The most striking remark at the end of India’s victorious 2011 World Cup campaign came from Gary Kirsten when he said once the team reached the knock-out phase; there was a “sense of destiny” about going on and winning the whole thing. He said the feeling was so intense that the dressing room discussions revolved more around how we are going to handle the inevitable success and not on how we are going to win the whole thing.
Perhaps that sense of destiny is a Dhoni-thing. Seven years after winning the biggest prize in cricket, the feeling of inevitability over Chennai Super Kings’ win on Sunday was so bright that not just the teams but everyone involved with the tournament, including the fans, felt it. In some ways, it became evident as early as 7 April when Chennai Super Kings took the field against defending champions Mumbai Indians and staged the unlikeliest of heists.
Following that the Chennai Super Kings defeated Sunrisers Hyderabad by 8 wickets on IPL 2018 final night to clinch their third Indian Premier League title. In the VIVO IPL 2018 Final played at the Wankhede Stadium, Shane Watson’s belligerent hundred powered CSK’s chase of 179; the Australian remained unbeaten on 117 and watched from the non-striker’s end as Ambati Rayudu drilled one through covers for the winning boundary. CSK cruised past the finish line with nine balls to spare.
CSK was a team that acknowledged its flaws and tried to make up for it in the best possible manner with the available resources. Dhoni as a captain is always keen on having quick movers in the field, but as acknowledged in the presentation ceremony after the finals, there is no point in pushing a Watson to stop a single and getting him injured. Dhoni himself spent a significant part of the league stage with a back injury that prevented him from moving freely. If your presence is doing a significant value add to the team, then they won’t nit-pick over your flaws.
CSK management didn’t believe in massaging egos of players or sticking to winning combinations. The core of the team throughout the campaign remained the same, but every option was tried and evaluated in the league stages. That doesn’t mean they weren’t celebrating their wins along the way, merely making sure that every outing for every player was treated as an audition for the final act at the biggest stage. The league stage for Chennai wasn’t just about qualifying into the playoffs; they were the only team in the competition that always seemed focused on the bigger goal of winning the trophy.
That average age of 33 years was a number that was thrown around a lot leading into the season. It seemed this wasn’t a team that was picked to win matches, but to do a happy reunion and sing songs about the glory of old times to the cheers of “Whistle Podu” from their fans. But as we all came to see, the age was a small handicap in exchange for the priceless experience this group carried.
There was a sense of serenity and smartness about their approach to the game. When they batted, they looked to pick the low hanging fruits instead of trying to show who the boss is. They might lose the battle against a bowler, but they won’t fall to their own ego. No one exemplified this better than Shane Watson when he took 11 balls to get off the mark in the big final and still ended up scoring a match-winning hundred. Watson is the kind of player who turns into a different beast when adequately looked after and pampered. All his success as a batsman in all formats of the game has come as an opening batsman, and CSK recognised that if Watson plays, he will always play as an opener. An emotional character, Watson was moved at seeing how much playing in the yellow CSK jersey still means to him after all these years, and was ready to move heaven and earth for his captain and the fans.
CSK is one of those rare franchises that doesn’t just buy a player but creates a special bond with him. Listen to all the ex-CSK players in the commentary box, and they find it hard to hide their allegiance. Once CSKian, always a CSKian was apparent in Dhoni’s longing for the yellow jersey during the two-year ban for the franchise.
In his first media interaction as the captain of the newly formed Pune franchise, he didn’t hesitate in openly showing his Chennai colours and his emotional connection with the franchise, and later in openly flaunting his Chennai colours on Twitter at the end of the 2017 season.
The king in exile longed for his throne, and the moment he got it back, he was a man possessed with the goal of taking his team to the top. The man who in Kipling’s words met triumph and disaster just the same was often seen getting animated on the field when his team wasn’t up to the mark. This year was all about the fans of the franchise and Dhoni wanted to give them the best return gift possible for their unwavering support.
Losing was not an option. Despite getting to play just one game at their home ground for which the team was customised at the auction, despite losing the player to injury for whom they paid the highest amount in the auction, CSK wanted to script a fairytale.
In his inimitable style, Dhoni was quick to throw in a word of caution even at the moment of glory. The real test for the franchise will lie in continuing this success two years down the line when most of the experienced players in the current team will be gone. But for a franchise that has modeled itself on Dhoni’s nous, it’s not inconceivable that they continue to play the same way even without their inspirational leader in that yellow jersey with number 7 at the back, which by the way, needs to retire after Dhoni hangs his boots.