Beginning to creak
This IPL is already a season of firsts with the full schedule split across three venues in the United Arab Emirates. With Delhi Capitals and Royal Challengers Bangalore well-placed for the play-offs, a new name could be on the trophy. It is also the first season where MS Dhoni, a man with an almost hypnotic grip on the tournament, has appeared to lose his aura.
The old helicopter shot has creaked, the girth has widened and the dead-eye for accuracy is a little squiffy. As one should expect, of course. Dhoni is 39-years-old. But with such reverence is Dhoni held in India – not even the Little Master had such ability to have the billions dancing to his tune – that there is a sense of shock or mourning at his raging against the dying of the light.
Since India’s World Cup win, orchestrated by Dhoni when he promoted himself up the order to manage the chase, he has been seen as a God who can control things he has no right to, like mathematical law. Chennai Super Kings had won 22 out of 27 tosses back to 2018. And if he can’t weave his magic wand, then there is a higher purpose at play. Chennai’s defeat by Rajasthan in their second match of this tournament is an example of the hysteria that the fanboys are overwhelmed by.
Chasing 217, CSK were in the mire with 104 required off 38. But it was okay, Dhoni knew what he was doing we were told by the commentators. This was exactly the sort of situation he wanted. But he plodded along with ten off 13 and the game was already over when he struck three consecutive sixes off the final over as Chennai went down by 16. Those blows boosted Dhoni’s strike rate to an artificial 170. The smoke. The reason for Dhoni’s go-slow? He was playing himself in for the tournament. The mirrors.
In the next game against Delhi Capitals, Dhoni’s disinterest in a target of 175 was, in fact, genius long-term planning. Chennai couldn’t win they told us so the great man was playing for net run rate with 15 off 12. He’s a luminary don’t you know. And when Dhoni once again flunked the chase against Sunrisers, illness was blamed. The man was heaving and retching all over a good length, bless him. “Probably Covid,” wetted a disciple.
In fact, Dhoni was maybe realising that he is a spent force and was hiding it. The timing is off. The power is not there. In his pomp, Dhoni may well have pulled off the rescue act and the man and the myth would have been maintained. But it is worth knowing when that pomp actually was to understand our relationship with players’ reputation and what, in fact, they actually produce in there here and now.
Remembering the good times
From the numbers below it is likely that Dhoni was enjoying his greatest spell of wizardry in the chase in IPL seasons of 2013, 2014 and 2016 (when we was with Pune). This was when his reputation as the master of pacing a second innings was at its strongest. His strike rates were in the 140s and his dot-ball percentage low. It is that period which continues to propel the Dhoni legend. An analyst might call that recency bias. Human beings remember the great and the good, not the mundane.
We recall his 41 from 24 against Bangalore in 2012 as Chennai ran down 206 – the second highest chase in IPL history at the time. We certainly don’t remember detail which spoils the reverie – Virat Kohli bowled two overs for 36 and Raju Bhatakal, in his first and last appearance, was pumped for 35.
Others might call it wishful thinking. As punters we need to recognise that what was true four years ago, isn’t necessarily true now.
When money is at stake, we deceive ourselves. Lose grip of reality. Or wilfully ignore the facts. Everybody does it and I’d hold my hands up having reckoned he was good for another go.
If we take two-year splits – the cricket analyst will argue that longer study periods are useless in a fast-changing format – Dhoni’s decline is clear to see post 2016. Strike rates and dot-ball percentage are down or plateauing.
Of course it could be argued that Dhoni is just returning to the mean. It’s just that the data doesn’t show the loss of swagger, the blow-hard cheeks or the physical strain which has been so evident on the television screen.
It likely does not bode well for Chennai’s hopes of preventing another first: never have they failed to qualify for the play-offs. The believers, though, will tell a different story. In 2011 Chennai lost the first three matches to end up bottom of the table. They went on to win the title. And they will be able to do so again because of one man. We don’t advise you take the 11/112.0 on a Dhoni and CSK second coming.
MS Dhoni IPL season strike rate/dot ball % batting 2nd
2020 131.8/35.3 2019 120.3/41.2
Average two-year split 126/38
2018 138.8/33.2 2017 108.3/40.8
Average two-year split 123.5/37
2016 146.5/28.9 2015 113.6/28.3
Average two-year split 130/28.6
2014 146.7/30.7 2013 152.4/31.7
Average two-year split 149.5/31.2
2012 122.1/36.4 2011 128/36
Average two-year split 125/36.2
2010 136.5/26 2009 116.4/29
Average two-year split 126.4/27.5