As the talismanic leader walks out for the toss against arch-rivals Mumbai Indians in the second half of the 2021 edition, it brings up the question: will this be his final IPL season as a player?

Voices IPL Saturday, September 18, 2021 - 11:58

No player in the Indian Premier League (IPL) history has had a more profound impact on a single franchise than MS Dhoni has on the Chennai Super Kings (CSK). Captain of the much-decorated team since the inaugural 2008 edition, Dhoni is synonymous with the Super Kings.

As the talismanic leader walks out for the toss against arch-rivals Mumbai Indians in the second half of the 2021 edition, which restarts at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on Sunday (September 19), it also brings up the question: will this be his final IPL season as a player?

At 40, Dhoni is not getting any younger; and although blessed with natural athleticism, his reflexes have clearly waned over the last two seasons – post his international retirement on August 15 last year.

That he has remained motivated to turn out for the Super Kings after bowing out of the international game in a trophy-laden career is, in itself, a tribute to the relationship that he shares with the Chennai franchise.

It does, however, appear that no one wants Dhoni to retire as yet – his fans, franchise and the league itself. That’s because the charismatic star provides more to the Super Kings and the IPL than what he takes away.

Privately-owned franchise cricket where players are auctioned is quite different from the traditional, representative format – read state, country – where player selection is open to debate and selection accountability plays a major role.

Over the years, the IPL has turned into the biggest fixture in global cricket’s annual calendar – next only to the World Cups – and an ageing Dhoni remains one of its biggest draws.

“He can continue (playing) for another one or two years with CSK. He is fully fit; trains a lot. I don’t see any reason why he should stop,” CSK Chief Executive Officer KS Viswanathan said recently.

“We are happy for what he is doing for CSK. It is not just about his captaincy or the fact that he is a guide or a leader as the most experienced player. We feel he is still good and brings value as a player to the side,” Mr Viswanathan added.

One of the game’s greatest finishers, Dhoni, however, struggled with the bat in the 2020 edition – 200 runs at an average of 25, striking at 116.27 – as the team failed to qualify for the Playoffs for the first time. He continued to search for form in the first half of the 2021 season as well – 7 matches, 37 runs (Average 12.33, Strike Rate 123.33).

Notwithstanding Dhoni’s struggles with the bat, the Super Kings notched up five wins in seven outings to move to second place in the league table in the 2021 edition, before the tournament was put off in May following an outbreak of coronavirus in the IPL.

It remains to be seen if Dhoni can turn around his form in the second half, as the Super Kings set out to prove that the 2020 debacle was only a blip.

Dhoni’s contribution in turning the Super Kings into one of the most decorated franchises in the competition is immense – leading them into the Playoffs in 10 out of their 11 seasons, the finals eight times and clinching the trophy thrice.

Such was his impact as captain, ’keeper and finisher that the Super Kings built their brand around the man who remains the only international captain to win all three ICC trophies – the World T20 in 2007, the ODI World Cup in 2011 and the Champions Trophy in 2013.

Even in the 2016 and 2017 seasons that the Chennai franchise missed due to a spot-fixing ban, the team didn’t quite fade from public consciousness, as the emotion was kept alive by their strong fan base.

Dhoni, who was recently appointed as Team India mentor for the T20 World Cup in October-November, lends great value with his leadership and the ability to bring the best out of his players. And that’s what the Super Kings will bank on. T20 doesn’t take much physically compared to the longer formats, and canny Dhoni knows how to manage himself.

Brand Dhoni is integral to Brand CSK, and as cricket steadily moves from country to club, personalities are key. And Dhoni is as big as they come. This precisely is what makes questions like his age, fitness and match contribution rather trivial.

Views expressed by the author are personal

(The author has written on sport for over two decades.)

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