Nobody wants to embrace losers. So it wasn’t a surprise when probably the best game of this season’s was given short shrift. With 23 runs required to win in the final over, MS Dhoni brought back yet another Houdini’s act. For some, his knock was not so convincing, and often looked frustrating, but ultimately helped Rising Pune Supergiants to climb one up from the bottom of the points table, and dump Kings XI Punjab there.
With 6 days to go before the final, Dhoni is strangled in an unfamiliar territory. He has never been thrown out of the IPL this early, and will most likely watch the rest of the tournament like us, on television – or, he may even disconnect completely and simply go out to spend time with his favourite toys: guns and bikes.
Over the past few years, Dhoni has often been accused of being so lucky for his success. His crazy decisions, Joginder Sharma was simply one of the many bizarre choices, on the field have often paid off unexpectedly. At Chennai Super Kings, his franchise assembled a galaxy of stars for him, and he led from the front with glorious success.
When things went completely wrong as Test captain and he was on the brink of being sacked, N Srinivasan, the then president of the BCCI, stood by him and overruled a unanimous decision by the selectors.
Dhoni surprisingly came through the whole IPL match-fixing saga in 2013 almost unscathed. A magical act for sure! Move over Houdini, it’s time to rename you MS Dhoni.
With Chennai handed suspension for two years, Dhoni’s IPL future seemed quite uncertain at first, but it was a temporary concern. After all, he had so endeared himself to the city of Chennai that it only looked a matter of time before one of the new franchises offer him a lifeline. The Whistle Podu ads on TV actually became one of the things to watch out for even if you were not a Chennai fan.
So, everyone started to ask: Who will Dhoni represent? Will it be the same again? Can you ever imagine Dhoni playing in the IPL without Suresh Raina, Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin?
Then came a new beginning
During the IPL auction earlier this year, the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group assembled a team of match-winners after, predictably, making Dhoni their captain. With Steven Smith, Kevin Pietersen, Faf du Plessis and Mitchell Marsh in the ranks, along with Dhoni’s (once) trusted lieutenant Ashwin and India teammate Ajinkya Rahane, Pune looked like a team to beat.
The new franchise, in a perfect Dhoni style, took a strange decision too. Pune bid Rs 4.5 crore for an unknown spinner, Murugan Ashwin. His List A and First Class record bit ordinary (though he did well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy, the lesser known domestic T20 tournament), and this looked like one of the lucky stories we hear every season.
Then, the tournament began with a bang, Pune snatched a shock win against defending champions Mumbai Indians. A nine-wicket victory with 39 balls to spare glued everyone to the seat.
But from there on Pune’s descent started. They lost a few close matches – those which frustrate you endlessly – that snatched away any sign or hope of momentum they would have expected to build after the first game heroics. They also lost almost all the marquee names in what some were comparing to a game of Russian Roulette. Pietersen, du Plessis, Smith and Marsh quit the competition for various injuries, leaving Dhoni sweating.
But a welcome relief came when Dhoni was bailed out by the strange IPL rules which allow replacements even when teams have large squads at their disposal. They roped in George Bailey and Usman Khawaja to fill the void.
As the tournament rolled on it was not Pune’s misfortune that surprised everyone the most. Dhoni, as a captain was a big let-down. The way he handled Ashwin and Irfan Pathan was to some extent shabby. Unlike the Delhi Daredevils’ mentor Rahul Dravid, who made sure the youngsters in the team would get the support needed despite repeated failure, Dhoni didn’t allow some of his players a game.
For instance, you can take Baba Aparajith and Ankush Bains, who didn’t have the chance to play a single game at either CSK or RPS. Obviously, this can be attached to Dhoni’s trademark style of sticking to a core group of players and not tinkering with his line-up often.
But what about Ashwin and Pathan? We can start with the off-spinner first. Dhoni and Aswin have shown probably the most symbiotic relationship in Indian cricket. At CSK, Dhoni’s meteoric rise as captain was mostly a result of Ashwin’s brilliant performance with the ball. In Test matches at home, Ashwin has been India’s No. 1 bowler. On the other hand, Ashwin’s ascent as India’s lead spinner coincided with Harbhajan Singh’s depleting form over the last five years.
But nobody ever wondered, Dhoni will under-bowl Ashwin throughout this IPL season. Stephen Fleming, the RPS coach, stood by his captain claiming that the conditions haven’t quite suited Ashwin, and Dhoni tried several bowling options available in the playing eleven. It’s the fact that a glance at the scorecards suggest that the best of spinners haven’t always had the option to bowl their full quota of four overs in this edition.
Actually, this saga began at the ICC World T20, when Dhoni pulled Ashwin out of the attack after only two overs in the semi-final against West Indies. Ashwin was notably far from impressed with that decision.
As for Irfan Pathan, he has hardly got a match under Dhoni, both at CSK as well as RPS, forcing even Sunil Gavaskar to make a rare negative comment about a powerful cricketer like Dhoni. And while team selection is always a matter of intense national debate, things get tricky when you have a captain on the wane and has been previously accused of conflict of interests in selection matters.
One can find it interesting, an unfit RP Singh, once revealed as being managed by a sports firm Dhoni had a stake in, was obviously a surprise entry to the IPL this season after failing to find a team in 2015. So which team bought him? It’s Pune. Did he play a match? Yes, four of them.
So, as MS Dhoni and Rising Pune Super Giants thrown out of the IPL after a frustrating first season, you can’t help but raise the question: has he finally lost the Midas touch?
Luck certainly had a part to destroy his plan, but if this season was a challenge or rather a test of adversity, Dhoni has, unexpectedly, failed.