Runs or rust, Dhoni is CSK's undisputed leader
His T20 powers may be on the wane, but he couldn't have asked for a better environment than the CSK set-up to reinvigorate his game
When MS Dhoni last captained in the IPL (in 2016), his side Rising Pune Supergiant finished seventh. When Dhoni should have last played the T20 format in March but was rested, second-choice wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik became an instant hero courtesy a whirlwind knock that helped India beat Bangladesh and clinch the Nidahas Trophy.
Now, Dhoni returns to the shortest format as captain of a side that was suspended for the previous two seasons. He hasn't led a T20 side since August 2016, when India played West Indies in Florida. Will he be rusty as a leader in IPL 2018?
His tactical and verbal skills as picked up by the stump mics during the tour of South Africa in January-February suggest that may not be the case. Dhoni did them all: made minute adjustments in the field, advised bowlers on where to pitch the ball and made clear calls while running between the wickets. Even his yelp at a junior team-mate for not being alert enough for an extra run showed the hunger and passion.
Now, will he be rusty as a batsman? In four ODI innings in South Africa, he managed to cross 15 only once and ended the series with a strike rate of just over 80. He batted at No. 6 in the three T20Is, coming out in the 15th over or later in two of those. When he got more time in the second T20I by walking out in the 11th over, he faced 28 balls and clubbed 52 unbeaten runs with four fours and three sixes.
Dhoni has all the support and backing of the owners, the management, the dressing room and possibly every Chennai resident who watches cricket
Chennai Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming must have been aware of this when he said Dhoni will be promoted up the order this time. "MS will bat relatively high, not necessarily a position with him but a time that we may choose depending on what conditions we see. But he will definitely play a more prominent role as a batter," Fleming said earlier this week.
The numbers back Fleming. When Dhoni has batted at No. 6 in the IPL, his average is 27.50 and strike rate an unimpressive 113.20. At No. 4, the numbers go up to 35.83 and 141.44. But his best position, going by the numbers, is No. 5 where he averages 46.12 and strikes at 147.72.
What will give Dhoni a bigger boost is the CSK environment and his camaraderie with his old mates. His fading T20I performances in the last year or so have attracted all the attention from the media and experts, but the IPL now brings him in his territory.
There have been calls from some of his former team-mates, most notably VVS Laxman who wanted youngsters to be given a chance in India's T20 set up. But there was no doubt that Dhoni was going to return as captain of Super Kings upon their re-entry.
Dhoni has all the support and backing of the owners, the management, the dressing room and possibly every Chennai resident who watches cricket. He is their undisputed leader.
Why else would 20,000-odd people turn up at Chepauk to watch him and the squad play practice matches? Also, Dhoni calls Chennai his second home. So much so that he became teary-eyed while talking about their return to the IPL. This from a man who has barely shown emotions on the field in all these years.
Dhoni also ensured they retained the core with Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and Dwayne Bravo. Whether Dhoni makes way for youngsters in the Indian team or not remains to be seen but in the Super Kings squad, he has a team whose average age is 32.
The change in setting for him is such that even the media may not criticise him if Super Kings don't make it big this IPL. Sure, there might be columns if his batting fades, there might be discussions on TV if he is not able to finish games the way he used to, but seeing someone asking him to step down as CSK captain is unlikely. And the credit goes to Dhoni for that.
He is the only player to have captained CSK in all these years and has even won back-to-back titles. No other captain has survived in the same role since. CSK have with them the most experienced Indian T20 player as their captain, and the most experienced T20 and IPL captain. He has also led different teams in 11 T20 finals and six IPL finals, the most by any captain.
As great as those records are, recent form counts for a lot. What CSK will not want to know is that Dhoni scored under 300 runs in each of his two seasons with Rising Pune. The last time that happened was in 2010. To add to that, he struck under 17 sixes in each of the last two IPL seasons. The last time he did that was in 2012.
Dhoni has averaged below 30 in just two seasons: 2012 and 2017. The previous IPL season was particularly harsh on him: he finished with a strike rate of 116, his lowest in IPL history, and took over eight balls on average to strike a boundary.
To overcome all this and shake some pressure off, Dhoni could not have found a better place than CSK. To return as captain and lead his team to the playoffs yet another time, he could not have found a better platform than the IPL. And to kick things off, he will face the same team his side beat in the IPL 2010 final in the same city where he lifted that first IPL trophy for him - against Mumbai Indians in Mumbai.
Stats inputs by Gaurav Sundararaman
Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo