MS Dhoni lost the toss, didn’t bat, dropped a catch, but by the time the night’s action ended had led Chennai Super Kings to their fourth IPL title. Add to this one Champions League and one Champions Trophy, plus the T20 and ODI World Cups. Nobody else has so many titles and tournaments to his credit. It doesn’t require deep analysis to know why Dhoni enjoys cult status.
CSK’s victory over Kolkata Knight Riders was a marvellous exhibition of all-round prowess, with Dhoni’s leadership at the core. Putting down a reasonably easy catch of Venkatesh Iyer was an uncharacteristic blunder. How seriously would this dent his team’s chances? The Dubai pitch was playing true, but KKR’s batting, barring Eoin Morgan, was in terrific form and 192 wasn’t insurmountable.
With Gill’s dismissal, the doors to victory had been thrown open, and there was no stopping CSK. There were some heroics by the tail-enders, but this was pyrrhic. The issue was hardly in doubt. Dhoni had masterminded yet another triumph, trumping sceptics who believed that the ‘Dad’s Army’ may not be able to match the momentum of KKR.
I must confess to being among these. KKR had won four matches on the trot, including two in the playoffs. Theirs had been a remarkable surge in the second phase after a shallow performance in the first. Moreover, KKR’s batting (barring Morgan) was in fine form, and the bowling looked potent heading into the final. CSK had been heavily dependent on a couple of batsmen, and the bowling had a tendency to be expensive.
Having seen CSK’s — and India’s — several victories under Dhoni over many years, one couldn’t obviously underestimate them. The contest would be keen and close, but KKR had a slender, 51-49 advantage I thought just going by the run of play. As it transpired, CSK’s win was emphatic, a landslide, so to speak.
Barring the one fielding blemish by Dhoni, the performance was flawless. Batters and bowlers, the entire team, in fact, touched peak form when it mattered most. There was not a sign of fatigue in the half dozen 35-plus players in the side. The aggression was understated, but real all the same. It was a concerted, superb effort that snuffed out KKR’s challenge.
In the tactical battle, Dhoni had the better of Morgan. He read the pitch early, knowing it wasn’t a slow turner, asked his batsmen to sustain the run momentum throughout, realizing that this wasn’t a 150-160 pitch. There was some luck for CSK when Dinesh Karthik missed a stumping chance of Faf du Plessis, but what followed next was an onslaught.
KKR’s bowlers erred in length. On slow pitches in previous matches, the spinners were able to throttle opposing batsmen because of lack of bounce and presence of some turn. Even Lockie Ferguson, with his variations, was excellent on pitches without pace. But on this flat deck, with the ball coming on well, the length had to be swiftly adjusted. CSK’s big test was against the spinners — Shakib Al Hasan, Sunil Narine and Varun Chakravarthy — which the batsmen passed with flying colours. In the two preceding games, these three had conceded 65 and 80 runs in 12 overs respectively. In the final, the tally was 97 runs from 11 overs, with only Narine picking up wickets. The psychological threat had been shrugged off.
Put in to bat first, Dhoni had a better understanding of what the pitch was, and plotted his attack accordingly. Here too, he was unconventional, not getting a single over from Moeen Ali who had bowled all four in the previous match. He preferred the pace and variations of Josh Hazlewood, Shardul Thakur, Deepak Chahar and Dwayne Bravo.
Considering how the pitches had played in the UAE, it is unlikely any captain could have spurned a spinner. But that is Dhoni, off-beat and unconventional. However, what perhaps mattered most in CSK’s triumph this year – remember they came a cropper last season – was how the same set of players won the tournament.
When asked what he told his players in team meetings about turning things around this season, Dhoni revealed that he didn’t actually have too many extensive team meetings because attention spans of people barely last more than 20 minutes. Instead, he spoke of one-on-one conversations during nets or at meals, including with those who spent a lot of time on the bench, suggesting that these were more meaningful.
For corporate honchos always looking at lessons from sport to improve productivity and excellence, this should be a good one to bookmark.
Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports writer and commentator
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