoni traded that no-holds-barred approach for a low-risk one and refused to expose the next man to pressure. He adopted a similar batting approach at CSK too in the IPL. He was indeed the finisher, but his batting was based on reducing risk.
Even while hitting sixes at the death, Dhoni would maintain a stable base and target the arc between long-on and deep midwicket. The helicopter shot was a low-risk option for Dhoni because that's something he had been practising - and playing - since his tennis-ball cricket days in Ranchi.
During all that time, Dhoni didn't do scoops or shuffle around his crease. This season, though, he has been digging deep and going against the grain in his quest to access the boundary. When Khaleel Ahmed was trying to bowl wide yorkers from left-arm over, like Mohsin, with a packed off-side field in Visakhapatnam, Dhoni jumped across his stumps even before the bowler had bowled and whacked him over the extra-cover boundary.
It was his first innings this season and the first since he underwent knee surgery immediately after winning IPL 2023. But after thrilling Visakhapatnam with an unbeaten 37 off 16 balls, Dhoni was spotted with a brace around his knee that suggested the issue was still hampering his mobility.
Dhoni and the CSK management have worked around the problem by slotting him into a new role: rock up in the closing stages and maximise his six-hitting ability. Dhoni's earliest entry point in five innings this season was 16.2 against DC in Visakhapatnam. And in his most recent game against LSG in Lucknow, CSK's team management held him back at No.8 and even promoted their Impact Player Sameer Rizvi up the order.
Dhoni has excelled in this super-specialised role of managing the last two-three overs of a T20 innings, clattering 15 boundaries in 34 balls, which means he is finding the rope or clearing it roughly every two deliveries.
The limitations caused by the knee injury have also prompted him to look at different pockets of the ground. Dhoni's leg-side strike rate is 366.67 this season, which isn't much of a surprise. Close your eyes, and you will see Dhoni launching the ball over deep midwicket or wide long-on. Though the sample size is fairly small, Dhoni has been destructive on the off side as well, striking at 215. In terms of his overall strike rate, Dhoni's 255.88 is the best among all players who have faced at least 30 balls this IPL.
The numbers establish a compelling case for Dhoni to bat up the order, but his body may not allow it. He seems to have accepted that and is tailoring his training sessions to play short, sweet cameos.
"It's inspirational, isn't it? His batting this year, even in the pre-season training, has been very crisp," CSK coach Stephen Fleming said after CSK's away game against LSG. "The team isn't surprised with what he is doing because his skill level during the pre-season was very high. Other years he has obviously had problems with his knee and he is sort of recovering from that which is why there is only a certain amount of balls he can really function well.
"I think everyone wants to see him for longer as do we, but that amount of time is about right. We need him for the tournament and that two-three over cameos - he is owning that space. It's up to the rest of the batting unit to get us to a good position where he can push us over the top. He is doing that pretty much every time at the moment, which is great to watch."
Visakhapatnam, Mumbai and Lucknow have all been treated to Dhoni's sixes this season. Though Dhoni - and Ravindra Jadeja - left Chepauk in splits with a prank earlier this month, the Chennai crowd is yet to see the six-hitting Dhoni in flesh this IPL.
Dhoni hitting sixes is an event that transcends the context of the match these days. In Chennai, it's an emotion. Visuals of real-life Dhoni smashing sixes off Mark Wood were played at a popular movie theatre in the lead-up to the re-release of the reel-life movie - MS Dhoni: The Untold Story - during the previous IPL in the city. Those sixes sparked frenzied celebrations, with fans whistling and grooving to the tune of their Thala crunching the ball.
CSK's fans are hoping that Dhoni will give them reason to Whistle Podu against LSG on Tuesday evening as well.
Stats updated until PBKS vs GT game on April 21

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo