It was the Chennai Super Kings versus Kings XI Punjab match in the 2010 IPL season.
CSK had never won an IPL title before. This was a must-win match for them if they had to qualify for the semi-finals. Chasing a total of 193, they needed 29 runs off the last 12 balls. When the match ended, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, by himself, had scored 30 runs in these two overs to see CSK through.
In Irfan Pathan’s last over, Dhoni smacked the third and fourth balls over to long on for sixes, an area where he would keep hitting in years to come, whenever he was required to “finish it off in style”.
CSK not only reached the semi-final in 2010, they also became the IPL champions. They went on to win the Champions League trophy in the same year. They retained the IPL title again in 2011. They were also the runners-up in 2012 and 2013 IPL seasons.
CSK became a brand, a hot favourite across the nation, and one of the most successful IPL teams ever. It goes without saying that playing an important role in all that was their skipper’s amazing skill to hold his nerves in tense situations.
Fast forward to IPL 2018. A lot has changed in these eight years. CSK was suspended for two years, 2016 and 2017, and they made a return this year. Many legends of the game had retired. Players like Virat Kohli, who were finding their foot back in 2010, had become superstars now. T20 greats like Yuvraj Singh were off-colour. But Dhoni, who turns 37 this July, is still finishing nail-biting thrillers as we saw in the match against RCB on Wednesday.
To understand Dhoni's method of operation during such highly tense chases, one should look at his arguably finest finish ever in the 2013 Tri-nation ODI series final against Sri Lanka. Chasing only 202 from 50 overs, the equation was 27 runs from 42 balls at one stage. But when he constantly lost his partners and was left only with the last man Ishant Sharma, Dhoni took the game to the last over with 15 runs still needed. Before the fourth ball, Ishant Sharma walked towards him and spoke a few words. It's difficult to speculate what they were but Dhoni's assured nod hinted at what was to come.
Dhoni's success mantra is to convert a match involving 22 players into a one-on-one battle between the bowler bowling the last over and himself, a battle he's confident about winning on most days. In this match, too, Dhoni did not give in to the pressue. And finally, when he smashed the last six over extra cover, Ian Bishop in the commentary box went – “Magnificent Mahendra, he is unbelievable in so many ways”.
The dugout and Indian crowd celebrated. Sri Lankan players and viewers were heartbroken. There was perhaps only one man in that stadium who still had his composure- the one who finished that match.
Dhoni’s tendency to take a match down to the wire has found him critics, too. In the 2012 Commonwealth Bank series match against Australia, Dhoni was struggling at two runs from 16 balls during a chase, putting pressure on other batsmen. But his amazing self-belief meant that he could turn things around and score the 13 runs that were required off the last six balls. Gautam Gambhir then famously said- “It shouldn't have gone into the 50th over”.
Dhoni’s biggest strength, though, has been that he understands the game more than most who have ever played the sport. That Dhoni finished the 2011 ODI World Cup final with 10 balls to spare tells us that he knows in which games the stakes are high and in which games he can afford to take the risk of a last minute finish. And oh boy, didn’t he still finish it off with a six to give us a frame that we would cherish forever?
There is further variance in his approach while chasing, according to the match situation. The wicket-keeper batsman, who made his international debut in December 2004, showcased his skills as a finisher from the next year itself.
As an exciting youngster with long hair, when Dhoni finished the chase against Sri Lanka in 2005, scoring his career best 183, he struck 15 fours and 10 sixes. In 2008, after he had evolved into a mature captain, he won another close match against the same team in the last over, with only 2 wickets remaining. But this time, his 50 runs did not feature a single four or six!
Dhoni’s ability to absorb pressure comes to the fore even as a captain and a keeper when his team defends scores. Who can forget his gamble to give Joginder Sharma the last over in the 2007 T20 World Cup final? Or his lightning wicket-keeping skills which made him find the split second when the batsman’s foot was off the ground to dismiss Ian Bell in the 2013 Champions Trophy final and Sabbir Rahman in the 2016 T20 World Cup match? Or his street-smart thinking evident in removing his gloves and running to get Mustafizur Rahman run-out in the last ball of the same T20 match?
Even when Dhoni's power hitting declined during 2016-2017, his resolve that it's not over until it is, never took a hit. In 2017, when India was chasing 231 in an ODI against Sri Lanka and was stumbling at 131/7, he made sure he kept his new partner Bhuvneshwar Kumar calm and focused, played second fiddle to him, and took his team past the line.
It is ten days ago, in the IPL match against KXIP, that Dhoni started showing signs of regaining his hitting prowess. This is good news if the selectors want to retain him for the 2019 ODI World Cup. Needing 67 off 24 balls, no one would have expected CSK to get so agonizingly close and fall short by only four runs. Dhoni, who made his highest IPL individual score of 79 runs from 44 balls, would have even won the match if not for his back pain, which limited his ability to stretch to the wide yorkers that Mohit Sharma kept bowling at him in the last over.
In Wednesday's match against RCB though, Dhoni was fit and daring from the word go. When he arrived at the crease, CSK was 74/4 in nine overs with 132 runs needed from the next 11 overs. He found an able partner in Ambati Rayudu to script the chase. Both complemented each other, selecting wisely which bowler to knock singles against and off which bowler to score a blitzkrieg.
After Rayudu departed, the ask was still steep. But the fact that Mohammed Siraj bowled three consecutive wides against Dhoni in the penultimate over reminds you once again of Ian Bishop’s famous line –"If 15 runs are needed off the last 6 balls, pressure is on the bowler and not on MS Dhoni”. That sounded true in the past. That sounds true even today.
Finally, in the last over when Dhoni clobbered the six over his favourite spot in the stadium to finish at 70 off 34 balls, you saw celebrations from the spectators and his team-mates. One man alone was again calm.
In the '90s, we used to switch off the television when Sachin Tendulkar got out. However, with Dhoni at the crease, we want to switch on the television when the asking rate is climbing in a chase. When you sense the pressure on the bowlers, the fielding captain, the dugout, the spectators in the crowd and the batsman at the opposite end, one man will be seen calmly adjusting his gloves in his trademark style. He will take the stance to face the bowler, as if to say – “Ladies and Gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts. The show is about to begin”.