The final stretch of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s cricketing days will be spent in the bright yellow of the Chennai Super Kings. The Test whites were hung up long ago, and he did the likewise with the blue jersey on Saturday evening. The latest announcement was bereft of the shock value the first increment of his retirement instalment generated, that came in the middle of an overseas tour. This was more a question of when than if, as his departure was imminent after his prolonged aloofness from the national side post the World Cup in England last year.
As Dhoni the international cricketer fades, Dhoni the franchise icon shimmers. Now, Dhoni is all CSK’s, just as CSK was all Dhoni. A club he forged on his ideals, a club he nurtured with his leadership, a club he sustained with his charisma, and a club that groped through the dark days with his aura. It’s for these reasons they call him thalai. Literally it means head, figuratively it means leader, a moniker bestowed on the most adored of leaders, a term that conveys awe, respect and love. And as they say in Tamil, “Thalai illanal udal eppadi?” Without the head, the body is a vacuum.
Such is Dhoni’s adulation that he’s a one-off in Chennai — a non-Tamil, a non-actor large-than-life hero. Perhaps the only one.
It might have been coincidental that Dhoni wore a plain yellow T-shirt when he landed in Chennai on Saturday for the pre-IPL training camp. It could stand as a larger metaphor too. Hereafter, Dhoni the cricketer could be spotted only in his loose-fitted, yellow full-sleeve jersey, in yellow pads and yellow helmets. Hereafter, if you want to see Dhoni on a cricket field, you need to stand in a long queue under the sweltering summer sun for a ticket — and they say in that neck of the woods that the queue is always longer and the sun hotter when CSK are playing. If not Chennai, any of the seven other IPL metropolises. For a three-hour glimpse of arguably India’s greatest limited-overs cricketer.
The poster-boy of cricket in the backwaters will remain an urban entity, though his popularity and fanfare would undisputedly stream into the remotest corners of the country.
While he might have folded the blue jersey with the satisfaction that he has given everything he could have possibly to the country, the CSK faithful would believe that there is more for him to offer their franchise. CSK need him as a batsman, wicketkeeper, leader, mentor and – most importantly – as their identity. His big-hitting skills might have diminished, the reflexes might have dawdled and his hand-eye coordination might have declined. He’s after all 39, a cricketer’s autumn. But his smarts and brain are still intact, he’s still the best man to orchestrate a chase, and he’s still good enough to find runs in subcontinental conditions. In the previous IPL edition, he was the team’s highest run-getter (414), and blasted those runs at a strike rate of 134. And for cynics of his big-hitting prowess, he hammered 23 sixes.
Moreover, CSK don’t have too many power-hitters amidst them, unlike Mumbai Indians or Sunrisers Hyderabad. So Dhoni’s value remains as high as ever. His leadership faculties and ’keeping don’t need much elaboration, so much so that he could still make a comeback and walk straightaway into the national team on those merits.
CSK will also get Dhoni undiluted, in that he will be channeling all his energy on the IPL’s two months. Barring rustiness that comes with age – no doubt he’s fighting fit – he could continue to be as productive as he had been in the last few years. The freedom and energy that comes with unburdening could usher in another fruitful chapter in his career.
It could have a liberating effect on Dhoni’s career too. He needn’t worry about picking matches and the criticism that comes with it, he needn’t bother about keeping himself fight throughout the year, and he needn’t carry the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders. There is no doubt a burden that comes with being the CSK totem, but it’s far less capricious than when you are playing for the country. Given the usual calendar congestion, he will be less expended. All of these factors perhaps could bring back the vintage Dhoni, the unbridled destroyer. He would regain that joie de vivre of the past, which had gone missing from his game, though he had tucked it beneath his disarming smile. Rest assured that his exclusive CSK days would not turn out to be a retirement haven. Maybe, like Stephen Fleming, he would one day take on the coaching job.
Much of how the last years of his career will unfold is bound to conjecture, but this much is sure. CSK needs him perhaps more than he needs CSK. For he gives them not just star value, but an identity. No other team in the league, which will just step into teenage next month in the Middle East, can boast of as clear or fierce an identity as CSK. They have Dhoni to thank for it, and they require him for the sustenance of their sporting as well business model. The club’s identity will disintegrate once he leaves. Everywhere you look, his fingerprints are visible — in the togetherness of the team, the coolness of their approach, and their indefatigability in adversity. It would not be blasphemous to say that CSK embody the ideals of Dhoni more than both his World Cup-winning teams. No doubt, he leaves Indian cricket with a unique legacy that would be tough to match, but he would leave CSK with an even more unmatchable legacy.
To an extent, even the IPL needs him to play on, for they share a mutually indispensable bond. The league needs a link to the past like Dhoni for it to consolidate further.
For the rest of the country, it will be odd watching Dhoni in just the yellow jersey. But for CSK and a city, it’s all they had ever wished for since the advent of IPL. The queues will be longer and the sun will be hotter at the MA Chidambaram Stadium from hereon.
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